Collaboration in Art Criticism: Exploring a Body of Work

By Stewart, Marilyn | School Arts, May-June 1995 | Go to article overview

Collaboration in Art Criticism: Exploring a Body of Work


Stewart, Marilyn, School Arts


In my first encounter with a retrospective exhibition, I was delighted to see how Edward Hopper's work had developed, what influences he had had throughout his career, and how certain themes were repeated. I learned a lot that day about art making and response, but, even more, I gained insights that would direct my approach to teaching art criticism.

Because teachers rarely have access to whole bodies of work, students see only one or two works by an artist. Thus, students associate artists only with certain works. How many of your students think of van Gogh only in connection with Starry Night? I try to show many examples of an artist's work.

Viewing the Work

I first show the students as many works by an artist as possible. These may be any combination of slides, posters, postcards or transparencies. When working with small reproductions, students can place these in chronological order and comment amongst themselves. They can take the same works and decide for themselves how to sort, see and talk about the works in new ways.

I provide information about the artist, the time period and culture in which the work was produced, titles, quotes, and other contextual information.

When introducing Beverly Buchanan, I show slides of about twenty drawings and sculptures, stopping occasionally to provide information or to read one of her "legends."

Eliciting Personal Associations

Students' memories and personal associations provide connections that will guide them as they attempt to interpret meaning. This part of the activity is free flowing. If they arc reminded of their grandmother's kitchen or a recent trip to the Southwest, they may find in the work some aspect that triggered these thoughts. Often, students are reminded of works by other artists or cultures they have considered.

Describing the Work

Students list what they see and can point to in the works considered. As a group, we list observable subject matter and describe formal properties such as the kinds of colors, lines, shapes, textures and patterns found in the works. We also list the materials and the techniques used to create the work.

Noting Expressive Qualities

Works of art generally suggest moods or feelings. In this part of the discussion, students create a list of fifteen or twenty expressive words.

To begin, it is helpful to distribute word cards. Even when students claim their cards do not "fit" the work, they can tell why any one of the words is not appropriate. The goal is to have students consider a range of expressive qualities.

Noting Ideas and Themes

By the time the students have looked carefully at a body of work, they are prepared to list the ideas and themes. Students learn that artists explore ideas in a variety of ways over periods of time. This learning is important for their understanding of the ways in which artists work. One outcome is that students may begin to think about the ideas and themes they express.

Constructing interpretations

By the time the students have considered the expressive and thematic content, they arc prepared to develop an interpretation. Here again, word cards, prepared prior to class, serve as prompts.

Working in small groups, students attempt to complete the sentence, "The work of (the artist) suggests that (the word card)...."

Students take turns choosing the cards to be considered by the group. The student who chooses the card is responsible for leading the group discussion and for recording the responses of the group on the forms provided. More than one sentence may be composed using the same word card. When the group is satisfied with the sentence(s) created, they move on to the next word card and repeat the process.

The following words were provided for group consideration of Buchanan's work: traditions, the home, community, improvisation, people, poverty, hope, survival, family. …

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