Which is more basic art or science

Department of History and Cultural Studies

by Jan von Brevern and Katja Müller-Helle

Studying also always means writing homework. A large part of the grades depends on term papers and theses. At the same time, there is little practical information at German universities on how to do it -write. We would like to give you some tips and suggestions that come from our own experience with writing as well as from our teaching activities. Numerous tips from students have also been incorporated into it.

These tips were created at the Art History Institute of the Free University of Berlin and are intended to supplement the "Guide to Scientific Work". Most of the information can, however, also be transferred to other humanities and historical subjects. Since we would like to improve and expand it further, we would be happy to receive your criticism and suggestions - you are welcome to contact us by email: [email protected], [email protected]


/// Introduction

It may be time to shake a particular fiction: the fiction
hence the research is presented but not written.

- Roland Barthes, "Young Researchers", 1972

There are two tips that could replace many others: be interested in what you want to write about - and: see writing not just as a chore, but as a way to find out something and find your own style.

Unfortunately, that's still pretty abstract. We would like to try to give you some practical tips to make writing easier and maybe even fun for you. If we claim that writing can be fun, then that doesn't mean that it's not always exhausting and even torturous. It is no different for seasoned scientists who have already written a lot and see it as their calling. But maybe that's why it's fun: because finding an appropriate form, a good argument, a successful metaphor always remains a challenge.

However, the above quote from Roland Barthes indicates another important aspect of writing. Normally you might think of research as follows: you research, find out something, and finally write down what you found out in order to communicate it to others. That is the "fiction" that Barthes would like to dispel with. In the humanities in particular, research usually works very differently: it findsin the Write,while of writing instead. If you find out for yourself that writing a term paper is an insight process in which you can find out and learn something, the way you look at writing will change fundamentally.

The »academic housework« genre has its own pitfalls. Perhaps the biggest is that you are supposed to write a text that could be published in a scientific journal, in an anthology or the like - but that it usually stays with this "could" and you actually only write the text for the lecturer write. Writing a term paper therefore requires a fictional achievement on your part: You have to pretend that you are addressing your text to the academic public.

How to write a good scientific paper, however, cannot be summarized in a few rules: researching, dealing critically with literature, formulating research questions and, last but not least, finding your own writing style - these are things that you only gradually get into practice learns.You can only learn to write by writing. This has a lot to do with the fact that learning to write, learning to read and learning to think are closely related. For you, this also means: read scientific essayshow they are written. How do authors approach a problem? Check out what you like stylistically, in terms of content and methodology. Find out what you don't like and think about what you would like to do differently in your texts. And: If you request a detailed review of your written work from your lecturer, take advantage of the consultation hours.

One more important note at the outset: Everyone writes and works differently. Some work best in the morning, others only at night. There are people who enjoy formulating and derive their motivation to write from it, and others for whom a watertight argument is most important. Find out what suits you.

/// Possible approach when writing a paper

1. Identification of a scientific problem / question

At the beginning you could make notes in which you formulate what you find interesting about a topic, what questions you have and where the journey could go - this strengthens your own perspective. Fill out the questionnaire to narrow down the topic and to clarify your own approach. A helpful counter question could also be: What interests me Not and what do I want to set myself apart from?
If you have a rough idea of ​​what material you are writing about or what topic you want to pursue, do some research on relevant literature (see below). Read a few essays on the subject. Little by little you can find out what the research questions that have already been dealt with are, which scientific problems exist and which aspect interests you more precisely. At the end of this initial research, there should ideally be a question. Try to find a question that can be meaningfully processed within the scope of the required scope of the housework. The narrower this question, the greater the chance that you will write a successful paper.

Not suitable: »Photography and Art in the 19th Century«
Better: "Why does Baudelaire deny photography its art status in his salon review of 1859?"

Not suitable: »Light and Color in Painting«
Better: "Is there a connection between Chardin's still lifes and contemporary color theories?"

2. Write - read - write

Start writing as early as possible. A starting point could be concrete material (an object, a source) that you analyze in terms of your question. From there, you can critically examine the research literature - which arguments do you find convincing, which are not? Why? From this you can then possibly develop your own thesis. In the meantime you logically have to refer to further literature - because your topic will only develop further while you are writing, you will come up with ideas in the first place, maybe you will have to rephrase your initial question again.

3. Writing and thinking

As you probably know from your own experience, writing the text is often the first time to really think about a topic. When you have to put your thoughts into sentences, you suddenly notice that many things are not as clear to you as you might have thought. Use writing for your thought process - do not research forever and then write, but both at the same time. Expect to discard your first drafts then, but that is perfectly normal.

4. Revise

Leave the work for a few days and then read it again - through the eyes of a reader (how would you find the text yourself if you read it in a trade journal?). Better yet, give the work to some friends and fellow students, inside and outside of art history. Is your text stringent, understandable, argumentatively convincing? Every scientist relies on outside criticism - see criticism as an opportunity to improve your writing. The subsequent revision can again be quite time-consuming - you may have to delete entire sections, rewrite others. Only now is your actual text created.

/// practice of writing

Places, times, tools and good company

It can sometimes work wonders to create a nice place to work. Surround yourself with things, books or pictures that inspire your work. Tidy up your workplace and create archiving systems with and beyond the computer (e.g. folders through which you can access your materials; note boxes) - part of your work is the organization of knowledge.

Another major problem is the organization of their working hours. All authors have to deal with this problem. At least since the beginning of the 20th century it has been clear that the task of organizing one's own time can be summarized in two contradicting logics of time. On the one hand there is the clock time or calendar time, on the other hand the time of individual development (proper time). The clock time is binding for all of us, for example in the form of deadlines. But a tip could be to understand the writing of term papers more in the logic of your own time - as a time that you can determine and shape.

If you spend a few hours a day concentrating on your text, that's enough. An insight into the daily routine of a famous author could give you courage: “Summer and winter, get up at 8 o'clock. Toilet with cold water (especially the eyes: good for the optic nerve). Prepared a hearty breakfast (doesn't want servants in the morning). Work until 11 a.m. Friends visit at 11 am (articles and comments on his philosophy). Before lunch: a quarter of an hour flute (Mozart and Rossini). At 12 o'clock sharp shaves. Having lunch. Short walk in a tuxedo with a white tie. A short rest or coffee. ”Didier Raymond's description of Arthur Schopenhauer's daily routine, who spent his evenings reading the newspaper in a casino, shows that sometimes it only takes a few inspired hours of work to write good texts.

The key here is that you find out what times of the day you can work best. In our experience, it is not worth fighting against your own biorhythm. If you are most focused in the morning, get up early and work until noon. You can then use the afternoon - without a guilty conscience! - for other things. Even a short sleep in between can work wonders.

Title and beginnings

A good title is half the battle. It has to make your text and topic palatable to the reader and at the same time be informative. One possibility could be to combine a "dazzling" main title with an informative subtitle.

Example: “Traces of madness. Graphic recordings of mental illnesses around 1900 «

The introduction to the text should also be designed to be attractive for the reader. For example, you could start with a brief description of the picture, a historical anecdote or a quote that immediately makes the problem or the topic of your text clear. After that, you can always say what you are up to in your work. Such an exemplary introduction can also make it clearer to you what you want to do. Just as the beginning should be designed consciously, the end of the text is the place where you can focus your thoughts again in order to give the reader a good "exit".

Exemplary work

Try to work closely on the material. That means, take concrete pictures / objects / sources and try to develop your topic based on them. When you have a thesis, attach it to the objects you are investigating. Avoid general statements ("In the 19th century people were increasingly selfish") that cannot be derived from the material you examined.

Terms in a historical perspective

Art history is mostly about a historical look at phenomena. For example, instead of asking whether Courbet's painting was realistic, a typical research question would be: Whydesignated do you consider Courbet's painting in the 19th century "realistic"? What did you mean by that? A prerequisite is the assumption that the meaning of "realistic" around 1850 does not necessarily correspond to the meaning of the word today, but had its own time-specific references.

Terms age like material artifacts and can develop a patina. For example, the termcybernetics a specific historical place; it goes back to Norbert Wiener and describes the control and regulation of machines, living organisms and social organizations. This term has its own history and was adopted from English (cybernetics) into German in the middle of the 20th century. Which brings us to a second important point: many terms belong to certain "schools of thought" that are connected to specific systems of thought or conceptual structures. This does not mean that you need to know the history of all concepts and systems of thought; however, try to get a feel for the historicity of terms and statements. A good starting point for this are historical-critical reference works like thisHistorical Dictionary of Philosophy (also online) orBasic aesthetic terms.

A large part of your housework will be about texts as well as works of art. The craft of text analysis is therefore just as important to you as that of image analysis.

The art of omission

Writing doesn't just mean filling up pages - it also means deleting text that has already been written. During your research you have probably collected a lot of interesting information, made excerpts, formulated thoughts and now want to incorporate all of this into your work. Do not succumb to this temptation. A good text is also characterized by the fact that it focuses on the facts and arguments that are really relevant to the question. An outline can help you to lay a common thread through your work and to separate important from unimportant information.

It is difficult to leave out interesting information or even to delete entire pages that have already been formulated; after all, this may be about good thoughts on your part that you cannot now accommodate. In the Anglo-Saxon world, the deletion of good ideas in favor of the stringent text flow is paraphrased with a charming phrase: »Kill your Darlings!«. This reduction work will be clearly visible in your finished text: it appears lighter and more elegant, at the same time more coherent.

If, as you write, you come across a topic or argument that you find important but that does not fit your text, make a note of it. You could then always make a separate housework out of it later.

/// Frequently asked questions

Which literature is relevant for my term paper?

As a rule of thumb, relevant literature is published in specialist journals and specialist books. Texts in encyclopedias, daily newspapers and on the Internet are generally not quotable in academic term papers. The Internet is very useful for literature research - however, the literature itself is in libraries. Websites such as JSTOR, which offer printed specialist literature as PDF, are an exception.

One possibility of literature research is the “pyramid scheme”: you can get a quick overview of the research literature in the footnotes or the bibliography of a more recent, relevant publication on the topic. In the articles or books found there, look for further literature using the same pattern.

Above all, »relevant« also means:relevant to your question. Just reading the literature list can give the lecturer information about the quality of the term paper. The number of titles in your reading list naturally depends on the topic; for a 10-12-page term paper, about ten titles are useful.

How do I read secondary literature?

The most important function of research literature is: it gives you ideas and allows you to argue on a scientific level. It's not at all about having read everything - on the contrary, a few good texts are often sufficient. However, there is fundamental literature on many topics, which can often be recognized by the fact that it is quoted in many other texts.

Be critical of secondary literature. That means: do not accept statements and theses in secondary literature as true, but behave towards them. Do you find the argument convincing? If yes why? If not, why not? Just because art historian xy claims something does not mean it is so. Use secondary literature as a starting point for your deliberations, not as a final confirmation.

What is the difference between sources and secondary literature?

Sources are your research material or come from the time of your research subject. Secondary literature is scientific literature that deals with your subject of study. Whether a text is a source or secondary literature can therefore depend on the subject you are investigating.

An example: You are writing a term paper on photography and art reproduction around 1850. Then the text could be yoursThe work of art in the age of its technical reproducibility by Walter Benjamin (1936) serve as secondary literature. If, on the other hand, you are writing a term paper on Walter Benjamin's art theory, this text would be a source for you.

The difference is important because you will deal with sources and secondary literature differently: you analyze sources as historical documents, secondary literature supports you in your analysis.

How do I deal with artist statements?

Artists have no better insight into the art-historical significance of their work than any other observer. They certainly do not have the authority to interpret their works. For the scientific approach to art, the artist is therefore only one interpreter of his works among many; his opinion must be examined - if at all - just as critically as that of museum visitors, gallery owners or art historians.

Can / should I write my own opinion?

In short: no. Of course, homework is about developing an independent argument. But scientific arguments are different from "opinions" and evaluations as expressed in everyday life. Do not throw around big theses that you cannot argue with. In a term paper, everything depends on the justification of your thesis. Arguments should therefore not relate to your personal views, but to concrete historical facts.

Bad: "I think photography is not art."
Well: "Rodin denies photography the status of art because, in his view, it ..."
Bad: "The actors in the early film act too theatrically."
Well: "The early film is based on the presentation principles of the theater."

How "scientific" does my work have to be?

Your work should of course meet scientific standards. That means, you have to substantiate statements with footnotes, the work should have a clear question and be clearly structured.

However, it is a misunderstanding to believe that "scientific" would also mean a certain style. A look at various academic articles and books will show you that there are many different ways to write within science. Foucault, for example, wrote quite differently from Adorno; nevertheless, both are protagonists of the history of philosophy. So feel free to try something out.

/// Evaluation criteria for term papers *

  • Appropriate question
  • Stringency of reasoning
  • Analytical penetration of the topic
  • In-depth literature research
  • Critical handling of sources and secondary literature
  • Work on specific material (sources, images, objects)
  • Historical perspective of the terms
  • Spelling and grammar (have it checked!)
  • Correct and consistent citation
  • Complete list of figures
  • Compliance with the formalities as specified in the KHI's »guidelines«

* Note: These criteria apply to work that we have corrected; other lecturers could set different priorities. Ask your lecturer about the evaluation criteria for term papers.

/// Research resources (selection)


  • The usual library catalogs of the FU, HU, StaBi etc. (summarized in www.kobv.de)
  • OPAC of the art library
  • www.kubikat.org (also lists journal articles)
  • BHA / RILA: evidence of articles from approx. 1200 magazine titles from the years 1975-2007 (www.getty.edu/research/tools/bha)
  • Google Books (often very helpful because you can search in full text; numerous texts from before 1900 can be found here in full as PDF)
  • JSTOR (www.jstor.org): Access within the FU network or via VPN.


  • Prometheus picture archive
  • EasyDB (image database of various art historical institutes)
  • Google Art Project. You cannot download images, and the selection of works of art is determined by the museums that work with Google; but the picture quality is amazing.

/// Literature on writing

Many departments and institutes offer tips on how to write term papers - we recommend that you do your own research. We find the guidelines published by the Institute for Philosophy at the FU very helpful.

In English-speaking countries, where there have long been "Writing Centers" at universities, some good instructions are also available online. We refer to the Harvard Writing Project, where you can download the PDF "How to Do Things With Pictures: A Guide to Writing in Art History". And on the website of David Young Kim (Penn University) there are not only "Term Paper Writing Tips", but also other tips, including reading sources and secondary literature.

Recommended books:

  • Anna D'Alleva,How to Write Art History, London 2006.
  • Valentin Groebner,Scientific language: an instruction manual, Paderborn 2012.
  • Markus Krajewski, Reading writing thinking. To the scientific thesis in 7 steps, Cologne 2013 [also via FU E-Medien]
  • Wolf Schneider,German for connoisseurs. The new style, Hamburg 1987.