In the first chapter of Richard Howells and Joaquim Negreiros’s book Visual Culture, they investigate Panofsky’s approach to analyzing works of art. Looking at a work of art and taking note of its content is a good place to start, but if you neglect to view the work in its cultural context then certain symbols tend to get overlooked. Christian artwork during the Middle Ages was heavily laden with symbols and therefore some background knowledge in Biblical symbology was required to decipher meaning.
This is a page from the illuminated manuscript, the Book of Kells. At face value, there are four creatures in separate panels (from left to right, top to bottom): an angel, a lion, an ox, and an eagle. These creatures are already hard to recognize in their stylized forms. If the viewer was unaware of the symbolism, however, it would be impossible to reach the conclusion that these creatures represent the four apostles: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
In the second chapter, the form of artwork is the topic of debate. Are the formal elements of line, mass, and color always more important than the subject matter? The choices the artist makes concerning lines and color certainly contribute to the overall emotions portrayed in the work. Does that make photorealistic and hyperrealistic works emotionless or even “not art”? Not necessarily, in my opinion. I conducted a quick Google search to see what other people thought about photorealism in art. I found a blog entry that implied that photorealism was merely a skill and not an art because it wasn’t original.
I also found an article that argues that it is an art because the artist does add a level of detail that would otherwise go unnoticed. The author argues that a painting doesn’t have to look painterly to be a work of art.
Personally, I prefer Scott McCloud’s definition of art in his book Understanding Comics. He defines art as anything done by humans that is not for survival or reproduction. That definition conveniently nullifies the frustrating “what is art” debate.
The third chapter discusses traditional art history education and its flaws in terms of defining what and who is important. Most art history is heavily male and European-focused which, as a result, portrays women and non-Western artists as secondary and less important in the art world. We need to make art history (and history in general) more inclusive and less Eurocentric. It’s not easy to break this established cycle of exclusion because we have been told our whole lives which artists are important — almost exclusively European males.