The Art of Understanding Art
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More About This Title The Art of Understanding Art


The Art of Understanding Art reveals to students and other readers new and meaningful ways of developing personal ideas and opinions about art and how to express them with confidence.

  • Offers an inquiry—unique among introductory art texts—into the learning process of understanding and appreciating art
  • Examines the multiple issues and processes essential to making, analyzing and evaluating art
  • Uses cross-cultural examples to help readers develop comprehensive, yet personal, ways of looking at and thinking about art
  • Includes an annotated glossary of the 'Art World', institutions and individuals that play a role in defining art as well as diagrams, textboxes callouts and other visual elements to highlight information and enhance learning
  • Richly illustrated with over 40 images
  • Suggests innovative class assignments and projects useful for developing lesson plans, and offers an online companion site for additional illustrations and information


Irina D. Costache, Ph.D., is an art historian and Professor of Art History at California State University Channel Islands. Her innovative teaching methodologies have been recognized with awards and grants. She has curated several exhibitions, including Postmodern Calligraphies, Nature and/or Technology and Line and Color. Her presentations and publications include This is Not a Painting: Art History and the Internet, Visual Culture/ Virtual Art, Italian Futurism and the Decorative Arts, and Futurist Film: an Incomplete Project.


Acknowledgments xiii

Why Should Art Matter to You ? A Message to Art Beginners xv

Introduction: What Is Art? xvi

Navigating the Book: A User’s Guide xxi

Why Is Art Made? The Purposes of Art: A Brief Overview from A to Z xxiv

The Anatomy of a Work of Art xxxii

Part One Making Art 1

1 Artists and Patrons 3

Artists and Creators 3

Originality, Authorship, Authenticity 4

Appropriations 8

Attributions and Studio Practices 9

Collaborations 11

Artists and Multiple Works 12

Artists and Artisans 12

Anonymous Artists 13

The Creative Process: Inspiration and Influences 14

Self-Reflections 14

The Formative Years: Education, Family Life, and Personal Values 15

Patronage 17

Private Patronage 17

Religious Patronage 18

Royal Patronage 19

State, City, and Community Patronage 19

Today’s Patronage: Corporations, Institutions, Foundations, and Grants 20

Summary 21

Notes 21

2 Environment, Materials, and Other Resources 22

Environment 23

Natural Resources 23

Location 24

Climate 24

Dialogues between the Environment and Art 25

Materials, Tools, and Technology 27

Materials and Artistic Values 27

The Attributes of Materials 28

The “Purity” of Materials and Mixed Media 29

Materials as Sources for Meaning 29

“Unusual” Art Materials 31

Found Objects 32

The Body as Art Material 32

Tools and Technology 34

Other Resources: Knowledge and Information 36

Summary 37

Notes 37

3 Context 38

Cultural Context 39

Artistic Context 39

Art Organizations, Institutions, and Events 40

Culture, Science and Ideas 41

Historical, Political, and Religious Context 43

Historical Context and Current Events 43

Political Context 44

Religious Context 47

Societal Context 48

Everyday Life 49

The Mass Media 49

Moral Values 50

Social Context 51

Summary 52

Notes 52

Conclusion to Part One 53

Part Two Disseminating Art 55

4 The Dissemination of Original Art 57

Institutions 57

Museums 57

Collections and Foundations 67

Galleries 68

Academic-Affiliated Art Institutions 70

Beyond Institutional Walls 71

Alternative Spaces 71

Public Art 71

Propaganda Art 72

Art and Business 73

The Art Market and other Financial Matters 73

Art Patrons, Collectors, Dealers, and Sponsors 74

Artists and Business 75

Summary 76

Notes 76

5 The Dissemination of Art through Reproductions, and Other Issues 77

Publications, Presentations, and Lectures 78

Books, Catalogues, and Periodicals (Articles, Essays, and Reviews) 78

Lectures, Courses, and Presentations 79

The Mass Media 80

Films, Documentaries, and DVDs 80

The Web 82

Art and Popular Culture 84

Today’s Art World 86

The Decontextualization of Art 87

Original Context and Contemporary Times 88

“The Art World” 89

Summary 89

Notes 90

Conclusion to Part Two 90

Part Three Analyzing Art 91

6 Visual Resources Used to Analyze Art 93

The Work of Art 94

Form and Content 94

The Physical Condition of the Work of Art 98

Originals and Reproductions 100

The Preservation and Conservation of Art 101

Scientific Tools 103

Visual Documentation and Research 103

Artists’ “Body of Work” (Oeuvre) 104

Artistic and Visual Context of the Time 104

Drawings, Architectural Plans, and other Visual Resources 105

New Art/Archaeological Discoveries 105

Symbols in Art 106

Summary 107

Notes 108

7 Textual and Other Resources Used to Analyze Art 109

Primary Textual Sources 110

Archival Material 110

Artists’ Letters, Notes, and Statements 111

Provenance 114

Secondary Textual Sources 114

Art-Historical Literature 115

Original Context and History 115

Today’s Art History, Criticism, and Context 116

Additional Resources for Research 117

Art Institutions and Exhibitions 117

Online and Other Sources 117

Comparisons 119

“Conventional” Art Comparisons 119

Cross-Chronological and Cross-Cultural Comparisons 123

Visual Culture and Interdisciplinary Comparisons 124

Summary 125

Notes 125

8 A Critical Examination of Art Classification 126

Reflections on Art Classification 126

Identifying the Category of “Art” 126

The Roots of Art Classification 129

Criteria for Art Classification 130

Chronology and Artistic Periods 130

Media 132

Fine Art/High Art 132

Painting, Drawings, Prints, and Sculptures 133

Photography 134

Mixed Media 134

New Media 135

Multimedia 136

Graphic Arts 137

“Minor Arts” 137

Decorative Arts 138

Crafts 138

Architecture 138

Other Categories 139

“Low” Art and Popular Culture 139

“Outsider” Art 140

Naïve and Folk Art 141

Vernacular Art 141

Visual and Material Culture 141

Summary 142

Notes 142

Conclusion to Part Three 142

Part Four Interpreting Art 143

9 Interpreting Art: Criteria and Values 145

Preconceived Ideas about Art 146

Modern Art and the Audience 148

Artistic Values and Art Appreciation 150

Modernism 152

The Avant-Garde 152

The Modernist Artist 153

Modernism and Global Traditions 153

Originality and the Original 154

System of Values 154

Postmodernism 155

Multiculturalism 155

Originality and the Original (Imitation/Appropriation/Re-purposing) 156

The Postmodern Artist 156

System of Values 156

Interpreting Art: Getting Started 157

Understanding Images 157

Looking at and Interpreting Art 158

Summary 161

Notes 161

10 Methodologies of Art 162

Introduction to Art Methodologies 163

Biography/Autobiography 163

Connoisseurship 164

Context 165

Deconstruction 166

Feminism 167

Formalism and Style 167

Gender 168

Iconography 169

Multiculturalism 169

Postcolonialism 170

Psychoanalysis 170

Semiotics 171

Structuralism/Poststructuralism 172

Visual Culture 172

Art Interpretation: Case Study 173

Summary 179

Notes 179

Conclusion 180

Appendix 1 The Art World 182

Appendix 2 Creative Assignments and Writing Projects 189

Appendix 3 Glossary 194

Appendix 4 “Tools of the Trade” Diagrams: Form and Content (1–5) and Art Media (6–8) 210

List of Figures and Color Plates 218

Bibliography 220

Index 227


“Through its refreshing, innovative approach to its subject, its short, thoughtful essays, and its selective case studies, Irina Costache's The Art of Understanding Art gives students and educators of art history a valuable new resource.”
- Clare Kunny, The J. Paul Getty Museum

“The Art of Understanding Art offers the readers multi-layered approaches to the visual history of being human, and to interpreting these visual representations; and it has very engaging creative assignments and writing projects for each chapter.”
- Laura Ruby, University of Hawai’i–Manoa

“Costache goes far beyond any other introductory text in its range of inquiry and examples, and the extent to which she maps out the art world, including the academic world the students who will be using the book find themselves in.  Instead of talking about only works by Monet and Van Gogh, in museums that none will visit, she connects the dots between the odd and perplexing stuff students are likely to see being made around them by fellow art students or faculty, and the art hanging in museums."
- Bruce Robertson, Professor, History of Art and Architecture, and Acting Director, Art, Design & Architecture Museum, UC Santa Barbara