In the Spirit of Art Criticism: Reading the Writings of Women Artists

Article excerpt

This article focuses on a newly developed college course in art appreciation and art criticism titled, "In the Words of Women Artists." This introductory level course yields credit in fine arts and women's studies and draws students from a variety of disciplines within the arts. The purpose of the article is threefold. First, it describes the theoretical foundations of the course as it is grounded in postmodern and feminist criticism. Second, it offers a rationale for teaching about contemporary women's art through postmodern and feminist critical theory and practice. Third, through examples drawn from class assignments and discussions, it explains the theoretical background and instructional advantages of rotating frames of reference, that is, of requiring students to reason and respond from multiple points of view: their own, as both viewer and reader; the perspectives of the artists, as they are intertwined within their visual and verbal creativity; and those of the critics who write about the artists and their works.

"Where's the spirited criticism?" wonders art historian and critic Joanna Frueh (p. 56, 1991). Where's the intuition, the senses, the heart, and the personal experience in the critical process? Where is the courage to seek possibilities, pursue alternatives, and risk departure in our attempts to find meaning, relevance, and value in art? Speaking of orthodox modernist criticism, Frueh says, "I confess, I dislike the airtight cases that the scholar wants to build. They do not let me breathe" (1991, p. 56). From Frueh's perspective, what is needed is a generative criticism, one that seeks possibilities and initiates a search. Writing of her aesthetic and artistic concerns, conceptual artist Adrian Piper concurs with Frueh: "We need to breathe fresh air" (Piper, 1994, p. 295). In her own work, Piper seeks "new information from the outside world," (p. 295) pursuing new sources and alternative approaches that might better articulate her own aesthetic concepts. In sympathy with the assertions of Frueh and Piper is a host of feminist and postmodern scholars who promote an inclusive ongoing search for meaning and value in art, a search that gains its vitality through consideration of an abundance of critical vantagepoints (Burgin, 1984; Deepwell, 1995; Frueh, 1991; Leitch, 1999; Lippard, 1988; Owens, 1984; Piper, 1994).

In sympathy with feminist and postmodern critics, artists, and art historians, a growing chorus of scholars in art education is calling for a criticism that breaks with traditional methodology and seeks new ways to know and appreciate meaning in art (see Blandy & Congdon, 1987; Barrett, 1994; Chalmers, 1992; Clark, 1996; Collins & Sandell, 1984; 1996; Congdon 1991; Freedman, 1994; Garber, 1990, 1996; Geahigan, 1999; Hagaman, 1990; Hamblen, 1991; Hicks & King, 1996; May, 1992; Stout, 1995; 1997; 1999; Stuhr, 1994). The aim of this article is to discuss the instructional possibilities of raising the spirit that has been missing in modernist, or what many educators call "traditional" or "practical" art criticism. Discussion focuses on a newly developed introductory college course in art appreciation and criticism. The course, titled "In the Words of Women Artists," yields credit in fine arts and women's studies.

The course departs from conventional approaches to teaching art appreciation and criticism in two consequential ways. First, the emphasis is on rotating frames of reference. Students are asked to reason and respond from three different perspectives: their own, as both viewers and readers; the perspectives of the artists, as they are intertwined within their visuals and their texts; and those of the critics who write about the artists and their works. Theoretically, the strategy of rotating frames of reference is rooted in research on text. [For comprehensive reviews of text and textuality, see Bernard & Ryan, 1998; Hanks, 1989.] During the processes of shifting their critical vantagepoints, students are drawn into an unbounded interaction among viewer/reader, image and text, and artist/author. …