Writing a Visual Art Critique

The following information is paraphrased from Varieties of Visual Experience: Art as Image and Idea, E.B. Feldman, Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1981.

You are encouraged to read the fuller discussion of the “critical performance” in the Feldman book.

While this account focuses upon a critical model appropriate for the visual arts, the following account may also be used for music, poetry, dance, and a number of the other areas of fine arts with a bit of linguistic adjustment.

Feldman’s “Critical Performance” is a four-step process that involves description, formal analysis, interpretation, and evaluation. The steps in this process are so arranged in order to “defer judgment” and gather evidence as you proceed, so that you are able to make sound “interpretations” and “judgments.”

Description: This is a process of taking inventory, of noting what is immediately presented to the viewer (subject matter). At this stage you avoid, as much as possible, drawing inferences. This is a simple account of “what is there.” This is the type of account with which any reasonably observant person would agree. Language should be “unloaded,” and should not contain hints about the value of what is described. Description is an attempt “to find” what is objectively present in the art object.

Critical description involves:

  1. Making an inventory of the names of the things we see in the art object (this becomes more difficult with respect to “non-objective” art objects in which one has to describe what one sees in terms of the elements of art [line, shape, form, texture, space]).
  2. Performing a technical analysis or description of the way the art object seems to have been made. Critical description is a delaying process that helps you to “take in” and to defer interpretation and judgment until later in the process.

Formal Analysis: In the formal analysis, you endeavor to “go behind” the descriptive inventory to discover how the things that have been named are constituted and organized. This section focuses on the “language of art” and the way the “elements of art” (line, shape, form, texture, color, space) and the “principles of design” (unity, variety, balance, proportion, scale, dominance, subordination, rhythm) have been organized by the artist. In this step, you describe the relationships among the elements and principles. You move beyond “description” to the way the art object is perceived and organized.

Interpretation: This is a process through which the “meaning” (i.e., content) of the art object is expressed. Through description and formal analysis of the art object, you will come to “discover” its meanings. You may also state the relevance of these meanings to your own life, or to the human situation in general. You begin an interpretation by forming an “hypothesis.” An hypothesis is an idea or principle of organization which seems to relate the material of description and formal analysis meaningfully in order to arrive at the deeper level of “content” that the art object conveys. This step is an attempt to formulate a specific explanation and disclosure of meaning that will “fit” the evidence that was assembled through the first two steps.

Judgment: Evaluating an art object means giving it a rank in relationship to other works in its class. Evaluation is a way of deciding on the degree of artistic and aesthetic merit of the art object. Evaluating art moves beyond the simple “I like” or “I don’t like” statements. Within this step you can:

  1. Compare the art object with historical models and relate it to the widest possible range of comparable works.
  2. Determine the relevance of “originality.” Here, you decide how the art object either conforms to or departs from other art objects in its class. Specifically, what is “original” and “compelling” about the art object. “Originality,” however, also must carry with it some substantive measure and not simply be “novelty for the sake of novelty.”
  3. Determine the relevance of technique. Since art is “making,” technical considerations are involved in evaluation. This involves determinations of the importance of craftsmanship, logic in the use of tools and materials, the proper use of tools, and the correspondence between the appearance and function of the art object. The question of “craftsmanship” and “anti-craftsmanship” often results in an elusive relationship in some modern and post-modern art objects. Here it is important to determine whether a particular technique supports or diminishes the overall impact and import of the art object.

Final Words: Criticism is “talk” and “writing” about fine arts. Contrary to the popular assumption, criticism is not simply my opinion versus your opinion. Critical writing and speaking must be based on sound evidence and criteria to which you can point for the support of your conclusions.

Organizing your fine-arts critique along the lines of this step-by-step critical performance is acceptable. You should strive, however, for a narrative that flows seamlessly from one step to another. Following the step-by-step organization leads to a critical paper that reads like an academic exercise or assignment. A well-organized, seamless narrative, on the other hand, will permit you to create your own critical voice. One way to understand this process, and this latter suggestion, is to read some art criticism in various journals or major metropolitan newspapers, such as the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times. For journals read: Art News, Art Forum, and Art in America.