Nasher Museum of Art

  • Methodologies

    Glenn Ligon, Study for Negro Sunshine II #11, 2011. Oil stick and gesso on paper, 10 x 8 inches (25.4 x 20.3 cm). Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, NC, USA. Gift of Blake Byrne, T’57; 2012.3.1. Image courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles © Glenn Ligon. Photo by Brian Forrest.


Scholars use a variety of methodologies, or theoretical approaches, to frame their analyses of artworks, images, and objects. Each perspective asks different questions. Collectively, they enrich our understanding of art and visual culture, and how images and objects help to shape our knowledge of ourselves, our society, and the world around us. Below are some common methodologies and a bibliography if you would like to learn more.


A biographical approach takes the artist’s biography into account when interpreting works of art.


A formalist approach stresses the significance of form over content.


An iconographic approach focuses on content, or the meaning of the subject matter, more than on form.


A Marxist approach analyzes works of art in relation to their political, economic, and social role in society.


A feminist approach considers gender as central to understanding art. In particular, feminism challenges the norms and myths of patriarchal society, and empowers women and women’s issues.

Psychoanalytic Theory

A psychoanalytic approach focuses on the unconscious significance of artworks. Scholars may ask questions about the work of art itself as well as the artist, the viewer’s response, and the cultural context. This method draws on iconography and the approaches of feminism, Marxism, and semiotics.


Structuralism emerged in France in the 1950s and 1960s. Grounded in semiotics (the study of signs and their meanings), structuralism holds that cultural phenomena can be analyzed objectively through the “laws, codes, rules, formulas, and conventions that structure human behavior and systems of meaning.” The meanings of images and objects can therefore be decoded by identifying and interpreting such formal elements as color, perspective, and composition, as well as the social, historical, or political contexts in which the work was created, displayed, or presented. According to structuralist theory, the role of the author/artist is rather unimportant in interpreting meaning in a text/image.


Poststructuralism arose in response to structuralism and became especially popular in the wake of the revolutionary period of 1968. Poststructuralist theorists took into account elements that do not fit into structuralist formulas or conventions, such as desire, playfulness, and ambiguities of meaning. They also believe that the meaning of a text/work of art depends on the impressions and interpretations of the reader/viewer, not on the author’s/artist’s intentions because these can never really be known.


Deconstruction challenges binary oppositions, such as nature/culture or man/woman, that are accepted as normal. Practitioners of this approach contend that there is no absolute or singular truth. Any truth is “relational, contingent, and partial.” The framework of deconstruction, therefore, asks questions about truth claims, politics, and justice.

Post-Colonial Theory

A post-colonial approach contemplates issues of subjectivity, identity, power, and knowledge. This theory emerged as peoples of formerly colonized cultures worked to define and understand themselves outside of the bounds of colonialism. Post-colonial theory asks questions about who speaks, for whom, under what conditions, and to what ends.

Queer Theory

Queer theory focuses on all forms of gender oppression. It developed out of and in response to gay and lesbian studies of the 1970s (which emerged in response to feminism and to the gay and lesbian liberation movement), as well as to the AIDS epidemic. The issue of gender performativity is central to queer theory. There is “no natural, true, or innate essence to gender—or any other identity.” This approach works to “destabilize our confidence in the relationship of representation to identity, authorship, and behavior” and to “recover LGBTI [lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/intersex] iconographies and historical moments.”

Museum Studies and Collecting

This methodology involves examining issues of the patronage, consumption, collection, and display of art. Scholars interested in museum studies and collecting might focus on the economics of the art market, the roles of dealers and collectors, the history of museum collections, or the ways in which artworks and objects are exhibited and how various modes of display affect their interpretation.

New Materialism

New Materialism has emerged in the 21st century in such fields as philosophy, cultural theory, feminism, science studies, and the visual arts. This approach emphasizes materiality, the physical body, and “the thing.” As questions have arisen about our place as embodied humans in the world and about the ways we produce, reproduce, and consume our material culture, New Materialism addresses issues of agency, nature, and social relationships.


Adams, Laurie. Schneider. The Methodologies of Art: An Introduction. Boulder: Westview Press, 1996.

Barrett, Estelle, and Barbara Bolt, eds. Carnal Knowledge: Towards a “New Materialism” through the Arts. London: I.B. Tauris, 2013.

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

Carbonell, Bettina Messias, ed. Museum Studies: An Anthology of Contexts. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

Chipp, Herschel. Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.

D’Alleva, Anne. Look! The Fundamentals of Art History. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2010.

D’Alleva, Anne. Methods & Theories of Art History. London: Laurence King, 2005.

Dewdney, Andrew, David Dibosa, and Victoria Walsh. Post-critical Museology: Theory and Practice in the Art Museum. London: Routledge, 2013.

Dolphijn, Rick, and Iris van der Tuin. New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies. Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press, 2012. See the bibliography for sources on New Materialism.)

Dudley, Sandra, ed. Museum Objects: Experiencing the Properties of Things. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Duncan, Carol. Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Edwards, Steve, ed. Art and its Histories: A Reader. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.

Fernie, Eric, ed. Art History and its Methods: A Critical Anthology. London: Phaidon, 1995.

Gerritsen, Anne, and Giorgio Riello, eds. Writing Material Culture History. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.

Gillan, Rose. Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to Researching with Visual Materials. Thousand Oaks: SAGE, 2012.

Harris, Jonathan P. Art History: The Key Concepts. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Harrison, Charles, Paul Wood, and Jason Gaiger, eds. Art in Theory, 1648-1815: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 2000.

Harrison, Charles, and Paul Wood, eds. Art in Theory, 1815-1900: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 1998.

Harrison, Charles, and Paul Wood, eds. Art in Theory, 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. 2nd ed. Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 2003.

Howells, Richard, and Joaquim Negreiros, eds. Visual Culture. Cambridge: Polity, 2012.

Jay, Martin, and Sumathi Ramaswamy, eds. Empires of Vision: A Reader. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.

Mansfield, Elizabeth, ed. Making Art History: A Changing Discipline and its Institutions. New York: Routledge, 2007.

Nelson, Robert S., and Richard Shiff, eds. Critical Terms for Art History. Second ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Onciul, Bryony. Museums, Heritage and Indigenous Voice: Decolonizing Engagement. New York: Routledge, 2015.

Panofsky, Irwin. Perspective as Symbolic Form. (1927 reissue). Cambridge: MIT Press, Zone Books, 1993.

Pfeifer, Geoff. The New Materialism: Althusser, Badiou, and Žižek. New York: Routledge, 2015.

Pooke, Grant, and Diana Newall. Art History: The Basics. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Robinson, Hilary. Feminism Art Theory: An Anthology, 1968-2000. Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 2001.

Siapkas, Johannes, and Lena Sjögren. Displaying the Ideals of Antiquity: The Perified Gaze. New York: Routledge, 2014.

Smith, Paul, and Carolyn Wilde, eds. A Companion to Art Theory. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2002.

Stiles, Kristine, and Peter Selz, eds. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.

Sturken, Marita, and Lisa Cartwright. Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Wölfflin, Heinrich. Principles of Art History: The Problem of the Development of Style in Later Art. (1915). Translated by M.D. Hottinger. New York: Dover Publications, 1950.