Applying ideas in scholarly text sources to visual examples

The instructions for the example essay in this resource ask students to critically explore the topic by engaging with scholarly text sources in order to make an argument supported by evidence. The topic is modernist architecture and its influence on contemporary architecture. The ideas you encounter in scholarly text sources will explain the characteristics of the relevant style. You will apply these ideas to the visual examples you select, and show how your particular examples reflect the style.

To interpret visual material is to consider the ideas that examples express, how and why they express them, and the ways they represent their time and place. Interpreting visual material is explaining its meaning and significance. Meaning is directly about the example, whereas significance is why it is important in context. You will interpret examples differently depending on whether they are art, design or architecture. Broadly speaking:

  • In art, interpretation is an explanation of form, narrative and emotion.
  • In design, interpretation is an explanation of function and communication.
  • In architecture, interpretation is an explanation of appearance, construction, function, and feeling.

Nevertheless, all visual material provides evidence about the character of cultures, societies, and the ways people live. That is why interpreting art, design and architecture is interesting.

Nicolas Henderson, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Figure 6. Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, Prada Marfa, 2005 Marfa, USA.

Commentators such as critics and historians communicate the meaning and significance of visual material. They attempt to see the work in a broader context than the artist, designer or architect does. Critics and historians recognise similarities between multiple artists’ work, they group visual material into tendencies, styles, movements and eras. They explain the collective significance of examples. That is not to say that artists themselves do not recognise tendencies and align their work with or against them. Critics and historians also attempt to evaluate the merit of the work more objectively than the artist can, though they will generally acknowledge that their interpretations can be subjective too.

Critics and historians apply ideas from other disciplines, like philosophy, as a lens through which to interpret examples, i.e. Marxist, Feminist or Postcolonial theories can provide a focus for interpreting visual materials. Different theories focus on particular aspects of the visual material. For example: Marxism examines the production of examples within economic, political and technological contexts; Feminism examines gender, and its power and representation; Postcolonialism examines ways indigenous cultures overcome the agendas of colonial powers. There are many other theories about aspects of our lives that can be adapted to interpreting visual material. That is because art, design and architecture is evidence of how we live, and how we feel about life.

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