Talking with Kids about Art

Article excerpt

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. …