Art Criticism: Definition, Function & Examples

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  • 0:01 History of Art Criticism
  • 2:05 Assessing a Work of Art
  • 6:08 Assessing Other Art Forms
  • 8:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kara Wilson

Kara Wilson is a 6th-12th grade English and Drama teacher. She has a B.A. in Literature and an M.Ed, both of which she earned from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Art criticism involves analyzing and evaluating every type of art that you can imagine. Find out how to apply it to the art that you want to study, whether it's photography, music, film, sculpture, dance, literature, etc.

Definition and History of Art Criticism

When you hear the words 'art criticism', you might first imagine people standing in an art gallery furrowing their brows as they point out the flaws in a painting. You might even think of this scene from the movie 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off.' But art criticism is more than just commenting on a work of art or pointing out what's wrong with it. In fact, art criticism is the act of analyzing and evaluating any type of art.

More specifically, art criticism:

  • Involves your own interpretation
  • Is done to help you understand a particular work of art by using what you know of art theory, and
  • Establishes where a work fits in with the different artistic styles and movements throughout art history

Speaking of history, art criticism has been a part of many different cultures, as evaluating art has been seen as a tradition. China's tradition of art evaluation dates back to the middle of the 6th century, when writers established principles of great art and wrote biographies of great artists.

African cultures often used verbal evaluations to recognize a work of art's order, form, beauty, and how it ties to spiritual and communal activities.

Islamic cultures have a long-standing tradition of writing about art, often focusing on arts concerning the production of decorative-yet-useful objects, such as woodwork, metalwork, textiles, and calligraphy.

But today, art criticism applies to a wide range of art forms. Performing arts include: plays, dance performances, operas, live music, films and television.

Visual arts encompass: paintings, woodcuts, cartoons, stained glass, mosaics and photography.

Literature inspires our imagination by helping us think and feel differently while seeing images in our heads and includes art forms such as: fiction, a comic book script, a script of a stage play, a screenplay for a movie, poetry, and song lyrics.

Sculptural arts are similar to visual arts, but this art form is three-dimensional and can be touched or sometimes even climbed on. Some examples are: a statue, a carving, a rock garden, a water fountain, or a building.

Assessing a Work of Art

Since this is an overview of art criticism, we're not going to go into the details of art history or theory, but I want to give you a general idea of an art critic's role, specifically how he or she assesses a work of art. Art criticism can be broken down into four steps:

  1. Description
  2. Analysis
  3. Interpretation
  4. Evaluation

If we were art critics who had to write a review of an oil painting or a sculpture, we would start by describing what we see. We would leave out judgments and our own interpretations of what we think it means and our analysis of it. Instead, we would describe elements such as: the size and scale of it, general shapes used, the use of the vertical and horizontal lines and angles, color and color schemes used, the texture of it, and where and when it was done to give it historical context.

Next we would analyze the work of art by determining what the described elements are suggesting and why the artist used those specific colors, angles, shapes, etc. to convey feelings, ideas, or historical events. It's important to really analyze the composition of the work, focusing on details, such as its use of light, shadow, space and landscape. If a work of art is purposefully disproportionate it can make you feel a certain way, just as its use of light and/or color.

Also, think about the way it shows movement, and how you emotionally respond to it. Let's look at two great examples. On the left, we see Paul Delaroche's painting of Napoleon crossing the Alps. He created this painting in response to the one on the right, which Napoleon commissioned Jacques Louis David to create. Notice Delaroche's use of darker colors, primarily browns, and the tired mule. Meanwhile, David's painting uses diagonal lines to convey a great deal of motion, as if Napoleon is charging up the hill on his horse (though he probably did ride a mule). David uses more vibrant colors and shines a light on Napoleon, creating a sharp contrast between the light and shadows cast on him, which contrasts the almost flat mountains and sky in the distance.

Delaroche and David: versions of Napoleon crossing the Alps
Criticism Art

After we have aptly described and analyzed the work of art, we must interpret it. Interpretation is used to establish context, explaining why we think the artist created it and what it means. When interpreting a work of art, we want to interpret the overall meaning of the work by pointing to evidence inside the work, historical context clues such as what was going on in history when it was created, and what art theories or movements relate to it.

Knowing the historical context of the painting of Napoleon crossing the Alps helps us interpret it. Napoleon commissioned Jacques Louis David to create the painting of him, which tells the viewer that this painting was part of Napoleon's propaganda. He wanted to be seen as bold, fearless, and powerful, and David's painting conveys that message. On the other hand, Paul Delaroche's work shows that Napoleon is tired from an arduous journey in which the harsh elements of the cold climate are included. Napoleon is seen in his regular human form as he presses on while riding a mule whose textured coat shows that he, too, is worn and weary. Napoleon isn't heroic in this version, but he is still clearly the leader as he is helped by a peasant on foot and followed by a soldier.

The fourth step is evaluation, or judgment. We must decide where an artwork stands alongside similar works and explain what aspects of it are most important when deciding its quality. Evaluation can be tricky because our own biased views often come into play here, and they shouldn't. For example, if we try to evaluate this painting of an old peasant by Van Gogh, we might already believe that old age is associated with weakness. So, when we look at the painting and try to evaluate it, that bias may cloud our judgment so that we see a frail old man even though this portrait uses vibrant and contrasting colors. So, we have to try to leave our own views out of it and really let the work speak for itself.

A painting of an old peasant by Van Gogh
Old Peasant by VG

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