Artists and designers continually draw ideas from their surrounding environments. To glean inspiration from the things they observe, they must look closely and think critically about what it is they see. Once an artist gains an in-depth understanding of a work through analysation, they may use this understanding to influence their own practises. In order to properly comprehend a visual text beyond mere surface appearance, one must consider the technique of contextualising and the matter of constant worldly change.
The context of a visual text is perhaps the most crucial factor in determining the purpose of said text. Context forms the background of every existing artefact. It is the context – why an artefact was created, and the state of the world when it was created – which allows us to connect with a subject on more than a visual level (Clarke, 25). Therefore, it is context which imbues all meaning into any and every visual text, and makes it worth viewing and emulating . However, context is not always readily presented to the audience of a text; it may take some digging to unearth the creator’s intent or the conditions surrounding the creation of an artefact. This is where close examination and critical thinking are advantageous. These allow us to contextualise; to place the subject in the environment it belongs to (Clarke, 25). Looking closely at a visual text and pinpointing its most significant aspects allows us to critically consider links to other events or artefacts with similar features. Once we have identified these common features, we can establish that the various texts were probably created at approximately the same time and in the same place, or were similarly influenced by the global issues of the time/place (Clarke, 25. Ruszkiewicz et al., 34).
Identifying the context of an artefact is an efficient answer to the issue of constant change. Nicholas Mirzoeff addresses this in his book How to See the World. He states that “photographs and videos [or indeed, any visual texts] are our way of trying to see the world… we feel compelled to make images… and share them with others as a key part of our effort to understand the changing world around us” (Mirzoeff 6) and that “there is a new world-view being produced” (Mirzoeff 12) due to “vastly expanded quantities of imagery, implying many different points of view” (Mirzoeff 13). This means that although there is a continually increasing number of visual texts being made available for us to view and be inspired by, the contexts in which these are created and circulated change steadily. As more and more artefacts are released or created, the contexts of older visual texts are replaced with newer, more relevant contexts that relate to the more recent artefacts.
One such example is Blue Marble (below). Once a life-changing image that revolutionised the way we saw ourselves on the spectrum of universal significance (Mirzoeff 4), Blue Marble has now been replaced with more complex and neoteric images of the earth, and so its context has changed. It has transitioned from the one and only view we had of our home planet, into ‘just another satellite image’ (Mirzoeff 8,9).
Context is always changing, becoming either updated or outdated (Ruszkiewicz et al. 34). This makes visual analysation and critical thinking all the more important, as we need it now more than ever to determine the most relevant context belonging to an artefact, so that we may allow this context to influence our own art and design practises.
Should an artist fail to understand the world around them, and the work of other artists in context, they would no longer have any constant and reliable source of inspiration and would cease to create art embedded with meaning drawn from these inspirations. Therefore, the use of close examination and critical thinking to determine the meaning of or behind a text remains a relevant skill that every artist and designer should familiarise themselves with. After all, one’s own art and design practise is determined by how well one understands the art and design practises of others, and these practises cannot be understood without context that has been identified using a process of looking closely and thinking critically.