As an undergraduate student, I was fortunate to be introduced to the discipline of art history by the very wonderful Dr. Robert Belton, currently Dean of the Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies at the University of British Columbia Okanagan. Dr. Bob, as he encourages his students to call him, has maintained an amazing passion and interest in teaching art history from a social and historical perspective that also incorporates careful attention to the many constituent aspects of the art objects themselves. And what Dr. Bob taught me that I now routinely share and incorporate into my own teaching and research is that at the most basic and fundamental level art historians routinely study the intersection of three key elements of visual art: FORM, CONTENT, and CONTEXT.
Fortunate for us, Dr. Bob took the time to write and publish his useful approach to the Elements of Art in an Online Handbook that anyone can consult free of charge. It is my pleasure to feature this fine resource and summarize the key definitions of form, content, and context (through direct quotes from the Handbook) that I encourage students to inventory with any visual work they encounter for research and exam study purposes.
Form means the constituent elements of a work of art independent of their meaning (e.g., the colour, composition, medium or size of a flag, rather than its emotional or national significance). Formal elements include primary features which are not a matter of semantic significance (i.e., which do not carry meaning the way a word does): these include colour, dimensions, line, mass, medium, scale, shape, space, texture, value, and their corollaries. The secondary features are the relations of the primary features with one another: these include balance, composition, contrast, dominance, harmony, movement, proportion, proximity, rhythm, similarity, unity, and variety.
There is less consensus here. Some distinguish "subject matter" from "content" - - i.e., denotations vs. connotations, more or less -- while others prefer terms like "meaning" vs. "significance." To simplify matters, content means "message," however that message may be organized…The primary content is the simplest way of taking inventory of what you see, as in literal images; straightforward subjects and imagery; and describable facts, actions, and/or poses. You might think, "what you see is what you get." …The secondary content includes things which push "what you see" into "what you understand," so to speak.
Context means the varied circumstances in which a work of art is (or was) produced and/or interpreted… Conventional wisdom would have it that primary context is that pertaining to the artist, although there are equally good reasons to assert the primacy of historical and material conditions of production, as in Marxism. Primary context is thus that which pertains to the artist: attitudes, beliefs, interests, and values; education and training; and biography.Secondary context is that which addresses the milieu in which the work was produced: the apparent function of the work at hand; religious and philosophical convictions; sociopolitical and economic structures; and even climate and geography, where relevant.