This list explains terms used by the artists in the films and texts, as well as concepts important for investigating art being made today. Including art and non-art terminology, these keywords are ideal for building vocabulary with students. Many of these words have been defined here in the context of art, but they also have nuanced meanings and additional significance beyond the definitions provided.
In visual art, the use of color, shape, and line as elements in and of themselves. The term also refers to artwork that reduces natural appearances to simplified or nonrepresentational forms. Abstraction can also be conceptual, such as when a sentence or subject matter is cut up in order to make nonsensical or unreal meanings. A characteristic trait of twentieth-century and Modern art, abstraction is used by many artists working today; some combine representational and abstract elements while others make works without recognizable people, places, or things.
Used to describe something that is perceived as beautiful or pleasing in appearance. Aesthetics is the philosophy or academic study of beauty or taste in art. The term was first used by philosophers in the eighteenth century.
An image or story that refers to a related or overarching concept, such as good or evil, which typically reflects truths or generalizations about human experience.
A fictional self, different from one's own, in an idealized or transformed version.
The capacity to be understood in more than one way. In art, a word, phrase, or image can be ambiguous if it contains multiple meanings to the artist and/or the viewer. For artists, ambiguity is often cited as an important characteristic that allows their work to be appreciated or interpreted from multiple perspectives.
Giving movement to something; the process of making moving cartoons or films that use cartoon imagery.
The attribution of human form, characteristics, or behavior to nonhuman things.
A small, narrow opening through which light is focused. Found in cameras, microscopes, and other devices, apertures are often adjustable in order to increase or decrease the amount of light that enters the instrument.
A concise statement expressing an opinion or a general truth, often in a clever way. For example: "Art is the lie that makes us realize the truth." —Pablo Picasso
In art, the act of borrowing imagery or forms to create a new work of art.
The art of designing and constructing buildings, architecture can also refer to the building or space that an artist is making a work in relation to, such as with installation art. Architecture has close ties to the visual arts, and many artists are very sensitive to the ways in which their art interacts with buildings and exhibition spaces.
An object produced or shaped by human craft, especially a rudimentary art form or object, as in the products of prehistoric workmanship.
An intentional deviation from fact or convention, for artistic effect. Using artistic license, an artist, writer, or musician may change the facts or details of source materials in obvious or subtle ways to serve his or her own artistic purposes.
In contemporary gaming and online culture, an avatar is an alter ego or persona who participates in a virtual community. Derived from Hindu mythology, the term avatar originally referred to the descent of a god or goddess to Earth in an easily understood form or as a human incarnation.
A group of American youth, writers, and artists in the 1950s who experimented with communal living, a nomadic lifestyle, and Eastern philosophy. Often associated with jazz music, the improvisational works by Beat authors such as Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg challenged traditional forms of literature.
A religious style of art developed in the eastern part of the late Roman Empire. Colorful and ornate, Byzantine art is characterized by its use of mosaic and by its flat, graphic style. Coming before the aesthetic and scientific advances of the Italian Renaissance, Byzantine paintings have shallow perspective and rely heavily on symbols and iconography to convey a story or meaning.
The art of handwriting, or letters formed by hand.
A representation of a person or thing that exaggerates their most striking or characteristic features. Famous people and political figures are often drawn as caricatures by cartoonists for humor. Caricatures, when thought of as an accurate likeness, are transformed into stereotypes.
A sculptural process, done by pouring a liquid material into a mold and allowing it to cool or harden. Casting is used to make a replica of an object or to make groups of identical objects. Many mass-produced commercial objects, such as toys and dinnerware, are casts.
The art of photographing and lighting films. Cinematography can also refer to the style or genre of a movie or motion picture, such as black-and-white cinematography or documentary cinematography.
Referring to the art of ancient Greece and Rome (approx. 480 BCE–393 CE) and characterized by its emphasis on balance, proportion, and harmony.
A cooperative working arrangement between an artist and another person, group, or institution. Artists often work in collaboration with a variety of specialists, assistants, colleagues, and audiences. Some artists even form long-term working partnerships with other artists—these are seen as distinct from collaborations, which are often temporary.
SEE: Eleanor Antin, Matthew Barney, Mel Chin, Oliver Herring, Judy Pfaff, Matthew Ritchie, Doris Salcedo, Laurie Simmons, Carrie Mae Weems, William Kentridge, Jeff Koons, Julie Mehretu, Krzysztof Wodiczko
The process or product of composing an artwork by affixing various materials or objects to a single or flat surface.
Refers to words or, by extension, images that reflect familiar and everyday communication.
The practice of ruling over another country for the purpose of developing trade, or enforcing one's own culture and values on people from a different culture.
To remember or mark a particular event or person from the past through ceremony or memorial.
concept / conceptual art
A concept is a thought or idea; a frame of mind that can include imagination, opinion, and logic. Concept-based or conceptual art emphasizes that the idea is equal to, if not more important than, the finished product. Conceptual art can take many forms, from photographs to texts to videos, and sometimes there is no art object at all. Emphasizing the ways things exist or are created more than how they look, conceptual art often raises questions about what a work of art is or can be. Conceptual art is also often difficult to collect or preserve, as it can be the artist's own experience that is the work of art.
A society in which mass-produced goods are made attractive and are advertised through mass-communication and media. People who participate in a consumer society by purchasing goods are known as consumers.
The intake of objects, images, and popular ideas into one's home, body, or daily life. Whether in the form of food, furniture, art objects, or advertising, consumption is rooted in the sale and purchase of goods, in a modern consumer society like the United States. Artworks that deal with consumption involve stuff in the world, from products to slogans, and are often concerned with what a thing is, how it looks, and how it came into existence.
Works of art made by living artists. Contemporary art can also refer to artworks that address ideas or concerns that are timely or characteristic of society after the 1950s. Unlike Modern art, contemporary art is usually not defined by a succession of periods, schools, or styles.
The subject matter, concepts, or ideas associated with a work of art. A work's content is shaped by the artist's intentions, the context of its presentation, and by the experiences, thoughts, and reactions of the viewer.
The location, information, or time frame that informs how a work of art is viewed and what it means. Artists often make works to respond to a particular space or cultural climate. If the context for a work of art is changed (or recontextualized), the way in which the work is understood may change as well.
An abbreviation of the term costume role-play, a form of performance in which participants outfit themselves with costumes and accessories to become specific characters or ideas derived from forms of popular culture, such as animation, comic books, graphic novels, video games, and fantasy movies. Originated from Japanese youth culture.
The artistic practices within the decorative arts that are traditionally defined by their relationship to functional or utilitarian products. Craft can also refer to the labor or skill of an artist or artisan.
An assessment of something, with commentary on its good and bad qualities. Criticism is the activity of judgment or informed interpretation. In art, critiques often take the form of a group discussion in which the merits of a particular work are debated. Critique remains an important element in many works of art that address social issues, ideas, and events. A work of art itself can criticize a specific idea or express a critical idea or opinion.
SEE: Ida Applebroog, Mel Chin, Mark Dion, John Feodorov, Jenny Holzer, Alfredo Jaar, Mike Kelley, William Kentridge, Kerry James Marshall, Paul McCarthy, Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, Doris Salcedo, Yinka Shonibare MBE, Laurie Simmons, Nancy Spero, Carrie Mae Weems, Krzysztof Wodiczko
The system of beliefs, values, and practices that form one's life. A culture is often defined by national border, ethnicity, and/or religion, but some cultures cross borders, ethnicities, and organized faiths. A culture that involves a select portion of a population and is organized around a particular interest (such as cars, graffiti, or music) is known as a subculture.
A person who is responsible for the collection, care, research, and exhibition of artworks or artifacts.
Creative work related to popular forms of art—including architecture, books, the Internet, and furniture—often with function as the goal. Today, things that are designed are often mechanically produced or made with the help of a computer.
The act or feeling of being removed or alienated from a place or people; the difference between the initial position of something and any later position.
The relationship between organisms and their environment, ecology is also concerned with the relationship between people and nature.
Short-lived; lasting a very short time. Works of performance art or environmental art that exist outdoors are often created with the understanding that they will exist and be viewed for a finite amount of time.
A system of morals or judgments that govern one's behavior. Ethics often influence a work of art or the process of its making: artists often feel that they have an ethical responsibility—to voice political concerns or make changes to society.
Working with new or unfamiliar materials, approaches, or ideas in order to re-conceive their form and/or function to create a work of art.
The act of forming something into a whole by constructing, framing, or uniting its parts. The fabrication of a work of art often involves the collaboration of specialists, who provide skills and specialized machines or processes to realize the artwork.
An artificial or deceptive appearance. Also: the front or public-facing side of a building.
feminist art movement
The efforts of artists internationally to bring increased visibility and respect to the role of women within art history and art practice. The movement began in the 1960s and continues today. Feminist art is related to the larger feminist movement that encompasses literary, political, and social activism.
Derived from flux, meaning "continuous flow." Fluxus was coined by a group of artists, musicians, and poets in the 1960s to describe a radical attitude and philosophy for producing and exhibiting art. Often presented in non-traditional settings, Fluxus forms included impromptu performances, mail art, and street spectacles.
The shape and structure of a work of art. Elements of form include color, shape, pattern, and duration. Many artists strive for a relationship between form and content, so that the way something is made fits with what the artist intends the work to be about or how it will be seen.
The ability of a structure or material to perform or be adapted to a particular use. Often pertains to design but has broader connotations for thinking about art and its relation to popular culture and media.
A means of categorizing works of art based on style, form, and subject matter. For example, history painting and landscape are genres of painting; horror and romantic comedy are genres of film; detective and science fiction are genres of literature.
A movement of the body or limbs that conveys an idea or feeling; the visible result or embodiment of such a movement.
Art made on surfaces within the public realm, such as a building or a street sign. Examples of graffiti date back to ancient Egypt. Today, graffiti is often made with spray paint and permanent marker. Seen by some as vandalism, graffiti is viewed by others as an important expression of opinions.
A description applied to two-dimensional images without modulation of shadows and highlights to suggest three-dimensional form. Characterized by contrast and shape; often pertains to media such as fonts, comic books, and cartoons.
high / low
These terms refer to artistic traditions that previously were considered distinct but are increasingly blurred in contemporary culture. High art has been defined as visual expression using established materials and media, such as painting and sculpture, while low art includes more popular arts such as cartoons, kitsch objects, and cinema.
Large-scale painting that represents either historical events or scenes from legend or literature. Considered the highest form of art in the nineteenth century, history paintings are grand in concept and execution. Much of Modern art has been a reaction against history painting, while some contemporary artists have found ways to incorporate the genre into their work.
In science, a hybrid is created from the combination or offspring of two animals, plants, or other organic species. In art, a hybrid combines two or more distinct media to create a new form, thus redefining traditional categories of art.
An image or symbol that has a particular meaning, either learned or universal, by virtue of resemblance or analogy to the object or idea it represents.
How you view yourself, how others perceive you, and how a society as a whole defines groups of people. Influences of one's identity are: ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, and class, as well as education, childhood, and life experience. Contemporary art often deals with artists' identities—what it means to be an artist in today's rapidly changing world.
An organized system of values and opinions that form the basis of a social, political, or economic agenda. Informed by a culture, ideologies often take the form of rules, codes, or guiding principles.
A visually misleading or perceptually altered or object or physical space.
The term installation originally referred only to the arrangement of works of art in a gallery. In contemporary art, an installation can also be an artwork that uses a range of materials to present a particular environment, or an artwork designed for a specific physical space (usually called a site-specific installation). Installations often include multiple forms and materials and engage a variety of senses, such as sight, smell, and hearing. Installations are generally temporary, but some installations travel to different locations and exist over longer periods of time.
The incongruity between what is expected to happen and what actually happens, especially when the disparity seems absurd or laughable. In art and literature, irony is often used as a device for social critique and is based on making a statement that suggests its opposite is true.
Placing seemingly disparate or unrelated objects or images close together or side-by-side, to encourage comparisons or contrasts. Visual artists often use juxtapositions to refer to existing images or ideas and suggest new meanings for them.
Having mechanical or moving parts that can be set in motion; art that moves.
A term adopted from the German kitsch, meaning "trash." Used to describe items that appeal to popular, undiscriminating, or lowbrow taste and often are of poor quality. Kitsch may also be used to describe something that is overly decorative or sentimental. Things generally considered to be kitschy in popular American culture include ceramic figurines, black-velvet paintings, rhinestones, and glitter. However, what is kitsch in one cultural context may not be in another.
Also known as earth art or earthworks, land art uses the raw materials of the natural world to make large-scale, outdoor sculpture. Often taking many years to complete, some earthworks made in the 1970s exist to this day while others are still under construction.
A printed image that shows depth or motion as the viewing angle changes; of or relating to a lens.
A vocabulary; a collection of terms or characteristics used in a particular profession, subject, style, or genre.
Materials that are used to create a work of art or are understood within a certain genre, like painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography, or film. The term can also refer to tools or methods to deliver information, like newspapers, television, film, publications, periodicals, the Internet, or social networking websites.
From an ancient Greek word, meaning "to transfer." A figure of speech or art in which one word, idea, image, or object is used in place of another, to suggest a likeness or analogy between them. Artists use metaphor to bridge differences between seemingly dissimilar images and ideas.
Of or relating to a reality beyond what is perceptible to the senses, or something that is highly abstract.
The name coined to describe a school of abstract painting and sculpture that emphasizes extreme simplification of form, often employing geometry or repetition. Much Minimalist art is reduced to basic shapes (for example, cubes and spheres) or raw, inelegant materials (such as steel, neon tubing, and bricks).
A deliberate philosophical and practical divergence from the past in the arts and literature, beginning in the late nineteenth century and continuing through the first half of twentieth century, and taking form in various innovative movements and styles. The terms modernism and modern art are generally used to describe a succession of art periods, schools, and styles beginning with Realism in the 1850s and culminating in Color Field abstract art in the 1960s. Modern artists strove to go beyond that which had come before. Works of modern art may be visually different and yet share the same commitment to questioning artistic conventions. Modern art is oriented towards developing new visual languages—rather than preserving and continuing those of the past. (In an art context, the term modernity refers to the qualities of being in the modern era, which spanned from the late-19th-century Industrial Revolution to the 1960s, including issues of urban life and technology.)
Made of or having only one color or close variations of one color.
A printmaking technique that yields a singular image that cannot be exactly reproduced; essentially, a painted print. In the monoprinting process, ink or paint is applied directly to a plate, creating a unique image that cannot be produced as an edition or series.
Originally French, from monter ("to mount"). Refers to an image—or, in film and music, a sequence—composed by assembling and overlapping many different pieces from various sources.
A public work of art, usually large in scale, which commemorates a group of people, historical event, or ideal. Monuments are most often made at the invitation of a civic group or government. Memorials are a type of monument and come in a variety of scales and materials, and are made for a range of audiences. Less a tribute than an invitation to remember, memorials can also be abstract in form, and subtle or inconclusive in message.
A recurrent or dominant theme in a work of visual or literary art.
An allegorical narrative often incorporating legendary heroes, gods, and demigods of a particular people or culture.
The representation in art of an event or story. Whether a literal story, event, or subject—or a more abstract relationship between colors, forms, and materials—narrative in visual art applies as much to the story conveyed by the artwork as it does to the viewer's perception and experience of the artwork.
Short for Optical Art, a style popular in the 1960s that was based on optical principles and optical illusion. Op Art employs complex color interactions, to the point where colors and lines seem to vibrate before the viewer's eyes.
The spoken relation and preservation, from one generation to the next, of a people's cultural history and ancestry, often by a storyteller and in narrative form.
The quality of being unique; not derived from something else.
A particular range of colors, or a tray for mixing colors.
A brief, succinct story that illustrates a moral or religious lesson.
A statement, proposition, or situation that seems to be absurd or contradictory, but in fact is or may be true. Also: a statement or proposition that contradicts itself.
A work in which the style of another work, its subject, or author is closely imitated for comic effect or ridicule. Parody is a frequent ingredient in satire and is often used in social or political commentary.
An art form that emerged in the 1960s, created by visual artists and related more to the history of painting and sculpture than to theater or dance. As live presentations or on video, performance art rarely involves trained actors or directors. Performances often feature artists doing visually compelling actions. Performance art also often presents political or topical themes.
A visual formula that creates the illusion of depth and volume on a two-dimensional surface. Perspective also implies a particular vantage point or view.
A personality that a person projects in public, often representing a character in a fictional context.
The profession or practice of recording and reporting events using photography.
The process and result of making a composite photograph by joining together a number of photographs. The process of montage can also apply to other media, including video or sound.
The surface of a painting or drawing.
Art that draws its subject matter or appearance from mass media and consumer culture. Transforming "low" culture such as advertisements, comics, and tabloid photographs into the "high" culture of painting and sculpture, Pop artists of the 1950s and '60s reached a wide audience with their emotionally detached depictions of contemporary times.
The collected creative expressions of contemporary society—such as literature, radio and TV broadcasting, music, dance, movies, and sports—distinguished by their broad availability and appreciation across ethnic, social, and regional groups, and often disseminated through mass media. Products of popular culture have increasingly influenced visual artists, who often respond to or critique its influences on society.
SEE: John Baldessari, Mark Bradford, Michael Ray Charles, Mel Chin, Jenny Holzer, Jeff Koons, Barbara Kruger, Barry McGee, Margaret Kilgallen, Paul McCarthy, Paul Pfeiffer, Lari Pittman, Cindy Sherman, Catherine Sullivan, Carrie Mae Weems
Post-colonialism refers to a set of theoretical approaches to the aftermath and legacy of nineteenth- and twentieth-century European colonial rule—and especially to issues of individual and national identity, the subjugation and exploitation of nations or ethnic groups, and dynamics of race, class, and gender.
A twentieth-century art movement marked by reactions against the philosophy and practices of modern movements. Typically marked by the abandonment of strong divisions of genre or hierarchy, postmodernism questions the validity of the modernist emphasis on logic, simplicity, and order, suggesting that ambiguity, uncertainty, and contradiction may also have a valid place.
An artist's investigation, or the steps the artist takes to make a work of art. Processes differ widely from artist to artist. For many artists, the process of making a work of art has become just as important, if not more important, than the final work of art itself.
A systematically distributed message aimed at influencing the opinions or behavior of people. Often, publicity released by an organization or government to promote a specific policy, idea, doctrine, or cause.
A systematically distributed message aimed at influencing the opinions or behavior of people. Often, publicity released by an organization or government to promote a specific policy, idea, doctrine, or cause.
A leading or principal figure.
Works of art that are designed specifically for, or placed in, outdoor spaces or areas physically accessible to the general public.
An aggressive and rebellious genre of popular music that emerged in the 1970s; characterized by a do-it-yourself attitude, raw emotion, and distrust for authority and standards of good taste.
In art and literature, the theory or practice of fidelity to nature or to real life and to accurate representation; the opposite of idealization.
The obscuring or removing of sensitive information from a text, prior to publication. Often employed in formerly classified government documents.
To reproduce or represent by artistic or literary means.
Depicting recognizable people, places, or things. Includes the figurative, landscape, and still life genres of traditional painting and sculpture.
A small oil painting, typically on wood panel or relief. Used primarily in the Latin American tradition as a devotional image honoring a Catholic saint.
A ceremonial act, or a detailed method or process for accomplishing specific objectives.
The act of borrowing pieces or sections of cultural products—from visual, performance, or popular sources—in order to create a new work. Can be used in homage or commentary.
The use of sharp wit, irony, or sarcasm to expose, discredit, or ridicule human vice or folly.
The comparative size of a thing in relation to another thing. Scale can refer to an entire work of art or to elements of it.
An outline drawing of a shape, usually of a person's profile, and solidly colored in, or cut from dark material and mounted on a light ground.
Describes works of art that are designed for a particular place; may be permanent or impermanent. Some site-specific works are located in remote places, and the experience of the artwork is often limited to photographic documentation and verbal explanation.
The act of expressing an opinion about the nature of society, most often with the intention of promoting change by calling attention to a given problem. Artists engage in social commentary through their work as a means of raising public awareness and inspiring dialogue about pertinent issues.
An area of study that emphasizes the interaction of social groups within society rather than affairs of state. It views historical evidence with respect to social trends that reflect the ways in which society changes over time, and examines social norms, beliefs, and behavior. As an outgrowth of economic history in the 1960s, this discipline initially focused on disenfranchised social groups.
First conceived by the avant-garde German artist Joseph Beuys, social sculpture advocates for art's potential to transform society and is expressly opposed to art that is rooted solely in formal and aesthetic considerations. Social sculpture often includes human activity, especially activity that strives to structure and reshape society as if it were a sculpture.
A mediated or constructed view or image that is of a remarkable or impressive nature, sensationalizing its subject in the process.
A questioning of humanity's place in the universe, marked by an interest in self-reflection, mortality, and meditation. Spirituality is often associated with things that are mysterious, felt before they are understood, and beyond the scope of human thought, time, and history. Distinct from religion, spirituality is an attitude and not an organized set of rituals or beliefs.
A generalized type or caricature of a person, place, or culture, often negative in tone. Visual as well as verbal, stereotypes tend to reduce or oversimplify the subject.
The place where an artist works and reflects. Artists often employ studio assistants to help them execute artworks and manage their careers.
Describes works of art that conform to imagined or invented visual rules. Artwork that is stylized tends to be less spontaneous or visually responsive to changes in subject matter.
That which impresses the mind with a sense of grandeur and power, inspiring a sense of awe.
An artistic and literary movement of the 1920s and '30s, characterized by a fascination with the bizarre, incongruous, and the irrational. Influenced by the work of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, Surrealism was conceived as a revolutionary mode of thought and action, whose purpose was described as a way to resolve the conditions of dream and reality into a super-reality. Some Surrealist artists used dreamlike imagery and unexpected juxtapositions to explore the relationship between the unconscious and the rational mind; others used automatic drawing to encourage a direct link to the unconscious.
The practice of representing something by an image, sign, symbol, convention, or association.
A feeling evoked in one sense when another sense is stimulated. Examples of synesthesia include seeing the color yellow and smelling lemons, or smelling hot chocolate and feeling warm.
A strong social prohibition or ban against words, objects, actions, or behavior considered undesirable or offensive to a group, culture, society, or community.
The act of writing graffiti; a tag is often an artist's name or visual trademark.
Works created from the weaving or knitting of fibers, filaments; typically cloth. Needlework and screenprinting are also processes involved in the creation of textiles.
The state of being beyond the range of normal perception and consciousness, or of being free from the constraints of the material world.
The style, arrangement, or appearance of fonts, letters, or characters in printed or published texts or graphic designs.
Peculiarly unsettling, as if of supernatural origin or nature; eerie.
An imagined perfect society; an ideal community with perfect laws, government, and social conditions. Evocative of people's hopes and wishes, utopias are ultimately unrealizable. Some believe the Internet is a place where a utopia may be possible.
A physical point of view, or a philosophical position on a subject.
Language specific to a social group or region; language spoken or written by everyday people as opposed to literary or cultured language. Vernacular images are those that commonly appear in daily life in a particular culture.
The ability to effectively interpret images or create and use images as a form of communication.
A visible, conventional figure or device that stands for a word, phrase, or operation.
An observer who derives pleasure viewing sensational subjects from a distance.
A German term, meaning "cabinet of wonders"; Wunderkammer means "room of wonders." These collections originated in the Renaissance and were precursors of museums. Both were collections of miscellaneous curiosities—odd or rare objects—brought together for private contemplation and pleasure. The objects in these storage/display spaces were primarily marvels of nature, but also included historical or religious relics and works of art.
The often irrational fear and hatred of foreigners or other social groups, or of anything foreign or unfamiliar. A xenophobe is a person who is unduly fearful or contemptuous of anything foreign, especially of people of foreign origin. Subcategories of xenophobia include racism, sexism, homophobia, and religious intolerance.
Adopted from German, meaning "spirit"; the general intellectual, moral, and cultural climate of an era. The zeitgeist of the early modern period may have been faith in salvation through technological advancement, whereas that of the postmodern period would be disdain for such expressions of certainty.