Experiencing and Interpreting the Arts: Looking at Process & Product

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  • 0:02 Experiencing vs. Interpreting
  • 0:53 Context
  • 3:34 Process
  • 5:02 Interpretation
  • 6:24 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jacob Erickson

Jacob has his master's in English and has taught multiple levels of literature and composition, including junior high, college, and graduate students.

In this lesson, we'll consider how your knowledge of art can help you better understand and enjoy it. We'll look at the way that an interpretation of art depends on knowing its context and the process behind it.

Experiencing vs. Interpreting

It's fairly likely that you don't listen to a lot of the same music you did four or five years ago. In fact, if you think about it, you might even feel a bit embarrassed by your old music preferences. It's only natural that our tastes change over the years, and this might be simply because you've heard different types of music or other styles have become popular.

But this might also have something to do with the fact that you've realized that some art, whether it's music or sculpture or painting, requires more skill and understanding than others. While there is nothing wrong with liking a book or a song or a painting simply because you happen to enjoy it, bringing the proper knowledge to a work of art can really help you appreciate it in and out of school.

In this lesson, we'll consider the ways that understanding the context and process behind a work is critical for offering a good interpretation of art.


One of the great things about art is that it can respond to and explain the events and experiences of the time in which it is created. In fact, many historians and academics look to art as one of the main forces behind changes in society. However, if you're not familiar with the context of a piece of art, it's fairly easy to miss out on its significance. In fact, understanding the events that were occurring when an artist was working can make us think radically different about a painting, song, sculpture or any piece of art.

You've almost certainly seen a painting by Pablo Picasso before. While you may hate it, love it or simply be confused by it, knowing the historical context behind Picasso's work will have a large influence on how you understand his work. Picasso was generally painting in the early 1900s, a time when war and philosophy were challenging people's basic assumptions about truth and reality. His fractured painting style was an attempt to represent how reality was not as straightforward as we might imagine. Obviously, knowing this sort of information will greatly change how you understand and experience paintings like this:

Paintings by Picasso
two picasso paintings

And, in addition to understanding one artist or one work of art, knowing the context of one artist can help you better understand and enjoy other sculptors or painters or musicians. For example, you may have heard of Woody Guthrie before. Even if you pause to listen to his lyrics, when you hear his music, you might assume he was an old, conservative and patriotic songwriter. In fact, Guthrie was actually politically radical. In a time when America was growing more powerful and nationalistic, Guthrie was challenging many ideas that were extremely popular throughout the U.S. And it was this quality of his music that helped him have a huge impact on other musicians, like Bob Dylan and John Lennon.

With this in mind, more than simply speaking to or about society, artists inspire and influence other artists, meaning that many musicians, such as Dylan or Lennon, would sound very different if it weren't for others like Guthrie. While knowing this fact may make you like Guthrie's music a little more or make it sound a little more exciting to you, understanding this context can also help you begin to appreciate his and others' work.

And this doesn't go only for the past. Many people fail to correctly interpret art that is being made right now. There are all sorts of films, dances and styles of music that are frequently dismissed because people don't understand the culture it is coming from or what it is responding to. And those in the future who really want to understand the music we listen to today are going to consider the events that were happening in our own lifetimes.


How was it made? Another aspect of art that is easy to overlook is the process behind the piece. One great way to see how tempting it is to overlook process is to look at painting, an art form that often requires extensive time and energy.

Consider this work by Georges Seurat, which is created in a style called 'pointillism':

Painting by Georges Seurat
painting by georges seurat

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