Questioning the Assumptions Behind Art Criticism

By Venable, Bradford B. | Art Education, September 1998 | Go to article overview

Questioning the Assumptions Behind Art Criticism

Venable, Bradford B., Art Education

Art educators who have developed methods of art criticism have provided techniques to help students understand more thoroughly how enriching an encounter with art might be. While many methods exist, most are similar in structure to those proposed by Gene Mittler (1973,1980) and Edmund Feldman (1970). These methods provide sequential procedures intended to lead the student from the initial encounter with an artwork to a deeper and richer understanding. Many of these techniques require students to begin their critical inquiry by thoroughly describing what they see. Students move on to more complex analysis and greater understanding via interpretation and judgment. While these methods are beneficial in increasing students' perceptivity and understanding, some have asserted that their reliance on formalist aesthetic theory has created problems, reducing the ways in which art can be understood or judged significant (Gouma-Peterson & Mathews, 1987; Nochlin, 1971). The historic or cultural component in a work of art, for example, may not be noted unless teachers underscore this dimension. There are other critical issues. In this paper, I will examine three assumptions evident in the practice of these methods: a) the connection of first impressions with the viewer's past experience, b) the connection between sequential procedures and learning, and c) the use of judgment as a necessary step in understanding.


All of us bring different and unique life experiences to an encounter with art. Not only do the abilities to see, understand, interpret, and judge works of art differ greatly from individual to individual, but previous encounters with art and varying attitudes, if not the totality of our visual experience, influence how art is initially perceived. Logically, the viewer who has grown up surrounded by art will experience art differently from one who has not Does not the world traveler have a frame of reference different from those of us who have remained landlocked? Moreover, cannot the same be true for all visual experiences? Will not the more varied experience of visual phenomena influence, if not determine, how we understand art? I suggest that an encounter with art is not only influenced (if not mediated) by the entirety of past visual experiences, but by the totality of the personal human experience as well. This human experience includes not only the images that have passed before our eyes, but the entire scope of our lived experience.

How do Mittler's, Feldman's and other widely used methods for teaching art criticism use the unique personal experience of the viewer? Both trained and untrained viewers of art make connections between what they have experienced in their own lives and the artwork before them. Many methods of art criticism make little use of such experiences. Mittler's model, for example, refers to these initial encounters as "premature decision-making" and invites the student to move past them. While they may appear to be naive reactions, are these unsophisticated responses by students to be ignored and quickly left behind?

A child responding to Cassatt's The Bath may say that it reminds her of how her mother lovingly washes her baby sister. Another may view Eakin's The Swimming Hole and want to discuss the local strip pit where swimming is popular. Homer's Gulf Stream may bring up enthusiastic tales of ocean monsters or the movie Jaws. Obviously, these responses may indicate a less than thorough understanding of the artwork, yet the sensitive teacher will realize that these youthful experiences make what is seen understandable, worthwhile, and relevant. They should not be abandoned, but encouraged and built upon.

By disregarding such responses, the teacher may suggest that these kinds of reactions are not relevant in coming to an understanding of art. However, is this not how all of us come to art initially? Are we not drawn to (or repelled by) certain subject matter over others because of our personal and unique experience with it? …

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