Context consists of all of the things about the artwork that might have influenced the artwork or the maker (artist). These would include when the work was made; where it was made (both culturally and geographically); why it was made; and possibly some other details or information. Contextualism—looking at the cultural context of an artwork—can deepen and/or improve our understanding of an artwork, but it may or may not change our first impressions; and it doesn’t really have an effect on formal analysis. 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.
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—and has considerations related to context.
Art and Artist Context
The context for the artist or creator includes:
- Their culture, their worldview (where they grew up; family values; etc.)
- Their place; geography (e.g., city, rural, home, traveling)
- Their “worldview,”religion, beliefs, etc.
Context also has to do with the viewer. For example: When a person in Paris in the 1890s looked at a Van Gogh painting, how that painting looked and felt and seemed to her was very different from an American viewer looking at the same painting today. When thinking about a viewer’s context, it’s useful to think about the following, since all of them can affect how person sees or responds to an artwork: