Since art history covers much of human creativity from 30,000 BCE to the present, saying it’s a complicated topic puts it mildly. To help us understand the stories and significance of art, we look through the lenses of art methodologies. Each methodology is a unique perspective that helps us understand a facet of the artwork. Every person brings a unique point of view to art, but keeping in mind the methodologies helps us develop a well-rounded understanding of the work. There are too many methodologies developed over the years to cover here, but we’ll look at the eight most commonly used lenses below.
Formalism is the study of the compositional elements of art by analyzing and comparing color, line, shape, texture, and other purely visual elements of the work.
Biographical interpretation of art focuses on the life and times of the artist. It’s a natural approach for many art viewers, for whom the stories about the artist inform and enrich the artwork itself.
Iconographic analysis, also called semiotics, seeks to understand the meaning a work of art had at the time it was made. The iconographic method asks “What was this artwork for?” and looks for recognizable symbols that communicate purpose, like religious iconography or symbols of wealth and power.
Critical theory, or ‘social critical theory’ is a broad term for a variety of methodologies that attempt to understand artwork by the societal structures and pressures that influenced it. Critical theory includes Marxist theory, feminist theory, psychoanalysis, post-colonialism, and queer theory among others.
While named after the famous philosopher and economist Karl Marx, the Marxist art methodology more broadly examines art based on the economic and social conditions that informed the artist and the work. Through the Marxist lens, artwork is examined for its depiction and relation to class, mass-production, and society.
In the 1970s, during the developing feminist movement, feminist art criticism emerged as a way to examine of both visual representations of women in art and art produced by women. For generations, women have been under-represented in the art world, and the feminist lens on art history has been pivotal in dismantling the underlying assumptions around gender and artistic ability.
In the early 1890s, psychologist Sigmund Freud developed the theory of psychoanalysis, the idea that human behavior is largely determined by irrational drives that are rooted in the unconscious. Applied to art, Psychoanalysis attempts to determine the subconscious influences and motivations that underlie artwork.
Just as Feminist theory works to broaden art theory past the male-centric viewpoint, Queer theorists challenge the discourse regarding heteronormativity, expanding the artistic dialog to include queer artists and artwork, and re-evaluate art history to include historically marginalized sexualities.
Postcolonialism examines the impact of colonialism and imperialism on art, with an eye to the control and exploitation of native people, the politics of knowledge, and the constructions of political power that sustain colonialism.
Reed Enger, "Art History Methodologies, Eight ways to understand art," in Obelisk Art History, Published June 24, 2017; last modified November 06, 2022, http://www.arthistoryproject.com/essays/art-history-methodologies/.