Description in Art Criticism and Art Education

By Geahigan, George | Studies in Art Education, April 1, 1999 | Go to article overview

Description in Art Criticism and Art Education


Geahigan, George, Studies in Art Education


What do critics do when they describe a work of art? There is an urgent need to answer this question because description figures prominently in educational prescriptions for art criticism. As these become increasingly used as guides for instruction, it is important that educators understand the kind of activity they are prescribing. There is a view of description that has come to be widely accepted in the art education literature. This view can be summed up in four propositions:

1. Description is an intrinsic part of the process of art criticism.

2. Description is concerned with listing or inventorying the objective features (data) of a work of art.

3. Description does not use emotive or expressive but, rather, "neutral" language.

4. Descriptions are either true or false.

Contrary to this commonly accepted view of description, in this article I shall argue that,

1. Description is not an intrinsic part of the process of art criticism.

2. Description is not concerned with listing or inventorying the objective features (data) of a work of art.

3. Description can involve the use of emotive or expressive language.

4. Descriptions are never true or false.

If this common view of description is so wide of the mark, how did it come to be embodied in the art education literature? If it is wrong, what then is description? And what implications does all of this have for art criticism instruction? In this article I shall address each of these questions in turn.

Two Conceptions of Description

The commonly accepted view of description which I have outlined above does not reflect the ordinary meaning of "description" in terms of what people actually do when they describe a work of art. It reflects, instead, an uncritical adoption of a technical use of the term "description" in aesthetics and philosophy. To understand how this technical sense of "description" became embodied in the educational literature requires that one give an historical account of the genesis of the term "description" in philosophy and how educators relied upon philosophical accounts of art criticism when formulating models of art criticism for the classroom.

The Technical Use of the Term "Description"

The technical use of "description" emerged during the early decades of the century as part of a program of philosophical investigation into the nature of language. Toulmin and Baier (1952) describe the aim of this program as the elucidation of controversial types of utterances, such as those found in ethical and aesthetic discourse. This was done by drawing a single sharp distinction between different kinds of utterances. To mark the distinction, philosophers appropriated the word "description," a word with a standard use in ordinary language. But they used this word in a quite different way: to refer to a class of words or sentences that stood in contrast to other, less well understood utterances, such as prescriptive utterances, normative utterances, value sentences, emotive utterances, etc. Although they point out that the distinction between descriptive and other utterances was actually drawn along different lines by various philosophers, by mid-century the conviction that two separate classes of utterances could be distinguished from one another had become firmly embedded within the philosophical literature. According to this doctrine:

There are two large classes into which sentences and the words which figure into them can be divided. On the one hand there are those sentences [descriptive sentences] to be dignified by the title of 'statements', which express propositions; which are the concern of the sciences, and of those everyday activities which are like the sciences in having to do with facts and the stating of facts; which express beliefs; which are properly couched in the indicative mood; and whose meaning consists in the cognitive or rational effect which their utterance has on a suitably-conditioned hearer's beliefs. …

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