As an aspiring art historian who has been exposed to a variety of diverse methods for analyzing art, there are two techniques in particular that stand prominent amidst the others: the ideas of Erwin Panofsky and Adrian Piper. It is not invalid to say that both art historians share a similar view of interpreting works of art, however, they also manage to complement one another perfectly. An integration of both Piper and Panofsky's points of view would result in an impeccable approach to delving into the minds of the artists and determining the significance of the works of art that they constructed.
Erwin Panofsky introduced and labeled a tripartite structure of analyzing art; he argued that practicing this tripartite method would produce a more profound and satisfying result. If one chose to apply Panofsky's method, one would be granted access into the mind of the artist¬¬¬, which would in turn produce the intrinsic meaning of the artist's creation.
Step one of Panofsky's method, the natural subject matter, requires only one's innate ability to recognize form. This step does not demand intellectual labor or cultural knowledge from the historian or appreciator of art. The natural subject matter merely requests of the viewer an immediate comprehension of figures. Step two, the conventional subject matter, calls for a deeper understanding of the work of art. This step insists that the viewer be acquainted with the subject of the art. Knowledge of a particular theme requires a respective cultural background. If one is not familiar with the theme of a work of art, then one must venture outside of the painting's frame and into educated sources that will provide the information that is needed in order to proceed to Panofsky's third step, the intrinsic meaning. The third step introduces the iconology of the painting; this step will urge the viewer to perform detective work in order to determine why the artist chose to depict aspects of the painting in a certain way. When the viewer engages with this level of analysis, he or she must rely on outside sources and text. Panofsky advises the viewer to seek information by way of scholarly and religious text, journals, legal documents, other paintings from the same artist, as well as from the artist's contemporaries, and other various sources that may be able to provide the viewer with an understanding of the culture that surrounded the artist. By immersing oneself in material of the period, one is then able to recognize and trace connections, therefore revealing the intrinsic meaning of the painting.
Defending Erwin Panofsky's method to those who have doubts seems as though it should be nonsensical, because it is clearly the path that art historians must take. One simply cannot eliminate his method while simultaneously retaining the title of art historian. The omission of Panofsky's ideas transforms art history into art appreciation. By use of what other method should one endeavor to find the meaning of...