Themes in Art

Use the 12 units in this section to access contemporary art through provocative themes that cross subject area boundaries, including fantasy, biography, scientific discovery, and abstraction. These units feature a wide array of art forms and emphasize the careful thinking behind meaningful works of art.

Use these units in any order and/or in combination with the Guide’s Art Media units to prepare for MOCA exhibitions or to make connections to other classroom learning goals.

Realism and abstraction can be seen as the two ends of a continuum. This unit explores how on one end, photographic realism mimics the appearance of a recognizable subject, and on the other, nonobjective abstraction resembles nothing but itself. The rest of art falls somewhere in between…

Whether by immersing ourselves in the virtual worlds of computer games or those of our daydreams and nightmares, we encounter realms of fantasy regularly in our daily lives. This unit explores artists who make ordinary objects extraordinary, invent their own games, defy logic and the rules of nature, and explore both utopian and dystopian worlds.

A common misconception about expressionism is that the emotional quality of an artwork is a mirror image of the artist’s emotional state at the time the work was created. But it’s not so. This unit  explores how artists draw upon their knowledge, experience, or memories of a feeling to create expressive art.

For nearly a century, artists have been experimenting with the idea of text as imagery. Many artists give greater emphasis to their thoughts and ideas than to actual images they produce, which has come to be known as conceptual art. This unit explores text as image and as expression of thought.

Throughout the ages, people have used art to record the details of their existence. Autobiography and biography usually refer to forms of writing, but in this unit we expand their meanings to include the work of artists trying to capture the complex, shifting essence of what it means to be human.

Every big city develops its own identity, almost like a personality. This unit explores how the seemingly endless geographic, ethnic, and linguistic diversity of Los Angeles has inspired artists to capture both its image and their unique experiences of living here.

Some contemporary artists use their work as a vehicle to communicate their concerns about our society. This unit explores what is known as political art and its goals to move, persuade, touch the conscience, and stir viewers to action through words, music, images, or drama.

Humankind has a long history of creating art that can’t be contained within the four walls of a museum. In a contemporary context, the term “public art” describes art meant to be seen in public, by the public, in order to communicate a message or stimulate dialogue and response. This unit examines the variety and purposes of public art.

Popular trends spread widely through media and mass distribution, becoming a kind of common language made of ideas, desires, images, melodies, and standards of entertainment and beauty. This unit explores ways that artists have employed popular elements in their artwork to celebrate or critique contemporary life and culture.

In the last two centuries, ties between people and nature have been weakened, yet artists continue to be fascinated with the landscape as a subject for their art. This unit explores art that documents changing landscapes and art that actually changes topography to draw our attention back to the planet on which we live.

Students might be inclined to think that art and science inhabit two mutually exclusive worlds—art in museums and galleries, science in laboratories. Using Leonardo da Vinci as a starting point, this unit explores the work of artists who make art about science or make art using the materials and methods common to scientists.

Objects on exhibition in museums have something in common. They were collected around a central theme, characteristic, or subject, whether they are antique bicycles or 21st-century sculpture. This unit explores collecting, how museum exhibitions come to be, and the jobs involved in creating them.