Historical and Cultural Context

  • Every Humanities class expects students to be able to analyze works of visual art, music, literature, philosophy, religion, or performing arts and develop the ability to understand how it fits into its historical period.
  • This is a college wide standard
  • We refer to this standard as Historical and Cultural Context.

What is the Definition of Historical and Cultural Context?

What is historical and cultural context?
Context, in analysis of the humanities, refers to factors that surround a work of art or literature but may not be stated explicitly. This background information informs our deeper understanding of the work in question and allows us to analyze, rather than summarize, what we are studying. It is important to be aware of what the artist was experiencing in their time and reacting to or reacting against.
Possible context questions to ask...

What key historical events occurred at the time the work was created?
Example: How did the French Revolution influence the paintings of Jacques Louis David?
Example: How was Dadaism a reaction to World War I?
Example: How did the discovery of AIDS influence theatre and film in the 20th century?

What scientific discoveries or technological innovations may have influenced the artist?
Example: How did the invention of the printing press in Europe influence the spread of religion, ideas, and art?
Example: How did Freud’s theories on the unconscious and dreams influence the paintings of Salvador Dali?

What are the other artistic influences on the work?
Example: How is Picasso influenced by the paintings of Cezanne?
Example: What are the relationships between Ragtime, Jazz, Blues, Gospel, Country, and Rock and Roll music?

What are the philosophical ideas of the time?
Example: How is Baroque music a product of the Age of Reason?
Example: How does The Matrix reflect Post Modern Theory?

What are the cultural influences?
Example: Does the artist live in a society that is individualistic or collectivistic?
Example: How are women regarded in the culture that produced the work?
Who is the intended audience?
Example: Is this work personal, for the masses, or for other artists?
Example: Is the work a tool of propaganda?

Is the artist identified with a particular movement, school, or “-ism”?
Examples: Transcendentalism, Romanticism, Existentialism, Neo-Classicism, Surrealism, Anti-art, Rococo, High Renaissance, etc.?

What is the original purpose of the work?
Example: Was the piece designed to inform, to educate, to entertain, to shock, or to be functional?

What context is NOT:
Lengthy summary of plot details

While a SMALL amount of plot summary may be useful to the purposes of writing a paper it does not allow you to demonstrate critical thinking or analysis, and should not comprise the bulk of your writing. If you think of context as what is UNSAID, think of summary as what has OBVIOUSLY been said already, and does not need to be repeated.

Irrelevant biographical or background information
Example: When discussing the influence of Freud’s ideas on Dali’s art, it is not necessary to include information about Freud’s family, Dali’s childhood, the geography of Europe, etc.

Your personal “context”
Sometimes your professor may ask you to write a personal reflection that takes your own context into account. However, unless you are specifically asked to do otherwise, an academic paper is usually not the place to discuss your personal experiences, whether or not you “liked” the work, or difficulty you may have had writing the paper.