Art history is an interdisciplinary practice that analyzes the various factors—cultural, political, religious, economic, or artistic—which contribute to visual appearance of a work of art.
Art historians employ a number of methods in their research into the ontology and history of objects.
Art historians often examine work in the context of its time. At best, this is done in a manner which respects its creator's motivations and imperatives; with consideration of the desires and prejudices of its patrons and sponsors; with a comparative analysis of themes and approaches of the creator's colleagues and teachers; and with consideration of iconography and symbolism. In short, this approach examines the work of art in the context of the world within which it was created.
Art historians also often examine work through an analysis of form; that is, the creator's use of line, shape, color, texture, and composition. This approach examines how the artist uses a two-dimensional picture plane or the three dimensions of sculptural or architectural space to create their art. The way these individual elements are employed results in representational or non-representational art. Is the artist imitating an object or image found in nature? If so, it is representational. The closer the art hews to perfect imitation, the more the art is realistic. Is the artist not imitating, but instead relying on symbolism, or in an important way striving to capture nature's essence, rather than copy it directly? If so the art is non-representational—also called abstract. Realism and abstraction exist on a continuum. Impressionism is an example of a representational style that was not directly imitative, but strove to create an "impression" of nature. If the work is not representational and is an expression of the artist's feelings, longings and aspirations, or is a search for ideals of beauty and form, the work is non-representational or a work of expressionism.
An iconographical analysis is one which focuses on particular design elements of an object. Through a close reading of such elements, it is possible to trace their lineage, and with it draw conclusions regarding the origins and trajectory of these motifs. In turn, it is possible to make any number of observations regarding the social, cultural, economic, and aesthetic values of those responsible for producing the object.
Many art historians use critical theory to frame their inquiries into objects. Theory is most often used when dealing with more recent objects, those from the late 19th century onward. Critical theory in art history is often borrowed from literary scholars, and it involves the application of a non-artistic analytical framework to the study of art objects. Feminist, Marxist, critical race, queer, and postcolonial theories are all well established in the discipline. As in literary studies, there is an interest among scholars in nature and the environment, but the direction that this will take in the discipline has yet to be determined.
More recently, media and digital technology introduced possibilities of visual, spatial and experiential analyses. The relevant forms vary from movies, to interactive forms, including virtual environments, augmented environments, situated media, networked media, etc. The methods enabled by such techniques are in active development and promise to include qualitative approaches that can emphasize narrative, dramatic, emotional and ludic characteristics of history and art.