36 Reading: Context

Contextual Information

Specific to artwork, context consists of all of the things about the artwork that might have influenced the artwork or the maker (artist) but which are not actually part of the artwork. Contextual information can deepen and/or improve our understanding of an artwork. With some additional contextual information about the time, the culture, and the maker/artist of an artwork, we can become more informed. All artworks exist in a context—more accurately, all artworks exist in multiple contexts.

Historical context

Time is the most basic and first context we consider. When we say, “When in time?” the question is also related to where in time.

Artist Context

Though this kind of context is often ignored in more recent trends of visual research, the context for the artist or creator includes:

  • Their culture (where they grew up; family values; etc.).
  • Their place; geography (e.g., city, rural, home, traveling).
  • Their personal perspective or “worldview,” aspects unique to their identity.

Viewing context

Context also has to do with the viewing experience.The context of display or where we encounter an image or artwork is crucial to the meanings it accrues (Rose 127). Consider, how is the experience viewing a masterwork, like a painting by Caravaggio, hanging in a museum versus seeing a digital representation of the same painting on a personal computer in one’s home– different? You go to a museum specifically with the intention to view artwork. Are their specific social practices you engage in a museum that impact your experience? For example, we typically comport ourselves quietly in a museum, looking intently as we move from one artwork to the next. Presumably, this social practice is intended to encourage contemplation.There are also texts on the walls of museums like an artwork’s title, and sometimes captions. Reading these may direct our experience of the artwork. Being in front of the actual work, rather than a copy, imbues the work with certain aura as the object the artist actually touched and created. At home, we are in a more casual setting without specific conventions of behavior. Though we are looking at the same artwork, we know we are looking at a copy. The context of where and how an image or artwork is received can impact what affect it has on us.


Rose, Gillian. Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to Researching Visual Materials. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2012. Print.


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