- Date: 14th century
- 1 a : a subject or topic of discourse or of artistic representation <guilt and punishment is the theme of the story>
- b : a specific and distinctive quality, characteristic, or concern <the campaign has lacked a theme>
In the visual arts, a theme is a broad idea or a message conveyed by work done in a visual experience, such as a performance, a painting, or a motion picture. This message is usually about life, society or human nature]. Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a work. Themes are usually implied rather than explicitly stated. Deep thematic content is not required in a visual work; however, some observers would say that all visual work inherently projects some kind of outlook on life that can be taken as a theme, regardless of whether or not this is the intent of the author. Analysis of changes (or implied change) in dynamic characteristics of the work can provide insight into a particular theme.
A theme is not the same as the subject of a work. For example, the subject of Star Wars is "the battle for control of the galaxy between Galactic Empire and the Rebel Alliance". The themes explored in the movies might be "moral ambiguity" or "the conflict between technology and nature".
Themes differ from motifs in that themes are ideas conveyed by the visual experience as a whole, while motifs are repeated symbols found inside an over-arching theme. Simply having repeated symbolism related to chess, does not make the story's theme the similarity of life to chess. Themes arise from the interplay of the plot, the characters, and the attitude the author takes to them, and the same story can be given very different themes in the hands of different authors.
While thematic analysis is a primary concern of Art critics, a minority viewpoint holds that explicitly stating the theme of a work universalizes it in an inappropriate way. For example, many love stories end happily when the hero and heroine marry, thus the theme "Marriage equals happiness." Critics would point out that marriage rarely does simply equate to happiness and that marriage and happiness are individual and cultural intangibles that may or may not relate.
The term theme may be used in the same way to refer to works of literature. A theme is the main idea, or message, of an essay, paragraph, or a book. Along with plot, character, setting, and style, theme is considered one of the fundamental components of fiction. It is the universal statement or feel when you read a piece of writing.