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Visual Literacy: Evaluation

Questions to Ask: Art

Many of the same questions that apply to photographs apply to works of art. However, since works of art are meant to be a more figurative representation of ideas, some other questions below may help you evaluate the work.

  1. What is the context of this image: How was it meant to be displayed? Publicaly? In a private home? On a wall? Is it a reproduction? Was it used for a purpose other than the way you see it now? Remember, many buildings were desigend to include art and art was often designed to be part of a structure, such as frescoes in the villas of Pompeii.
  2. What cultural presuppositions to you bring from your time that the contemporary viewer would not have had? (For exampe, what to you know about science, politics, etc. that the viewer did not, and conversely, what did the viewer know that you do not understand?)
  3. Why was the object created? Was it commissioned? Was it a portrait for a family? By a patron? Was there an expected perception? (For instance, was the painting created to show a pastoral view of the countryside or to make a nobleman look like a "manly man"?)
  4. What iconogrpahy is used in the scene? Paintings often use objects to symbolize philosophies or ideas, for instance a skull for the presence of death or scientific instruments for learned men. Roman coins used iconography to honor emperors. Special symbol dictionaries can help to explain the meaings of these symbols.
  5. What was the artist's philosophy or viewpoint when the piece of artwork was creaed? This is simialr to the photographer setting up the photograph. The artist paints with an overt or covert philosophy in mind. Whether a a modern-day Marxist sensitive to class issues or prior to Marxist philosophy, sympathetic to the oppressed masses, the artisit has a viewpoint.
  6. What is the artist's message? Look at what is central to the piece of art to discern what the artist wanted to tell you.
  7. What was the artist's source for the piece of artwork? Was the artist the eyewitness, creating from the event, looking at the landscape or posing the individual? Or was the artist working from a newspaper description or from memory?

Questions to Ask: Photographs

Use some of the following questions to analyze your photographic images


  1. What is the social and historical context for this image?
  2. What might have happened before or after this image was created?
  3. What is outside the frame of the image? What has been left out? What should be in the image that is missing?
  4. What gender, race, and class issues are reflected here? How has the photographer addressed or not addressed these issues?
  5. What relationships or connections do the people have to the objects?
  6. How did the photographer set up the photograph? Can you tell that the photographer made choices about the angle, lighting, and focus (foreground, background) that might influence how you perceive -- and how the photograph's contemporaries may have perceived -- the image's meaning and effect.? Be careful not to label or sterotype people or objects as this may lead you to erroneous conclusions.
  7. Does the photograph or image ignore issues and details contemporary to its depiction or present them in a certain way that may lead you to a certain view about the image?