Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Compose: Subject vs. Content

Often in ones attempt to clarify, more confusion is created. I hope that will not be the way this post goes. Read on.

Definitions in the visual arts field are not always consistent and various artists choose to personalize terms based on their understanding of a word. I'm no exception. I was once sternly corrected for using subject and content interchangeably when these two words have discrete meanings according to my knowledgeable friend who went to art school (I didn't, but I can research!).

Subject matter is the literal, visible image in a work while content includes the connotative, symbolic, and suggestive aspects of the image. The subject matter is the subject of the artwork, e.g., still life, portrait, landscape etc. Gerald Brommer in Emotional content: How to create paintings that communicate notes that "Content is the reason for making a painting." He further elaborates:

"Content is not subject or things in the painting. Content is the communication of ideas, feelings and reactions connected with the subject...... When we look at a painting its content is what is sensed rather than what can be analyzed. It is the ultimate reason for creating art." Something in the painting must appeal or speak to the heart, spirit and soul of the viewer. He specifically calls this "emotional content".

If you refer back to my first and second post of the Compose series, you will see that my use of the word subject also inlcludes the characteristics of content noted above. I guess that is why I am comfortable using subject to cover everything.

Here's an image I posted before from my "Reading a Garden" series. The subject matter is a still life consisting of a gate with leaves behind it. What is the content?


hwfarber said...

Is this the gate of the gilded cage? Probably not. Plants, to survive, would find an escape route--over, under or through.

I'll check back; I know there will be interesting answers and comments.

-Don said...

Nature is out there ready to enjoy and I'm stuck here behind this lovely gate waiting for the holder of the key to let me out.

layers said...

yes, terms and words can be a bit confusing-- I may be guilty of using subject and content mixed up myself-- it is like I see the difference between abstract works and non-objective works and yet I hear artists use the word abstract for everything.

Kathy said...

Hi Margaret,
Good blog! Your discussion resonates with me because I teach workshops all over the country based on "concept development." It's the essential ingredient to all great art.
What's the content of this painting, you ask? I don't know what you would specifically assign, but I see the containment of nature. I see the Germanic notion of mankind controlling and dominating nature. This leads to the obvious question: can nature really be contained?

Kelly Marszycki said...

Margaret -- Intriguing question: reading a painting is often so iconographic, each interpretation depending upon who is the viewer and their background, life experiences, etc. I see another version of the garden of eden? who or what is locked behind those gates? the viewer or the natural world? and why? Because of it's dark background, it appear a bit threatening. Eager to see what you write in your next entry!

beauty comma said...

i guess content is more difficult to reveal because we all interpret what we see differently, based on experiences in our lives?

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