Processes of study in the arts and humanities
Processes of study in the arts and humanities

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Processes of study in the arts and humanities

1 The processes of study

1.1 Analysis, interpretation and evaluation

When you study a painting, for example, you take it apart to see how it ‘works’ as a painting. You analyse it ‘as it is in itself’, because this gives you many clues to what it might mean. But that analysis is complicated by the fact that the way we understand a painting itself changes over time. For instance, what a religious painting might have meant to the artist and his contemporaries in sixteenth-century Italy cannot be the same as it means to us now. We do not share their culture. And the painting does not ‘appear’ the same to us either. We study it close-up in a modern art gallery, or (much reduced in size) as an illustration in a book. Look at Raphael's painting, The Madonna and Child (attached below). Imagine how different the painting would seem to its original audience – perhaps contemplating it during a religious service, high up on the wall of a church, lit by flickering candle-light. What might it have meant to them?

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To make an interpretation of what the painting means, then, you not only have to study it ‘as it is in itself’ – you also need to learn as much as you can about the circumstances in which it was made and viewed (who painted it, what it was ‘for’ and, more generally, about the values, beliefs and way of life of those people at that time). This, too, presents certain challenges. Obviously, we cannot transport ourselves to sixteenth-century Italy. We live here and now. In the end, we interpret things in the context of our ideas and beliefs.

So it is as if the painting (or novel, vase, song, idea, document, event) has a kind of ‘double life’ – as it was to people in the past and as it is now, to us in the present. You have to try to understand why it means something now, and just what it means. Ultimately, you have to make judgements about its value.

These interlinked processes of analysis–interpretation–evaluation are what we will explore in this course. But it doesn't end there. You also have to communicate your interpretations and judgements to other people. To explain what you mean, you have to learn to speak and write in the appropriate ‘language’. That way, you make your own contribution to an ongoing ‘conversation’ about our culture – a conversation that enables us to understand ourselves, and our purposes and values, as human beings who continue to live in society with each other.

Key points

  • Studying the arts and humanities involves coming to understand aspects of human culture, past and present.

  • You study the meanings of people's ideas, beliefs, cultural practices and products.

  • And, by communicating your ideas, you make a contribution to our culture.

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