Hi Amy, I'm a high school student who wants to major in art history. I know that a large part of history in general is asking questions, however I'm unsure about how to ask better questions, would you give some suggestions and examples of higher level questions to ask about an art work? P.S. you blog is amazing and thank you for all the resources!
Wow, what a great question! Some of my college students don’t ask how they can ask better questions, so I was so excited when I saw that you are a high school student thinking ahead. Thank you!
I assume you are taking art history at your high school. This is good - your class has already given you the framework you need to move from basic questioning to more in depth questioning. Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? You would think that with art history, the Five Ws + How? would be simple enough to answer. This is not always the case, however, and sometimes the simple questions of Who? or How? or Where? can take an art historian years to answer. A good example of this is attribution: who made a work of art? It sounds like an easy question, but as someone who has shed blood, sweat, and tears on attribution, I can tell you it isn’t. The same is true of iconography (’what’?). On the surface, subject matter shouldn’t be hard to identify or propose, but it can be. All this to say that if you are worried that asking some of these questions is too basic, you shouldn’t be - you will undoubtedly keep asking them as an art history major, and the answers will not always be easy (or even possible) to find.
Asking (sometimes deceptively) basic questions is all well and good, but how can you ask more in-depth questions about works that are already the subject of lengthy discourse, like the Mona Lisa or the Sistine Chapel? This is, essentially, the writer’s question. To arrive at a probing question, you may want to:
Practice slow looking. Slow looking is exactly what it sounds like - sitting in front of a work of art and taking time to really look at it. This will be hard to do during a class session, but you can do this after class (or beforehand, if you know the period or artist being covered). As part of the slow looking exercise, write down your initial response to the work, and note throughout your time looking how your initial response has evolved and why.
Question a work of art’s formal elements. Think about color, line, texture, light, shadow, space, perspective, volume… Why do you think the artist made the decisions s/he did? Here is a list of formal analysis questions to get you started. If you email me, amy [at] caravaggista [dot] com, I can send you the “Questions Sheet” I give to my students.
Ask yourself what ascribes meaning to a work. In a similar vein, you can consider why a work of art is being discussed in class (in other words, why it has been deemed important). Is it the subject matter? The composition? The work’s cultural or historical context? The fame of the artist? The expense of materials used? All of the above, and more? Why or why not?
Look at a work of art using a particular methodology. Art historians use lots of different methods to analyze works of art. If you haven’t yet learned about art theory or methods, consider picking up a copy of Michael Hatt and Charlotte Klonk’s Art History: A critical introduction to its methods (Manchester University Press, 2006). The authors examine the origins of art history as a discipline and explain each major method in practice, from formalism to semiotics (and more!). Examining a work of art using a particular framework can yield surprising and inspiring results!
Read about a work of art you are having a hard time formulating questions for. Specifically, read art historical articles about the work and consider the author’s argument. Do you agree with their analysis? Why or why not? Is there an aspect of the work or its context that you think should be more fully addressed (or considered, in the first place)? What evidence does the author use to support their analysis?
This is by no means an exhaustive list of ways to ask better questions, but I hope it helps get you started! There are no bad questions; all questions help deepen your understanding and analysis.
I’m going to include a break here. After the break, you’ll find recommended reading and resources.
Many of these resources are geared toward how to write about art, but I recommend them because the first step in writing is asking questions, and these authors’ discussions could be informative!
Barnet, Sylvan. A Short Guide to Writing about Art. Boston; Toronto: Little, Brown, and Company, 1985.
Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. New York: Viking Penguin, 1977.
Hatt, Michael and Charlotte Klonk. Art History: A critical introduction to its methods. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006.
Huntsman, Penny. Thinking About Art: A thematic guide to art history. West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell, 2016.
Pop, Andrei. How to Do Things with Pictures: A Guide to Writing in Art History. Department of History of Art and Architecture, Harvard University, 2008.
Taylor, Joshua C. Learning to Look: A Handbook for the Visual Arts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957.