What is art criticism and why do it? Art criticism is talking or writing about art. We do it because we want to know what artworks mean and what their value or significance is. Artworks have both an intellectual and an emotional dimension. The emotional/aesthetic component -- composition and style -- carries the intellectual/ symbolic component -- the obvious message. Together they make for the expressive quality of the work.
Educational art criticism focuses on this expressive quality through examining forms, composition, and symbolic content. But artworks are never only about what can be seen in the work itself. Because artworks are communication from the artist to other human beings, the importance of context such as the artist's intent or the work's use in society cannot be overstated. The art critic's task, then, is to look at works of art and their contexts to see what they tell us about the human condition.
The Process of Art Criticism
Art criticism involves asking three simple questions: What is this? What does it mean? and What is sit worth? Answering these questions results in the basic critical processes of description (what is it?), interpretation (what does it mean?), and evaluation (what is it worth?). Interpretation is the most important and the most difficult. Thus, critics try to answer the first question in some depth, through description, to provide evidence and direction for interpretation. Evaluation becomes clear through the answers to the first two questions.
An Educational Model for Art Criticism
Art critics usually do not separate these questions and answers. They let them flow together. In classroom settings, however, a strong argument can be made for ordering the processes to facilitate systematic teaching and learning. One interactive model of educational art criticism (tested with K-12 as well as university students, and modified as a result of practical experience) has been found to work well with all age levels. It consists of four primary processes: 1) an initial, intuitive reaction; 2) description, of obvious thematic and formal qualities, the relationships between forms and figures, intended emotional impact, and the contextual qualities outside the work itself which affect its meaning; 3) interpretation; and 4) evaluation, or making a final interpretation and judgment of the work based on all that has come before.
Upon encountering anything new or not understood, we all have some sort of global response: it's big, pretty, ugly, or weird. Almost all of us have a basic reaction to artworks, but to go beyond it requires some use this basic reaction to direct our inquiry.
Guided by our first reaction, we can begin the task of description. What is it about the work that makes us react in a certain way? We find the answers by describing how the work looks and defining its place in the larger world of human affairs.
The first component of describing a work is examining the appearance of the work, beginning with obvious surface features -- representational/illusive qualities (what it's a picture of), the elements of design (color, line, shape, etc.), obvious technical effects (how it's made), and other physical features (size, setting, etc.). We start with the obvious and work our way to more subtle features of the work, finally focusing on analysis of compositional features and the effects of the forms on our emotions.
The conceptual tools to use for analysis are the principles of design (unity, variety, emphasis, rhythm, etc.). Where there is focus for any reason (i.e. the rhythm changes) there is significance for meaning. The effects of the work on our emotions will either reconfirm that we are on the same track as indicated in our initial reaction or that we have discovered new evidence leading us elsewhere.
Describing the Context
The second component of description is an examination of the contextual qualities that help make the work meaningful and expressive. We examine those qualities which surround the work, that caused it to come into being, and that influenced its forms and its place in the larger scheme of things. Description in this vein is focused on the artist's life, circumstances, and intentions; the work's function(s) whether they be ceremonial, utilitarian, educational, or decorative, and its place in society -- how it was made, for what purposes, how it functions, what its symbolic meanings are, and how it carries people's beliefs.
Determining meaning in a work lies at the very heart of art criticism. The reason for all the steps of description is to lay the foundation that allows us to venture an interpretation.
Interpretation is our best guess at what the work is all about, based on the evidence collected. That evidence should include forms and composition, technique, aesthetic/emotional impact and contextual information.
Typically, a professional critic is making tentative guesses about meaning all through the process of description. Students win do that too. It's up to the teacher to decide if she wants to entertain tentative interpretations as she goes through the process of description with the students. The advantage in doing so is that it may stimulate further examination of the evidence in an attempt to justify the tentative interpretation. The potential problem is that allowing for premature interpretations can get the critique off track and lead to the possibility of ignoring important further evidence.
It is important to gather as much evidence as possible to arrive at a meaning. if the teacher feels secure in being able to bring the group back into focus, tentative interpretations may be entertained throughout the discovery process.
In one sense interpretation is an art form in itself, since it relies heavily on the critic's sensitivity in synthesizing what evidence is relevant in discovering meaning. Since interpretation is a creative activity, multiple interpretations should be maintained in the process of interactive educational critiques. The validity of an interpretation is based on whether it can be justified in light of the evidence presented.
In evaluating an artwork, we draw upon all previous stages to reach a conclusion about the value of the work and our experience of encountering it.
A professional critic will be developing a sense of a work's value all through the process. The value of the work is almost always already known by the time we're ready to talk about it.
The key to successful evaluation is that it be criterion based. It's important to give reasons why a work is considered to be good or bad. In professional criticism, these reasons come from aesthetic theory. Some of these theories are expressionist (Is the work highly expressive?), mimetic (Is it very realistic or naturalistic?), formalist (Does it seem "right" in terms of color, composition and so on?), and pragmatist (Does it do something important? Does it do it well?).
Evaluation also considers whether the work was well made (skill and technique), the strength of the idea(s) driving the work (concept), and its aesthetic impact.
Professional critics go through the processes of description, interpretation, and evaluation to determine the meaning and significance of works of art. They do not separate these processes. They use them, often instinctively, as appropriate to their needs.
For educational purposes, however, there is value in distinguishing between the processes of criticism and structuring them as stages. The educational structure for art criticism includes the stages of 1) reaction, which gives direction to 2) description of how a work looks (images, themes, composition, embedded ideas and emotions) and its place in society (personal and social functions, history, and circumstances); 3) interpretation of what the work means; and 4) evaluation of the work's worth.
First, it should be made clear that critiques of student work are not art criticism. The purpose of student critiques, whether the focus is on the technical, compositional, or conceptual, is solely to improve that work or future projects. Art criticism is the examination of the work of others to find what they can tell us about being human.
The second caution is to remember that art criticism is best when done in an organic and connective manner by someone who is constantly making sensitive connections between description, interpretation, and evaluation.
The structure suggested here for educational purposes is merely a guide to help both teachers and students understand the kinds of thinking and speaking that go into art criticism. The final guide for art criticism should be the work itself. Take the time and energy to look sensitively and deeply and the work will lead you.
1. What's your first response to this work? 2. How does this make you feel? 3. What does it make you think of? 4. What does it remind you of?
Obvious Thematic, Formal, and Technical Qualities
1. What images do you see? 2. What colors/shapes/textures/etc. are there? 3. Are there any outstanding or unusual features you notice? 4. What else do you see? 5. Are there any dark/light areas? Rough/unusual textures? Large/small shapes? 6. How do you think this work was made? 7. What types of brushstrokes/sculptural finish/photographic technique, etc. do you see? 8. What is the artist's viewing point? What are your
Formal Relationships of Shapes and Images
1. What colors/shapes/textures/lines dominate the image? Why? 2. Are there significant negative areas/spaces in the work? What makes them significant? 3. Is there movement? What elements and/or principles cause it? 4. Do you see contrast? What causes it? 5. Where are the figures looking/pointing? 6. Where does the focus lie in this work? What causes you to look there? is there a single focus? Why? Why not? What features cause us to see it that way?
Critcard submitted by Tom Anderson, professor of art education at The Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida.
1. What mood is presented? How are we meant to feel in the presence of this piece? Why? What's the evidence? 2. Why are we meant to focus where we do? Why is there no central focus or why is there a central focus? 3. Is this realistic? formalistic? expressive? 4. Is this primitive, slick, aggressive, bold, intellectual, overpowering, timid, monumental, fluid, abstract, cool, static, rhythmic, hot, etc?... How? Why? What's the evidence? 5. What if the background were a different color? What if it were done realistically instead of in exaggerated forms? What if it had soft edges instead of hard?
1. Who did the work? 2. What was the artist's point or intention? 3. What is the title? 4. When and where was the work done? 5. How does it reflect that place and those times? 6. What style is it considered to be? 7. Does it have or has it ever had a functional purpose? What? 8. What influenced its production? 9. What impact has the work had on work that came later or on society in general? 10.What does the work tell us about the people who originally made and used it?
1. What do you think this work means? (Think about the subject matter, qualities, character and other responses from the Reaction and Description processes.)
2. If you were inside the work, as a particular character, abstract form or figure, what would you be thinking/ feeling?
3. In the case of nonobjective or highly abstract work, what does it make you think of or remind you of?
4. What title would you give this work if you were the artist? Why?
1. What was your experience in critiquing this work? 2. Have your perceptions/feelings of it changed since we started? How? 3. Would you like to have it for your own? Why/why not? 4. Do you feel a need to resolve what you found through visual critique versus what you found in the contextual examination? Can this be done? How?
1. Do you think the work is good in and of itself? Why or why not? What criteria do you base that on? (Answers can be about technique, skill level, expressive power, beauty, and other qualities to be found in the work.) 2. Is the work well made? Does it exhibit a high degree of technical, compositional, and/or conceptual skill? 3. Is it clear? Does it do what it seems to be trying to do? 4. Does the work have any cultural significance? is it important in society in any way? 5. Does it move you? Does it have the aesthetic power to make you feel something strongly, or think something new, or move you to action in any way?
1. Did the work address some significant human problem or need? Did it do it well? Why or why not?
1. Was the work up to the task we have determined that it set for itself? Was it worth making? 2. Ultimately was it worth examining? Why/why not?…