Challenging Content

Portions of the following text are taken from, which is available for use under CC BY-NC-SA. Please see the citations at the bottom of the page for more information. The text has been adapted to more closely adhere to Chicago Manual of Style and Ensign College Style Guide. 

Throughout this course (and your life), you will come in contact with works of art with challenging content. Artists from various periods and stylistic groups have explored various aspects of our human condition through a cathartic artistic exercise. This means that they have attempted to make sense of the complexity of our human nature by working through some of its difficulties in their work. This may be in the form of violent images, nudity, or any other type of content that renders us vulnerable emotionally, mentally, or socially. While this can be a difficult experience, it can also be a moment in which you have the opportunity to clarify your identity and deepen your compassion for humankind.

Careful attention has been given to these themes in this book and throughout the course it accompanies, and much of this type of content has been removed. Although it creates a somewhat incomplete survey of the development of the history of the visual arts, this decision attempts to respect the various circumstances of the readers. Nevertheless, all of us at some point will come across this content, whether through searching on the web or through a visit to a local museum. With that in mind, we offer a few insights into how to engage with this content. 

Understand The Purpose

First, much of the content of art is, at some level, symbolic or metaphoric. Nudity, for example, is not always merely a sensual display of the exposed human body for the express purpose of sexual arousal. Frequently, artists use nudity as a symbolic gesture of human vulnerability or shame. In other moments, artists idealize the human form and use nudity to accentuate the beauty of the figure represented in a sort of homage to the majesty of the human body. Of particular importance in all situations is the heightened sense that the image provides to the viewer. Modern artists, in particular, purposefully expose their viewers to challenging content in order to awaken their audiences to an awareness of their own points of view, such as in the intentional iconoclasm of religious images. While this content will always be challenging, understanding the purpose behind the content may help us to appreciate the artist's intent (even if we may continue to disapprove of it). 

Understand Your State

Self-awareness is an important part of interacting with the challenging content of art history. It is important to be honest with ourselves about our current state, maturity level, and goals. It is okay to refrain from exploring certain kinds of art subjects if we know that we are not in a state to be able to interact with them without compromising our individual integrity and values. Before exploring art unrestrained, take a moment to take a quick personal inventory to help you know what choices to make. 

Understand The Nature

One of the themes of modern art is to question the definitions of things. With the rise in performance art, found art, or concept art, it seems that the line between what is art and what is not art is almost invisible. Thus, it seems that almost anything can be presented and protected as "artwork" regardless of its purpose or our state. It is essential that, as a viewer, you can identify the nature or intent of the artwork you view. Not all artwork is innocently produced, and not all artists are interested in high moral or ethical displays. This is true throughout the entire timeline of art history. Seek to understand for yourself the nature of a work of art in order to utilize greater agency in what you view and how you view it.

This content is provided to you freely by BYU Open Learning Network.

Access it online or download it at