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Form, Content, Context

In this video, Melanie Manos introduces you to methods and vocabulary for interpreting visual art.
<v ->In this activity, learners will acquire vocabulary</v> for defining and engaging with works of art using three key elements of visual art, form, content, and context, which are essential to gaining insight into the intention and perspective of the artist. Starting with form. The form of a work of art refers to all of its visible elements and the particular way these come together as a whole. This is a work by Faith Ringgold titled “The Sunflower Quilting Bee at Arles” 1991. The form is painting with a fabric border. It is very colorful and has a flat, folk art style perspective. Next, content. Content is the subject matter of a work of art or design.
It is revealed through the formal properties of the work and may be evident on a number of levels. Content is also the emotional or intellectual message of an artwork and the expression, meaning, or significance it holds. To discuss content, let’s look again at Faith Ringgold’s “The Sunflower Quilting Bee at Arles.” The content is eight African American women seated at a quilt of sunflowers facing the viewers with a landscape of sunflowers surrounding them and buildings in the background. To the right and back is a white man standing holding sunflowers who looks very much like the 19th century artist Vincent van Gogh. Now let’s consider context. Context helps us to understand the meaning of a work of art.
It might include the historical, sociopolitical milieu in which the artist lives or lived, philosophical or religious beliefs of the artist, education, and other considerations. In Ringgold’s work, the context is eight historically significant African American women, such as Harriet Tubman, who was instrumental in the Underground Railroad, helping slaves escape to freedom. It is part of the artist’s “Story Quilts” series. This is a work by Ai Weiwei, “Sunflower Seeds” 2011, installation view at Tate Modern Turbine Hall. We seem to have a sunflower theme right now. The form is sculpture, and the specific material is porcelain. The content is 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds filling the enormous space of Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, London, England. The context.
To fabricate the porcelain sunflower seeds, Weiwei employed 1,600 artisans from the Chinese town of Jingdezhen, a town known for porcelain production throughout China’s imperial eras. Each of the seeds was hand-painted and fired and had been made from local clay, a process that took over two years. For Weiwei, the artisanal work that went into the creation of each seed is as important as the visual impact of seeing them all together as well as evoking dialogue on the Made in China phenomenon and present-day geopolitics of mass production, consumption, and economic exchange. Here we see the process, the intention, the context all coming together to make the art piece what it is, 100 million sunflower seeds, wow!

Visual literacy gives us a vocabulary for engaging with works of art in terms of the form, context, and content of artwork, and is important as it helps us gain insight into the intention and perspective of the artist.

Read more about Elements of Art on Dorothy Barenscott’s website, view works from Faith Ringgold, or listen to Ai Weiwei describe the process behind his installation that used millions of porcelain sunflower seeds.

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Visualizing Women's Work: Using Art Media for Social Justice

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