The Three-Tier Framework to Understanding Art

Art historians study objects of art to analyze what the works of art represented when they were created to learn about past cultures and civilizations. They identify the visual elements of an art piece and interpret their meaning. When you analyze a work of art, think of the artwork as a series of decisions that the artist made. Try to figure out and describe, explain, and interpret those decisions and why the artist made them. Visual analysis involves the following:

  1. Observation: Look at, identify, and describe the physical attributes of the artwork. 

  2. Analysis: Think about your observations and make statements about the work based on your observations. What choices did the artist make in creating the work, and what effect do they have on the viewer?

  3. Interpretation: Combine your observations and analysis with facts about the artist and historical context to make inferences about the meaning of the piece.

The Three-Tier Framework is a procedure that helps us deepen our understanding of art. Each tier of this framework helps us to draw different conclusions. 

Tier 1—Content: This kind of inquiry yields a detailed formal or visual analysis of a work. This goes beyond description to reveal how an artist uses the various elements and principles of art. 

Tier 2—Context: An investigation of a work's context uncovers the historical data surrounding the work, such as the cultural, aesthetic, or societal norms prominent when it was produced.

Tier 3—Concept: At this level, ask questions about what a work means and how it transmits that meaning.

Tier 1: ContentTier 2: ContextTier 3: Concept

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