Is art all about context? Is it possible to have a viewpoint on a piece of art that does not involve the influences of culture, belief, upbringing and so on? Why is it that different genres of art require contextual referencing more than others - e.g. personally, I find that I either 'like' or 'dislike' novels without needing to think about why but when it comes to a contemporary art installation my opinion is based almost entirely based on what I know about the artist, their background, the precedents for the work, the political context in which it was made, etc.

As your examples suggest, different works of art and even different artistic media can require different kinds and amounts of knowledge about the world, and about the specific context in which the work of art was created. Some works are highly accessible -- a wide variety of audiences can engage with them without any specialized background knowledge; while others require pretty deep immersion in a specific artistic tradition and practice. This suggests that not all art is equally "all about context". (It also relates to, though it's distinct from, the distinction between "popular" and "high" art.)

The next important question is what sort of context is appropriate for properly appreciating and evaluating art. In the 20th century, this question was debated most vigorously in the context of literary interpretation. 'New Critics' argued that knowledge about an artist's specific intentions in creating the work, and the specific context in which he or she created it, are (or should be) irrelevant to appreciating and evaluating it; the classic argument for this view is Wimsatt and Beardsley's article "The Intentional Fallacy." "Reader-response" theorists argued that each reader or viewer creates or "performs" his or her own work of art, because each person inevitably brings a different background to their encounter with a work. Because each viewer can only evaluate the work of art they encounter, many different evaluations of what we might intuitively call "the same work of art" can be appropriate. (One classic statement of this view is in Stanley Fish's essay "Is There a Text in this Class?".)

My own view, which is fairly common, is that we shouldn't just rest with our own immediate response to a work; one reason we value art is that it can take us out of our own immediate context and acquaint us with other perspectives and experience. Instead, we should try to respond to the work in the way that the artist intended. In order to achieve this response, knowledge about the specific context in which the artist created the work, and his or her intentions for doing so, is often relevant. But the standard for evaluating a work's success isn't just whether an artist was successful in achieving his or her artistic intention; it also matters whether that was a good intention to have in the first place: whether the work is interesting, provocative, beautiful, rich, or otherwise aesthetically valuable. It's also possible for an artist to be self-deceived or otherwise wrong about what the best response to his or her work would be; in this case, we may care more about the response that an "ideal artist" would have intended us to have. (For more on the role of the artist's intentions in determining the appropriate response to a work of art, specifically literary art, see

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