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How to Learn About Art

The Importance of Context in Art Education & A Book Referral to Get You Started On Your First Step

One of the most critical things missing from education pertaining to art, and the general discussion about art today — and I’ll take the liberty of saying this outright, and out loud — is enough emphasis on the importance of CONTEXT — CONTEXT in the context of looking at a single work of art, or a show of a single artist, or a group show, or a museum opening, or more importantly the context of what’s happening in society, within the country, continent, world and time in which the work was created. And this lack of empathy towards individual works of art plague not only many a viewer but creator too, as well as the points at which the two come together.

Context gives an artwork character and puts it in perspective.

Context is what ties the artwork to the viewer and gives the viewer something to care about.

Context is what links emotion to the work, gives it feeling, intelligence, life — it is what makes art a uniquly human activity.

Really, context is what makes art, art — especially within the realm of Fine Art. And it is this that really sets ART apart from ALL other strictly applied, decorative, illustrative, iterative forms of human creativity and expression.

Speak to an art business insider and the word they will use for context is Story.

Photograph of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) by Alfred Stieglitz. Fountain has been seen as a quintessential example of what the artist called a ‘readymade’, an ordinary manufactured object designated by the artist as a work of art (and, in Duchamp’s case, interpreted in some way). See the link at the bottom to know more about the Context of this piece.

Not convinced? Look it up. All the greatest works of art that you know of, all of the works that are loved and admired, they all have a context — a story that was intensionally or unintentionally, explicitly or implied, transcribed or generally left to be experienced, all have a context associated to the work. And the greatest of the greatest works are the ones that the creators intensionally framed a context around. In many cases the context was the creators lives and experiences.

“Context is what makes Art a uniquly human activity. Context is what makes Art, Art — especially within the realm of Fine Art” *

(*Context does not define art; there are many other ideas that are needed to do that, but we’ll get to that in another post).

Zdzisław Beksiński, Self-portrait, 1956–57. On the face of it, a good photograph with a cool kaleidoscopic effect. Learn a little more about the artists life and many challenges and this good picture transforms into one with deeper meaning and story (see the artist link at the end of the post).

So, how does an art work get its context?

Well, a piece of art gains context in two main ways:

1. The artist can inject context into the work and frame it within the scope of an idea or concept or even an emotion, to give it relevance and meaning.

2. All works, espicially when looked at collectively, automatically fall within the social and chorological context of the TIME and PLACE that there were created in.

While there are several things that one can do to know about the context of a work as set by the artist themselves (we will cover this in separate post OR find out more about this immediately by grabbing a free copy of my guide Art Essentials from the Everyday Enthusiast), for the purpose of this post, we shall focus on point two above.

Like it or not, we are all children of our times — and this includes all artists, their works, and — believe it or not — the viewer too.

One of the more significant aspects that is part of this context is knowing how we collectively got here — how we got to a point where a certain work has come about.

And this comes from knowing about the types of art from around the world and the phases of developemnt in artistic traditions, practices, and styles.

With that, let’s shift focus to the topic of this post — how do you learn about art?

So, how do you find out about something that interests you? Well, there are all the greatest hits you can try, and READING is definitely one of them. It’s been tried, tested, and it works!

To that end, understanding art within the context of human history, culture and development is one of the most basic.

Now, before I go on, Yes, I’m going to refer you to the book and by clicking on the book links here I will be earning an affiliate commission at no extra cost to you if you do make a purchase. BUT I need you know that I make this referral with the utmost respect and sincerely believe if you are serious about learning about art, this is a simple and effective first step that will help. (i.e.: reading this or any other good book on the topic of art history).

50 Art Ideas You Really Need to Know by Susie Hodge is one book that can help tremendously in that regard. It’s not the only book, but it’s one that I use myself and therefore can confidently talk to.

It’s nicely laid out, it’s affordable, easy to reference, it’s fairly (not completely, but more on this later) complete, and it’s widely available in hardcopy and softcopy. Most importantly, it has everything you need to know (all the must-haves) in one place which is what make this book, and all books really, so valuable.

So, let’s get to it — from the pros to cons, here’s what you need to know about this book:

50 Art Ideas You Really Need to Know is a compiled selection of fifty of the most common phases and concepts in art history. Written specifically for the layman and chronologically structured, this book begins by describing key components of Pre-Historic Art, Ancient Egyptian and Greek Art (in separate chapters) and works its way through the various art movements through the centuries that have shaped our modern-day world.

Each chapter is structured within a set template containing the following aspects pertaining to the respective art idea/concept/phase:

1. A brief paragraph styled introduction

2. Key highlights

3. A timeline that plots year/ year-ranges of major events within the “idea”/”concept”

4. Relevant quotes

5. Paragraph styled breakdowns and descriptions

6. Black and White Image and/or text call outs, with examples

7. A final one-line description that encapsulates the art idea/concept/phase in what is called the condensed idea

There are two key points that drive HOW this book is put together:

1: This book is part of a series by the publisher called 50 _____ Ideas You Really Need to Know. The series covers various topics like Architecture, Literature, Genetics, Physics etc. While I haven’t read any of the other books in the series, I think it’d be safe to assume that each book in the series is structured in much the same manner as this one, with individual chapters dedicated to each art idea/concept/phase, and the chapter then further following the above template.

2: This book, (and again, I’d assume the same is the case with the other books in the series) is aimed at being a quick reference guide and is very specifically targeted at the layman or novice interested to find out more about art.

The above two points provide both unique benefits as well as limitations in the overall effectiveness of this book.


1: For the interested reader, the books structure makes it super-easy for someone to quickly look-up, reference, and compare key concepts, facts and other information about the respective art “idea”

2: Its set layout and structure lend itself very well to cover-to-cover casual reading as well as academic “studying”

3: Completing a chapter means the reader has a general understanding of the topic and will be able to intelligently talk to the respective topic

(Expansion on the topics to cover more about the art “idea”, and a brief quiz/question section at the end would be the only two main sections missing from this book that would make it a comprehensive textbook or training manual of sorts)

Limitations/ Cons:

1: The title of the book is 50 ideas — -, and by that, there are several art concepts that are left out (practically speaking). These include: a comprehensive listing of the key artists and works of the respective time period, other key movements like Digital Art, Sound Art, Kinetic Art, and various art movements from other regions like Persia, the Indian Subcontinent, Africa, South-East Asia and others.

2: Printed in black and white: I’m not sure if there is a full color version of this book, but the copy I have is in full black and white. Again, this could be a limitation set on the entire book series itself (or perhaps one of project budget, or copyright), but whatever the case, full color images would have made this book truly top-notch.

3: More images and examples: This one is another limitation of the books fixed structure. With each chapter set at exactly 4 pages in length, there is no room for additional images and examples or content.

Art, as a concept, (and as a vital part of human development through the history of civilization), and its various phases of development, is just too vast to fit into a book of this format and structure (or any other single book for that matter). To that effect, this book is far from being complete and comprehensive. However, it is not meant to be! (And the title gives that away). Any “numbered list” based book is automatically made for a specific type of reader: one who needs a quick reference guide at the larger picture. And in that respect, this book absolutely meets its desired goal.

The author, Susie Hodge, selects and elucidates specifics about the respective Art idea quite well, using: down-to-earth language, clear and concise terminology, avoiding much of the abstract verbiage that plagues much of art-related literature, and keeping all prose focused on the type of reader a book like this is meant for.

Hardcover binding with dust jacket, and quality end-papers give this book a premium feel

The Verdict

I love this book!

50 Art Ideas You Really Need to Know About is a good book for anyone looking to get an idea of the path of human creative development. As mentioned before, this book is far from being a comprehensive take on the subject, but it is not meant to be. This book is not for those looking for an all-round, in-depth, and comprehensive understanding that lists every relevant art movement, piece of work or artist from around the globe.

It’s concise, yet fairly holistic format, and engaging prose are its key strengths.

The biggest downside to the book is it being in black and white which takes away from the impact it could have had if the images were in color (this as well as adequately balanced image brightness and contrast (this could be a matter of the quality and state of the printing process used, itself)).

My intention with getting this book was to specifically brush up on my own knowledge of art, art history, and fill in gaps in my understanding — and this book did that and more (e.g.: it introduced me to a ton of new ideas like: Shin Hanga and the Harlem Renaissance). To supplement my understanding of the various ideas, I found myself going to the internet for image searches (and Wikipedia for more about the various topics) while reading this book. For the size of the book, its price and, and handy format, it absolutely met my needs.

This is a highly recommended book if you’re looking for a concise run-down of art history, or a quick-reference guide on the subject. This book is very nicely put together to meet those needs. Two things that could make this even better: I do wish the prints were in color, and the glossary were more comprehensive. BUT, all in all — 50 Art Ideas You Really Need to Know About is an interesting and engaging read and a great first intitial step (not the only step, mind you) to asking the question How do you learn about art?

To learn more about how to learn about art immediately, check out my guide Art Essentials for The Everyday Enthusiast that’s available on my website for a limited time.

So what else can you do to find out about how you can learn about art? We’ll look at this in future posts, so don’t forget to follow my account.

Text: Susie Hodge Series: 50 Ideas You Really Need To Know Category/Genre: Non-Fiction — Art/Art History Hardcover Page Count: 201 Publisher: Quercus Publishing plc


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The information on this post is free for you to read, but writing is also my livelihood. So please expect hyperlinks to be affiliate links in many cases, where I receive a small percentage of sales if you were to make a purchase, and at no extra cost to you. I only recommend tools, books, and services that I either use or people I know personally. Integrity and authenticity are of the highest importance to me. I sincerly hope you find my work useful and maybe even fun! Thanks — Malcolm

Footnotes and Links

To learn more about art get my free guide Art Essentials of the Everyday Enthusiast

Learn more about Zdzisław Beksiński here:

Get the book 50 Art Ideas You Really Need to Know About here (Affiliate): US, UK, India, Canada, Australia


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