Looking at Art

Looking at Art, Step 3: Symbols

A crowd examining art at the David C. Driskell Center (2019)

Why did the artist include that?

Artists often use symbols in their work to get their meaning across, so recognizing and decoding symbols will greatly enhance your understanding of a work of art. 

Helpful term: a symbol is something that stands for something else. For example, a heart stands for love and a green light on a stoplight means go. 

Practice with Poetry

Symbols can be used in writing, too. Attached are some poems that use symbolism. Choose one from the three provided. Using the poem you choose and the worksheet to guide your thinking, identify the symbols the poet uses. What do the symbols mean, and how do they affect the meaning of the poem? 

It’s important to note that symbols do not mean the same thing to everyone. The shape ∞ represents a mathematical unit that doesn’t end, but it also is used in Buddhism and Hinduism to represent reincarnation. The shape of a star may represent the stars in the night sky for some, but someone may associate it with a family member who loves astronomy. The possibilities are endless! 

Test Yourself

Let’s practice with the following print.

Title: The Sunflower / Artist: David C. Driskell / Year: 2011

Remember that symbolism is one more step in understanding an artwork entirely, and that what you learn through analyzing the work’s symbolism should be added to what you’ve learned from the basic information and description of the composition

What do you think the sunflower is a symbol for? Are there other symbols in this print? How do they affect the meaning of this print?