All art seeks to express something—whether it be concise, profound, and substantive, or less immediately clear, contingent, or even superficial. In my previous blog post focusing on FORM, we inventoried how medium and materials helps express meaning through a consideration of the art object or film’s physical makeup. Moving to our next fundamental element, CONTENT, we tackle the question of subject matter, meaning, and the overall “message(s)” produced in a close reading of the visual object.
Returning to Robert Belton’s descriptions in Elements of Art in an Online Handbook, we can locate a useful and basic definition:
When looking at a visual object, the key to assessing content is to do a close visual reading of what you see right in front of you, nothing else. This sounds easy enough, but the temptation may be to add meaning to your assessment based on information you may know about the object’s date, artist/director, or other outside information related to the production and distribution of the object. Once again, you have to ignore the strong pull towards other aspects and only focus on what is before you. Content analysis usually comes quite naturally to most of us, as we are all storytellers to some extent, but I find that English and creative writing students (writers and poets) do best with picking up the nuances of this element of art.
Let us return to our three examples:
EDOUARD MANET, OLYMPIA (1863)
The first observations should be the quick description you would tell someone if you were identifying the most basic bare bones story/message of what you are literally looking at. This is outlined in the primary content. Here, the title of the painting can also guide you. You can then move onto the secondary content where you make larger connections linking the straightforward subject matter to other visual cues that help create a better understanding of what you are assessing.
Primary Content: What we see is a reclining naked woman, and she is looking out at the viewer. Another woman is bringing her flowers, and there is a black cat appearing frightened in the far right hand side of the painting. Taking into account the painting’s title, we can also assume that the woman featured in the painting is named Olympia.
Secondary Content: The woman is naked and is looking at the audience quite brazenly. Always note the attitude and demeanor of subjects to help you assess their feeling or mood. Her look suggests she is quite confident and not at all shy or ashamed of her nudity. Is she waiting for someone? Why is she nude? There are some questions here for sure. When looking at the central vertical axis of the painting (an important place to look for important meaning in Western art, especially prior to the twentieth century) we see that her hand is covering her genitals. We can also note the colour of her skin as being almost yellow, not especially inviting, and that her body seems a bit out of proportion. She appears to be reclining on a bed or couch (note the bedding) and the framing of the image is very tight around this one place and moment in time. By looking more closely at her clothing and jewellery, we can make an assumption about her wealth and maybe her status. This is in contrast to the woman bringing Olympia flowers, who appears to be more simply dressed. This other woman is likely a servant, and this is also a cultural assumption based on racial differences and her body language as she presents this gift to Olympia. Later, you will be able to test your hypothesis when looking at CONTEXT. The black cat appears frightened with his back raised, almost like you have walked in on the scene and scared him. You could of course go on and on here—and paintings of this kind beg for just this kind of close attention— but I want to flesh out a broader story to give you an idea of what a content analysis involves.
DOROTHEA LANGE, MIGRANT MOTHER (1936)
With this photograph, we will once again look at the most basic story and understanding of potential meaning.
Primary Content: A worried woman looks off into the distance as two children lean on her and turn their heads away from the camera. Taking into account the photograph’s title, we can assume that this woman is the mother of the two children.
Secondary Content: Looking more closely at the woman and children, we can see that they are dirty and that their clothing is very simple and worn, in fact rag-like. The children’s hair is cut very short and is messy—the canvas material behind them suggests they are in some kind of tent or temporary space. Deep worry lines on the mother’s weathered face and the gesture of her hand to her mouth suggest both concern and contemplation. Looking carefully to the bottom right, we see the mother is holding a baby, something that is not immediately apparent on first glance. The whole picture is very tight around this scene—we don’t have any sense of a bigger space or place that they belong to. We can also note that the set up for this kind of portrait image is not dissimilar to a long history of “mother with children” or “Madonna and Child” imagery, stretching all the way back to the Bible.
I want to add here, as with the previous image, that it is perfectly OK to use your own knowledge and guesses concerning metaphor and symbolism to help along your reading. Later when we add CONTEXT to the mix, you can decide if your hunches about content make sense.
THE WIZARD OF OZ, DIR. VICTOR FLEMING (1939)
With a film, the analysis of content takes on a bit more complexity since once again you are looking at far more material than a single still image. The content analysis follows more closely to the reading of a book since you are also often given dialogue and not just a visual experience. Even so, the mechanics of content analysis are very similar to the previous examples with the addition of two further points of consideration.
Primary Content: You are looking to identify the most basic synopsis of the film’s storyline. We can say that a girl named Dorothy from Kansas and her dog Toto are swept up in a tornado and transported to the Land of Oz where they embark on an adventure to find the Emerald City.
Secondary Content: Pushing the basic synopsis, you can note that the narrative follows a very typical three-act structure with a set-up, confrontation, and resolution (in this case, a happy ending). Along the way, many interludes allow musical numbers to unfold. The film’s storyline fits within the classic Hollywood genres of the musical and fantasy fiction. Looking closer, we can also note that Dorothy is set up as a classic hero—the audience is rooting for her—and that her adventures and many crossroads allow for new characters to enter into the narrative.
Explicit Content: Digging into the analysis of content, the explicit content suggest what we might think of as the “moral of the story” or attitude expressed by the narrative. Of course we don’t have to dig far with The Wizard of Oz since Dorothy hints to the audience near the very end of the film, “There’s no place like home.” We can also look at the core characters she encounters (i.e. the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Lion, Glenda the Good Witch, and the Wicked Witch of the East) as embodying particular traits that we can judge ourselves against.
Implicit Content: Moving deeper, the implicit content is more subjective and asks audiences to make broader connections to how the film’s story applies to general human relations. We can say here for example that Dorothy’s adventure, while following a yellow brick road, is similar to being on life’s path where we encounter obstacles and find resolutions. Finding maturity and strength through life lessons is one of the many implicit meanings communicated through the film’s plot.
Stay tuned for the next post where I turn my attention finally to CONTEXT using the same three works discussed above.