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Art in Context

This is the kind of arts criticism that you get exposed to in school. If you have written an essay for a literature or arts appreciation course, this is probably what you did. Almost all of the essays students write for HUM 300 practice this kind of arts criticism because few students are thinking like artists, at least while they’re in school. Schools train your critical intelligence, not your creative intelligence.

This kind of arts criticism is often practiced by people who aren’t artists and have more interest in another discipline — history, sociology, commerce, the artist’s life, etc. Art historian Howard Risatti wrote in 1988 that this kind of art criticism wants “to understand how art functions socially, economically, and politically in relation to status and power and the construction of worldviews.”

The art often becomes secondary to the other concerns of the writer. For students who want to be writers, for example, this also explains why the last course they should take is a literature course.

A “framework for analysis” is an academic phrase for a bunch of boxes to sort stuff into. A very common way to deal with such situations is also called an “environmental scan” in business organizations. It usually has four boxes or categories: STEP or PEST – Social, Technological, Economic, Political. (Sometimes the E is for Environmental.) For the purposes of HUM 300, I added two, artistic and historical, and made a new acronym: PHATES.

PHATES – political/historical/artistic/technological/economic/social context

In a traditional STEP or PEST analysis, the arts are usually included in the S or social category and history is implied in every category. But for HUM 300 it makes sense to emphasize them.

PEST Analysis

PEST Analysis

  • Political relationship to power
  • Historical/biographical record
  • Artistic expression
  • Technological process/product
  • Economic supply/demand
  • Social cost/benefit

Most of the published writing about the arts uses this kind of criticism. Depending on your audience and purpose, any given critical document could address one or more of these areas to varying extents. The introduction to the document will stake out that scope and then the body of the document will gives examples and explain how to think about the examples.