What Is Subject Matter In Art?

What Is Subject Matter in Art?

Humans have used art as a form of expression for countless generations. While there are countless ways to create art, a common thread that runs through all of it is the subject matter.

The term "subject matter" is used to describe the central idea or topic of a piece of creative work. The subject matter is what gives any piece of art its meaning and what allows viewers to engage with it on a deeper level, whether it be a painting, sculpture, or photograph.

In this article, we'll discuss the nature of artistic subject matter, its contemporary relevance, and the diverse ways it can be explored and expressed.

What is Subject Matter in Art?

The artwork's subject matter is its main idea or theme. It includes all that the artist hopes to say with their work. Anything from commonplace items and scenes to abstract ideas and feelings can serve as inspiration for an artist.

The inspiration for an artistic creation can come from anywhere: the artist's own life, mythology, history, current events, social or political issues, feelings, or beliefs.

When creating art, the artist uses the subject matter as a springboard for expressing themselves.

Exploring Different Cultures Through Subject Matter in Art

Art is a universal language that transcends borders, and the subject matter is a key element that artists use to convey cultural narratives. From the intricate calligraphy of Islamic art to the bold patterns of African textiles, and the serene landscapes of East Asian paintings, the subject matter can provide a rich insight into the world's diverse cultures.

Artists often use subject matter to share stories, traditions, and beliefs specific to their cultures. For instance, the Renaissance period in Europe is renowned for its advancements in depicting human anatomy and perspective, often centered around religious and mythological themes. Meanwhile, Indigenous artists may use traditional symbols and patterns to express their connection to land, ancestors, and spirituality.

The Different Types of Subject Matters in Art

In art, there is a wide variety of subject matters, each having its own distinct qualities. A few examples of the most frequently encountered subjects are as follows:


A portrait is a piece of art or writing that depicts a specific individual, usually in whole or partial form.


Nature, such as mountains, woods, or bodies of water, is the focus of landscape art.

Still Life

Subject matter in still life depicts inanimate objects like flowers, fruit, or other commonplace goods.

Historical or Mythological

The term "historical" or "mythological" refers to stories or characters with prominent roles in history, mythology, or religion.


Everyday life is the primary emphasis of this genre, which often features scenes of individuals doing mundane tasks like eating, drinking, or working.


The term "abstract" is used to describe works of art that don't try to depict real-world objects or scenes.


Relying on visual elements to convey abstract ideals like love, death, and freedom.

Political or Social

The subject matter of this genre typically addresses pressing political and social concerns in an effort to spark debate and question accepted norms.

These are only a few of the many different categories of artistic subject matters. Artists can express their message or feeling through multifaceted works of art by combining and manipulating these subjects in a variety of ways.

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Why is Subject Matter Important in Art?

Subject matter is essential to art because it serves as a vehicle for the artist's self-expression and gives the work its ultimate value. These are a few examples of why artists should pay close attention to their chosen themes:

  • Subject matter establishes a rapport between the creator and the audience by allowing the artist to provide insights into their own lives, feelings, and thoughts. As a result, they are able to empathize with or understand the work on a more fundamental level.
  • Subject matter aids in putting the work in its proper historical, geographical, and cultural setting, which is essential for appreciating the full scope of the artist's intentions in creating the piece.
  • An artist's choice of subject matter can serve as a vehicle for highlighting social injustices, questioning accepted practices, or communicating an important message to the general public.

In general, a work of art's subject matter affects how it is received by the audience, both emotionally and intellectually.

The Role of Technology in Shaping Subject Matter

In the digital age, the subject matter in art is evolving rapidly due to technological advancements. Digital artists are exploring virtual reality, augmented reality, and artificial intelligence as new mediums. This shift has introduced subjects like cybernetic environments, digital consciousness, and interactive installations that respond to the viewer's movements.

Artists are using technology not just as a tool but as a subject matter itself, to comment on the influence of digital culture on our daily lives. For example, the use of pixelated images or glitch art can highlight the impact of digital media on our perception of reality.

Environmental and Ecological Concerns in Art

Increasingly, artists are using their platforms to address environmental and ecological issues. Through their choice of subject matter, artists can raise awareness about climate change, deforestation, ocean pollution, and biodiversity loss. Works featuring melting ice caps, oil-spill affected marine life, or smog-covered cities prompt viewers to reflect on their environmental footprints and the global impacts of human activities.

By integrating natural materials or demonstrating the effects of human interaction with nature, artists can create powerful narratives that encourage conservation and sustainability.

Psychological and Emotional Depths in Subject Matter

The subject matter is not just a tool for external expression but also for exploring internal landscapes. Art has long been a medium for exploring psychological states and emotional experiences. From Edvard Munch's "The Scream," which encapsulates existential angst, to Frida Kahlo's self-portraits reflecting her personal sufferings and resilience, subject matter can delve deeply into the human psyche.

Contemporary artists often use abstract and symbolic subject matters to express complex emotions like depression, anxiety, and euphoria, offering viewers a mirror to their own inner experiences.

The Influence of Globalization on Artistic Subject Matter

Globalization has expanded artists' horizons, allowing them to draw on a wide array of subject matters from around the world. This cross-cultural exchange enriches art, providing a broader spectrum of themes and inspirations. Artists might combine elements from multiple cultures in a single piece, or explore how global issues affect different communities in varied ways.

This interconnectedness encourages a dialogue between different artistic traditions and practices, fostering a more inclusive and diverse art world.

Subject Matter vs Content

The terms subject matter and content are sometimes used interchangeably in the art world, although there is a nuanced difference between the two.

The term "subject matter" refers to the visible elements in a piece of art, such as people, landscapes, or still lifes. It's what the artist wants to portray at the surface level.

The content of a work of art, on the other hand, is its deeper meaning or message. This could be an emotional expression, a political statement, or a social commentary.

For instance, a painting of a bowl of fruit might at first glance appear to be a simple still life. However, its subject matter could be interpreted to symbolize prosperity, the ephemeral nature of life, or the beauty of ordinary objects.

In a nutshell, the subject matter of an artwork is what can be seen by the naked eye, while the content is what lies beneath the surface.

Subject Matter for Contemporary Artists

The subjects that contemporary artists choose to depict are usually reflective of shifting social mores and political climates. Portraits, landscapes, and still lifes are still important in the art world, but many modern artists are exploring more experimental forms of expression.

Art in the modern era frequently makes use of topical themes to comment on pressing societal, political, and ecological concerns. Climate change, social inequality, and mental health are just a few of the issues that they might choose to highlight through their art.

They often represent the digital age we live in by including technological elements and multimedia in their works. As our societies become more varied and multicultural, new sorts of subject matter, such as identity and representation, are being explored by contemporary artists.

With their work, they critique rigid ideas about gender, ethnicity, and sexuality while also praising the infinite variety of the human experience.

The ability to push the boundaries of art and create works that engage, challenge, and inspire audiences is a direct result of contemporary artists' willingness to explore new and novel subject matters.

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Practical Tips for Artists in Selecting Subject Matter

For artists wondering how to choose their subject matter, here are some practical tips:

  • Reflect Personal Experience: Draw from your own life, emotions, and experiences. Personal narratives are powerful and resonate well with audiences.
  • Stay Informed: Keep up with current events and social issues. Art that comments on contemporary matters often sparks important conversations.
  • Experiment: Don't be afraid to try new themes or mix different subjects. Artistic innovation often comes from unexpected combinations.
  • Research: Look into different cultures, historical periods, and artistic movements for inspiration.
  • Listen to Feedback: Pay attention to how viewers respond to different subjects. Audience engagement can provide valuable insights into what resonates.


One of the most important aspects of any creative work is the subject matter, which gives the creator a platform upon which to vent their innermost thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

Its forms range from realistic to abstract and symbolic. Although the artwork's subject matter can serve as a starting point for the viewer, it is the work's actual content that provides the final meaning and value.

Artists can create works of art that move people on an emotional and intellectual level by choosing subject matter carefully. The ability to manipulate and combine different elements is what allows artists to produce significant and profound works of art, regardless of whether the subject matter is representational or abstract.

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