How to Write an Art Essay

How to Write an Art Essay


Art as a scholarly discipline, and indeed as a concept, is very broad and encompasses diverse concerns, such as performance, aesthetics, history, psychology, philosophy, anthropology and a good many other categories and ideas. This diversity reflects the ambiguity of the term itself, which bears numerous levels of interpretation, where art can be anything from cave drawings, through physical performance, all the way to a urinal turned upside down and labelled “Fountain”. This last, made famous by the conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp, is an iconic example of the significatory richness of art, which is at base necessarily a highly interpretive domain. The question of quite when Duchamp's “Fountain” ceased to be a plumbing fixture and became an artwork, if one accepts it as such, spotlights the conundrum. If “Fountain” is art simply because Duchamp wills it, then the matter is purely in the eye of the beholder, thus, it would seem, vesting all other observers with equal power to refute the status. Unless of course one observer's opinion is more valid than another, but such a view poses tantamount difficulty because it again depends on a value judgement as to which is the reliable opinion – which judgement is, likewise, open to rebuttal. Art is a highly subjective denomination, one which takes place in abstraction. Simply upending a urinal does not in every instance equate to art; not the process but, rather, the context and intention make it so. Or do they? If art is purely subjective in substance, how can any true measure be made of it? Perhaps better, then, to step back and question what art actually is in the first place; and yet this enquiry, as suggested above, leads to many and divergent explanations.

Art as a Scholarly Discipline

These perplexing questions are the very core of art as a scholarly discipline and achieving top marks will require engaging with them. There is no need to be intimidated. Throughout history great thinkers have wrestled with these issues and no consensus appears imminent. Quite the contrary, the debate ever expands. Thus the duty of the art student is to explore the various tensions and complexities at play, to see how various interpretations of art are informed and their repercussions felt. So, one might look at the historical context that led Duchamp and his peers to move away from traditional aesthetics and adopt a more conceptual stance on what constitutes art. Using this contextual starting point one can then attempt to diagnose the relevant social and cultural forces that might have been fomented by such historical circumstances, and the way these shaped intellectual movements. Or, on the other hand, one might take a very contrary tack, and divorce the artwork entirely from the socio-historical climate, perhaps mounting a case for “pure art” whereupon the conditions of production are irrelevant. Because art has been the subject of study since at least classical times, there is a plenitude of literature on the topic and therefore a great many competing viewpoints to navigate. The key to success is to be able to navigate the plurality of voices, marshalling relevant contributions into a coherent argument.  

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