Discussing Art

This four-step process will help you generate discussion about and insights into the art works you study in your seminar and in your classes. It was developed by National Humanities Fellow Joy Kasson, who teaches American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and is adapted and reproduced here with her permission. The notes that accompany the art works in the toolboxes provide information that will help as you address the questions in level 2. In the discussion questions that accompany the art works, we offer some suggestions that will help with levels 3 and 4.

  • LEVEL 1: VISUAL INVENTORY

    Describe the image, beginning with the largest, most obvious features and proceed toward more particular details. Describe fully, without making evaluations. What do you see? What is the setting? What is the time of day, the season of the year, the region of the country?


  • LEVEL 2: DOCUMENTATION

    Note what you know about the work. Who made it? When? Where? What is its title? How was it made? What were the circumstances of its creation? How was it received? Refer to the work's accompanying note in the toolbox.


  • LEVEL 3: ASSOCIATIONS

    Begin to make evaluations and draw conclusions using observations and prior knowledge. How does this image relate to its historical and cultural framework? Does it invite comparison or correlation with historical or literary texts? Do you detect a point of view or a mood conveyed by the image? Does it present any unexplained or difficult aspects? Does it trigger an emotional response in you as a viewer? What associations (historical, literary, cultural, artistic) enrich your viewing of this image?


  • LEVEL 4: INTERPRETATION

    Develop an interpretation of the work which both recognizes its specific features and also places it in a larger historical or thematic context.




Toolbox Library: Primary Resources in U.S. History and Literature
National Humanities Center
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Revised: August 2007
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