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FNDS 1302: Art, Power, and Persuasion

Understanding Primary & Secondary Sources

"Understanding Primary & Secondary Sources" by Imagine Easy Solutions

Primary Sources

"Primary sources are materials produced by people or groups directly involved in the event or topic under consideration, either as participants or as witnesses." (A Pocket Guide to Writing History, 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2007)

These primary sources are what historians, art critics, researchers, etc. rely on to interpret the past, movements, and events. Primary sources differ based on subject. For history they are first hand accounts of an event, topic, or time period. These sources can be diary entries, laws, ephemeral such as fliers, newspaper articles, photographs, speeches, etc. For art, primary sources are any original artistic piece. Such as paintings, sculptures, music, plays, poetry, and any other original form of artistic creation. For FNDS 1302 you will need to draw on primary sources not only from art, but also history to get a contextual understanding for the time period in which the art was created.

undefined    Graffiti of a woman's face   Diaryundefined

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources are written about primary sources or past events. Secondary sources can be reviews of art, textbooks, encyclopedias, analysis or criticism of other works or events, and newspapers or news media.

Book with glasses on top   Newspapers

Doing Art Historical Research: Primary & Secondary Sources

Typically, art historical research can be separated into two categories: Primary and Secondary. It is important to understand the differences between the two types of resources.

A Primary Source is Defined As: Materials produced by people in the period and culture under consideration. These sources provide the evidence on which art historians rely in order to interpret the artwork and its significance in the time and place of its creation.  Some primary sources are sculptures (including reliefs), architecture, funerary monuments, religious objects, vase paintings, and murals. These artworks and monuments can be for both public and private use. Other primary sources art historians rely on are written documents, such as letters; speeches; biographies; official decrees, religious texts, legal records, economic and trade records. In addition, art historians often examine primary sources such as archaeological remains.

A Secondary Source is Defined As: A resource that discusses a previously created artwork or monument or prior period/event from an academic or research or layperson perspective. The key here is that the resource is from some time after the event.  An example of this would be a book about Augustus or an article in a journal publication discussing the significance of Akhenaten. A book will NOT typically be a primary source unless it is a compilation of letters or diary entries or documents.  

Primary vs. Secondary Source: Often times determining whether something is primary or secondary may depend on the question that is being asked. For instance, if a researcher is researching the issues around Augustan ideology and reads a book on that topic published in the 2nd century CE, that book may be determined to be secondary but if the question is then about later Roman understanding of the Augustan period, then that same book can then become primary. 

How to Read a Primary Source for Art History Classes

This was created by Prof. Georgina Hickey, with Prof. Pamela Pennock, and adapted for art history by Prof. Diana Y. Ng.

1. Visually analyze the artwork/monument carefully and read the document carefully. You may be examining an artwork or a textual document composed by an ancient author.

2. Think about the following questions. Some of these questions apply better to some artworks/monuments and documents than others. Some questions you may not be able to answer because of incomplete information (an obstacle ancient art historians regularly face), but you may be able to speculate based on your historical knowledge. Choose the questions (it could be several) that you think can best be used to analyze and reveal the meanings of your primary source. In your notes compose brief responses to these questions.

  • WHAT is this artwork/monument/document? (statue, funerary monument, wall painting, public or private, official decree, letter, historical account, official speech, etc)
    • What art historical and historical phenomena might it help me address?
  • WHO commissioned this artwork/monument/document?
    • From this artwork/monument/document, what can we tell about the perspective of the commissioner or the author(s)?
    • Does the artwork/monument/document suggest that the commissioner(s) and author(s)’ point of view was widely shared, or was it controversial and confined to a few people?
  • WHEN was this artwork/monument/document created?
    • How does the artwork/monument/document reflect the time when it was written or created?
    • What does it say about the events underway at the time?
    • What does it suggest about how that particular time was perceived by the commissioner(s) or author(s)?
  • WHY was this artwork/monument/document created? What was its purpose?
  • WHO was the intended AUDIENCE?
    • How did the audience shape what the commissioner (s) or author(s) aimed to convey?
    • How would the intended audience be likely to view or read the artwork/monument/document?
    • How would people who were not among the intended audience be likely to view or read it?
  • Think carefully about the choice of ICONOGRAPHY, STYLE, and WORDS in the artwork/monument/document.
    • How do the iconography, style, and/or words in the artwork/monument/document reflect the commissioner(s) or author(s), the time, and the intended audience?
    • Does the commissioner(s) or author(s) choice of iconography, style, or words reveal covert assumptions along with an overt message?
  • Comparison to other sources: How are the tone, perspective, and purpose of this artwork/monument/document similar or different than others I have looked at or read on this topic?
  • After reading it, what do I still wish I knew?

3. Now step back and make a more overall assessment that includes the basics of the artwork/monument/document (including its iconography/style/tone), its strengths and weaknesses, the historical questions it might speak to, and some conclusions about the significance of the artwork/monument/document?

Be a detective; consider this artwork/monument/document a “clue.” Read between the lines. This is not meant to be a summary or simple description of the artwork/monument/document. Try to say something meaningful about the artwork/monument/document’s significance – how it adds to our understanding of a particular episode of ancient history.

Avoid presentism. You should not focus on making comparisons/contrasts to the present day. Your job is not to decide whether an artwork/monument/document is good or bad, or whether the commissioner or author was right or wrong; rather, you should be seeking to understand the document’s form, function, and impact.

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