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What Does Subject Matter Mean in Art?

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Understanding subject matter in the context of a piece of art can seem daunting and confusing. We may be more familiar with the subjects of movies, shows, or even classes. But, art? 

Subject matter in art refers to the topic or focal point that an art piece is built around. This may be a person, still life, landscape, building, or other foundational element. It’s important to understand the subject matter of a piece of art to understand the meaning of the piece of art overall.

No matter what media is used to create a piece of art, it should have an identifiable subject matter.

Let’s look at some examples of subject matter to get a grasp of it.

Examples of Subject Matter

The subject matter of a piece of art can be anything and everything a piece of art is about. This may be a person, animal, object, building, landscape, or more. Identifying the main subject of a piece of art is helpful for finding meaning in the art piece.

Sometimes, the subject of an art piece is clear because there’s only one thing on the canvas. For example, the subject of this piece of art is a dog. My adorable, diva dog, to be exact.

procreate drawing of dog

Other times, the subject of an art piece may be harder to discern because there are many things going on in the piece, or it’s abstract.

With abstract art, your subject matter is what you see. This includes the shapes, colors, lines, and other elements. 

abstract art

This probably sounds obvious, but abstract art can be tricky. It’s not as simple as looking at the drawing of the dog above and saying that the subject is a dog.

Abstract art is meant to be subjective, which leaves the subject matter up for interpretation (source). You may believe that all art is subjective, which is a debate for another time, but the moral of the story is that you have to do more of your own soul searching to determine the subject matter of abstract art than you might with something more clear cut, like a portrait.

Other examples of subject matter can include portraits

Nature

camping watercolor painting

Landscapes

nature art

Still lifes

still life art

And so many more! Again, the subject matter of a piece of art may be crystal clear, or it may be more mysterious. At the end of the day, it’s up to your own interpretation. 

Does the Artist or the Viewer Determine the Subject Matter of a Work of Art?

An artist may have a certain vision or purpose for their artwork. That said, the artist can’t control your interpretation of their art. The way that you, the viewer, perceive a piece of art is ultimately the deciding factor when determining the subject matter of a piece of art.

All artists have dreams of how their art will be viewed. Maybe they even have a specific message they’re hoping to communicate through their subject matter.

Depending on the piece of art, the artist’s purpose may be extremely clear and obvious, or it may be harder to discern. This may be particularly true for abstract art that depicts a theoretical theme or issue.

As the viewer of a piece of art, it’s your job to analyze and consider it carefully to make your own case for what the subject matter is. 

Determining the subject of an art piece isn’t like solving a math equation. There isn’t one solid answer that everyone should arrive at.

For every piece of art you encounter, ask yourself what you believe the artist was trying to convey through their work. Can you make a case to justify your reasoning? 

With abstract art, or art that doesn’t have a clear subject matter, you may find that different people pose different cases for what the subject matter of the art actually is. Despite these different cases, all of their justifications are sound. 

Cool deal! That makes for an interesting discussion.

That said, the case and justification you make in regards to an artwork’s subject matter needs to be thoughtful, reasonable, and make sense within the context of the art.

For example, I can’t make a logical case saying that the subject matter of the drawing below is a flamingo. Short of claiming that the artist is depicting some magical world where flamingos camouflage themselves as lions, I don’t have a great case here to say anything but that the subject matter of the drawing below is a lion. 

Lion drawing with procreate

A lion is a lion. I’d get weird looks if I said otherwise.

It’s important to understand that the viewer is responsible for analyzing a piece of art and justifying their reasoning for determining the artwork’s subject matter. This is one of the beautiful, meaningful, and interesting aspects of art.

The way that we can all look at the same piece of art and come away with different interpretations of it is amazing. Imagine how boring life would be if we all had the same exact opinions of art?

That said, there are times when the subject matter is clear. Sure, you could make an argument that the subject matter of the lion drawing is not a lion, but it’s unlikely that you’d get many people jumping on board with you with that argument.

is all art subjective? why it should be
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Whenever you’re deciding upon the subject matter of a piece of art, make sure to analyze it carefully and deeply. You want to have solid justification for any decisions you make regarding an artwork’s subject matter and overall meaning.

What’s your evidence for your decision? What aspects of the artwork lead you to your conclusions about the subject matter? 

Determining the subject matter of a piece of art isn’t always clear cut and easy. That’s ok! That’s what makes art interesting, dynamic, and fun to talk about. 

Practice analyzing art to determine its subject matter, and have a strong justification for it. Not only will this help you enjoy the art more, it will also give you a leg up the next time you visit the art museum. 

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