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Arts Criticism

We respond to the arts in a variety of ways. We experience and recall them. We behave differently, perhaps by dancing to music or making a video in response to someone else’s video. We can also think and write about the arts in a sustained, organized way, called art criticism.

In HUM 300, we are going to discuss and you will practice three broad kinds of art criticism, each with long and glorious traditions.

  • Art as art, as an object
  • Art in context
  • Art as prompt, or call to action

Your reflective pieces will use the third, art as an occasion for reflection. Your essay may combine all three in any proportion, as long as you are doing one or the other of them.

Theory of multiple intelligences – all the arts require intra-personal and interpersonal intelligence. Other arts emphasize one or more of the others: verbal, visual, kinesthetic, musical, spatial, logical-mathematical.



Art as Object

Look at the work of art (story, painting, song, performance, etc.) as a made object in and of itself, autonomously, independent from any historical, cultural, or psychological contexts, which are extraneous. Break the work of art into its component parts (formal analysis) and analyze each part separately and not by context, that is, by referring to ideas or forces outside itself. This kind of criticism is sometimes called a “close reading”, though it can be of a terra-cotta sculpture (Egyptian glazed faience of Horus as a child on left) as well as of a poem. Painting should be about paint, not ideas; writing should be about words, not ideas; dance should be about movement, not ideas; music should be about sounds, not ideas.

“Movies are for entertainment. If you want to send a message, send a telegram.”  – attributed to many, including Louis B. Mayer, Hollywood producer

For example, according to what in literature is called New Criticism (it actually started almost a hundred years ago), a poem is not a series of verifiable statements referring to a “‘real” world beyond it. It is not an expression of the poet. It is an arrangement of words and, to some extent, the presentation and sophisticated organization of a set of complex experiences in a verbal form. Similarly, a painting is not a representation of something in the “real” world. It is not an expression of the painter. It is the presentation and sophisticated arrangement of colored pigment, shapes, and lines in a visual format.

This critical approach carves away the maker and audience and leaves only the work by articulating two fallacies, one from the maker’s side and the other from the audience’s.

Intentional Fallacy – confusing the meaning of a work of art with the artist’s intentions

What does it matter to the work what the artist intended? The moment it is finished (or does the artist just stop working on it and go on to other work?), a work of art is on its own, beyond the artist’s power to intend about it or to control it. The art work belongs to the audience, not the artist.

Affective Fallacy – confusing the meaning of a work of art with how it makes the viewer/reader/listener feel

Concern with the audience moves the emphasis away from the art and toward the person experiencing it, which is different for every person and changes over time. While decisions to purchase tickets and artwork are certainly made on that basis, it is so subjective that it has little value for understanding the work itself. This affective thinking confuses what the art work is with what it does.

Artists themselves often favor this critical approach because they know from personal experience how irrelevant their intentions and your reactions are to the piece they have created. Who cares? And if anyone does care, why should the artists themselves care? Art is what they do. Art is not something they do in order to do something else.

People who aren’t artists often have a naive notion that artists use art to express their ideas. They see the idea as preceding the art.  The non-artist asks, “What does your art work mean?” Many artists will oblige, especially if they think you might buy the piece. However, their answer is often tongue-in-cheek nonsense.  Artists don’t ask that question of themselves or other artists. Artists talk among themselves about materials, methods, techniques.

Perhaps this comes from religion. People are always studying a religious text looking for what it means, the gods’ intentions. There’s an assumption about hidden meanings. They look at a painting or poem or novel the same way, as an almost religious text and the artist as the god behind it. Literature teachers are always asking you, What does it mean?

When you are analyzing a piece of art as an object, avoid these two fallacies. In other words, don’t talk about what the artist meant or how you feel about it or what you think about it. Concentrate on what it is. What it is made of. How it was made.