Engaging in the Arts (Pt. 1)

Posted by Hilary Hulsey on

Sometimes a painting on the wall is simply a painting on the wall. But, really, what’s the fun in interpreting art at face value? A painting, film, sculpture, or even a piece of literature comes alive when a person chooses to think about artwork critically or analytically. So, I’ve decided to devote the next two blogs to sharing my own techniques, both learned and personal, on engaging with the arts (particularly in film since I have a piece of paper that says I know a few things about it). 

If you’ve read any of the blogs I’ve written in the past two years, you will notice a theme: I like history. Due to my love of history, I generally take an historical approach in my methodology. Keep in mind, history is made every second, so it encompasses a broad spectrum of options and interpretations. Supposedly, we need distance from a text to analyze it in its appropriate historical context, but occasionally I believe interpretations to be very “on-the-nose” or obvious. For instance, I believe superhero flicks are on the rise because our society desperately needs a hero after the September 11th terrorist attacks. Or even a film like Her (Jonze, 2013), I tend to accept that it urges us to redefine ‘love’ and all of its historical implications in a technological age. The implicit meanings of films are the ones begging us to ask historical questions like, “What was going on in our culture when this film was made?” or “What historic event took place in this specific era that was represented within this film’s narrative or cinematographic elements?” The answers will reveal themselves in due time (or they won’t) depending on the subject at hand. It’s not a fail-proof method because art is an expression and is not always conveyed clearly.

When these questions arise, they tend to introduce more questions and different theories or even different methodologies. Let’s say you’re watching 9 to 5 (Higgins, 1980), a film featuring three female leads at the beginning of a new decade, the 1980s. The biggest alarm to go off in your head should be the presence of Jane Fonda, but if you’re not savvy to her involvement in feminist movements of the past, then maybe just start with character representations. They’re strong and determined to make a statement about women in the workplace. A question then arises in my mind, “What was happening in terms of feminist movements in the early 80s?” followed by, “Was there progress in the workplace in terms of gender equality?” Once these questions are answered with historical evidence, you can move onto the deeper meanings of the film and the problem it creates or resolves in a particular discourse. At this stage, there is no right or wrong answer, but that’s the beauty of analyzing art. Curiosity creates conversations, encourages difficult discussions, and allows us to engage with one another in a medium the masses find entertaining. 

I realize this is a very brief rundown, but there are so many other ways to look at a film. A person can engage with the art of film at all angles, it’s simply a matter of finding one to match their interests. Biological, social, and cultural categories arise (think race, sexuality, gender, and class) and theory encompasses another area: psychoanalytic, feminist, queer, Marxist, Structuralist, post-colonial... the list goes on. And then there’s a subjective approach, typically associated with film critics, based on opinion and personal experiences, which I will discuss in my next blog.