John Jay O.U.R. Contest

O.U.R. Student Panel Writing Competition

John Jay College of Criminal Justice

Rubin Museum of Art

150 West 17th Street, New York, NY 10011

In thinking about your essay on a piece or pieces of art in the Rubin Museum of Art, there are a number of approaches you may want to consider. One approach is that of art history, the academic study of the history and development of the visual arts.  Another approach is that of material culture/object analysis, the study of objects that were made to be used (rather than made to be enjoyed as works of art).

Art History Basics

Here are some of elements of an art historical analysis; some or all of them may be useful to you in writing your essay.

Basic Facts

These are the things that may appear on the description of each artwork at the Rubin Museum of Art. Many pieces will also have additional information, which may include overviews, or information about style and/or content.  Also look for category descriptions, which will tell you more about a specific section of the exhibit.

Artist: Where the artist is known, his or her name is usually listed first; however, many of the works in the Rubin Museum collection or temporary exhibitions are not attributed to a particular artist.  You may want to consider why this might be; the Museum Guides at the Rubin Museum can tell you more.

Title:  The title may be descriptive, informing you of who or what is being depicted in the work and how is it might have been used in a ritual context; the titles of the works at the Rubin Museum almost always fit into this category. The title may have been given by the artist, or it may be a title that has come into common use by observers and art historians over time.

Date: Sometimes the date will be specific and in other cases, it will be approximate.  It can help us understand the work in its historical context.

Medium: What type of artwork is this (painting, drawing, sculpture, applique, etc.?), and what materials were used to create it?

Size: The size of the work can have a significant impact on the perception of the viewer.

Location: Where is a piece of art located?  In looking at an artwork from the Rubin Museum, think about the purpose of the museum’s collection. What does its presence here signify?  Both ongoing and temporary exhibitions are organized according to theme; wall texts throughout each exhibit will give you more information about context, history, and cultural background.

PLEASE ALSO NOTICE THE HAR number.  Every work in the Rubin Museum of Art’s permanent collection is on the Himalayan Art Resources (HAR) website.  When you’re visiting the Rubin, and find a piece or pieces of art you would like to write about, make sure to note both its title and the number beginning with HAR.   After your visit, you can go to and type the HAR number into the “Search by Number” box.  This will give you a high-resolution image of the work of art, as well as further information. Remember: reproductions are not a substitute for visiting the museum and seeing the real thing!

Approaches to Writing About Art:

There are two types of primary analysis in art history:  formal analysis and contextual analysis.

Formal elements:

  • Color: what colors appear in this work? Are they primary or secondary, light or dark, bright or pale?  Is there a varied or a limited palette?
  • Line: Is there an emphasis on outlines, details, shadow? Is the line strong and continuous, or broken and cross-hatched? Is there a significant play of light and dark? Line can be traced in 2-dimensional works, like drawing and painting, but may also be observed in 3-dimensional works, such as sculpture and architecture.
  • Space and Mass: Does a work, whether 2-D or 3-D, convey a sense of three-dimensional space?  Does it convey a sense of substantial form?
  • Scale: Look at relative size within the work. Elements which are important thematically in an artwork may be emphasized by making them larger in comparison to surrounding objects.
  • Composition: How does an artist put together the elements of a work of art? Some of the questions you might ask:
  • What is emphasized visually? What first attracts your attention?  Can you see what techniques are used to emphasize this feature or these features?
  • Does the composition seem unified? Do the elements appear to be part of a whole, or are they separate and distinct from one another?
  • Does the artwork provoke emotion in the viewer? Does it generate an idea in you as you look at it?
  • Is there a pattern or geometric structure underlying the work?
  • Is the work figurative (does it show recognizable objects) or abstract?

Some of the types of artwork you may view at the Rubin Museum include paintings, drawings, photographs, sculpture, textiles, decorative arts, and elements of architecture. Each may suggest different questions to you: for example, with a textile, you may think about texture, technique, and purpose. When considering a piece of decorative art, you may wonder whether it is purely decorative, or whether it is functional (Note: very few pieces of artwork in the museum would qualify as “decorative” with the exception of some pieces of furniture in the Shrine Room.). For sculpture, if the display makes it possible, you will want to look at it from as many angles as possible, and see how your perceptions may vary from different viewpoints. With paintings, you may want to look closely at technique by observing how the artist or artists applied pigment, or composition with how the artist organized the figures in space.

Contextual analysis:

  • What is the subject of the artwork?  
  • Who might have created it?
  • Who was able to see this work and under what circumstances? For example, were they monastics or laypeople or both? 
  • When was this work made?
  • Where was the work originally located?
  • How might the work have been used?  
  • Do any of the materials used in the work have a ritual or symbolic value?
  • Why would someone have commissioned this artwork? 
  • What was the religious, political, or social context in which this work was created? What messages are being conveyed through the subject matter or artistic style of this work? 
  • Was this a new subject, or a traditional one?  What was the motivation for either the change or the continuity? [Change, as interpreted within the context of traditional Himalayan art, is a very complex and vexed issue. This question applies best to contemporary art in the museum.]

You won’t have the information to answer all of these questions, but some of the material will be available through wall labels or other educational materials at the museum.

These questions are also useful when you use the material culture/object analysis approach.

Material Culture Basics:

This approach involves a multi-step process:

  • First describe the object in detail – carefully record the visual evidence.
  • Then think about how the object makes you feel: How/ does the object appeal to your senses? What would it be like to use the object? What would it be like to live in the time and place when / where the object was made and used?
  • Finally, based on what you can see and sense about the object, formulate a hypotheses about the intentions of the maker or the person or group that commissioned it, the values of the culture in which it was used, and the purpose for which the object was made. This is a form of speculation and hypothesis that requires creativity and imagination as well as judgment.

Again, you need not answer, or even consider, all of these concepts and questions, but you may find them useful in thinking about the materials, or in writing your response.  If you want to read more about writing from an art history perspective, the following books will be helpful:

D’Alleva, Anne. Look! The Fundamentals of Art History, 3rd edition.  Boston: Prentice Hall, 2010.

Barnet, Sylvan. A Short Guide to Writing About Art, 2nd edition.  Boston: Little Brown, 1985.

A good place to learn more about the material culture approach is:

Prown, Jules. “Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method.” In Interpreting Objects and Collections. Ed. Susan M. Pearce. London: Routledge, 1994. 133-138.

Compiled by Professors Catherine Siemann and Bettina Carbonell

For more information about Himalayan Art: 

Beer, R. The Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols. Boston: Shambhala, 2003.

Eck, D. Darśan: Seeing the Divine Image in India. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

Eliade, M. Yoga: Immortality and Freedom. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Huyler, Stephen P. Meeting God: Elements of Hindu Devotion. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.

Jackson, D. & J. Jackson. Tibetan Thangka Painting: Methods and Materials. Ithaca, N.Y.: Snow Lion Publications, 2006.

Laird, T. The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama. New York: Gove Press, 2006.

Leidy, D. P. “The Buddha Image: 2nd to 7th Century,” The Art of Buddhism: An Introduction to its Meaning and History. Boston: Shambhala, 2008: 31-55.

Lopez, D.S. Editor. Buddhism in Practice. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Powers, J. Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. New York: Snow Lion Publications, 2007.

Reynolds, V. Editor. From the Sacred Realm: Treasures of Tibetan Art from The Newark Museum, New York: Prestel, 1999.

Rhie, M. and R.Thurman. A Shrine for Tibet: The Alice S. Kandell Collection of Tibetan Sacred Art. New York: Tibet House US, 2009.

Strong, J.S. The Experience of Buddhism. Belmont, C.A.: Wadsworth, 1995.

Trungpa, C. Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. Boston: Shambhala, 2002.

Worlds of Transformation: Tibetan Art of Wisdom and Compassion. New York: Tibet House,  1999.

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