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We have been down this road before on the list, sorry if we rake up the past.
At 10:08 AM 12/31/96 -0600, Ken and Chris wrote:
>relativist aesthetics (beauty is in the eye of the beholder) is not useful
for classroom critiques. standards of aesthetic worth are real and
necessary. do we all know how to establish a useful criteria for good?
thoughts or comments.
Sometimes that which seems to be a logical and clearly expressed statement
can turn out to be illogical and confusing. Here are some things one may
want to keep in mind with the subject art criticism and beauty.
Aesthetics involves an area of philosophy which deals with art, and there
was a time when aesthetics could have been simply defined as "the philosophy
of the beautiful." However, philosophers came to realize that art was not
always concerned with beauty. Working beyond issues of form (elements,
principles, etc...), they realized that the content of a work often depended
upon the life and times of the artist, as well as, that which had come
before the particular body of work being examined. Aesthetic issues were
expanded and have included a string of ongoing theories concerning art, the
role of an artist in society, cultural influences upon artists and art
making, etc. Aesthetics has come to be thought of as the study of the
visual, literal, and expressive qualities of a work of art and the study of
the viewer's response to that art. As a branch of philosophy we could say
that it is concerned with the qualities of art that create aesthetic
responses. It is concerned with the unique nature of art - not simply
Art criticism is a different process involving the skill of judging a work
of art. There are many theories concerning the correct process one should
use to judge a work of art. Most of them include such steps as description,
analysis, interpretation and then judgment.
Description - When confronting an art object, one must look closely and take
a sort of mental inventory of the subject matter, the various objects and
parts of the work. You are to slow down and try to notice as much as you
can. Try to see things about the work which you might have missed if you
had not taken the time to look closely.
Analysis - After the initial long look at the work, your next step is to
continue to look at the work closely but begin to notice the elements and
principles and their role in the creation of the composition. Back in the
60s we used to speak of the work as being and organic or living unit with
each part supporting the whole, the unit. It is in the analysis phase that
one begins to discover those formal compositional qualities in the work.
Interpretation - Now you are ready to try to discover what is really
happening in the work. You can try to figure out what the artist is trying
to say. You are looking for content or meaning in the creation. This is
probably the most difficult step in the process of criticism.
Judgment - At last, you are in a position to try to judge if the work was
successful or if the artist failed in her (or his) task. At this point you
can offer an opinion, you can state that you either like or dislike the
work. You need to be honest with yourself and try to come to some kind of
conclusion about the work in your own mind. On the other hand, the judgment
need not be final. We may learn more about the artist or the work at a
later time which will change our opinion. Our attitudes and insight will
change as we age and the same thing happens to societies so cultural values
may influence us later which can change our opinion of the work.
The problem with all of this is that there are many theories behind the
process of judging art. For example, we may wonder if the objective of the
work was to imitate something in the real world? Should your judgment be
based on imitationalism? Was that skill important to the work? Was the
artist supposed to create something of beauty? Could your concept of beauty
be quite different then that of the artist or the society in which that
artist lived? Was there supposed to be a formal organization to the work?
What roles were the elements and principles supposed to play? If your
judgment is primarily based on these aspects of an artwork, then your
judgment is based on formalism. Was the work supposed to have been an
expression of an emotion? If your judgment was based upon the emotional
impact that the work had on you then such a judgment is said to be based on
emotionalism. Was the art object supposed to have been a functional object
as well as a work of art? If that was important to you then your judgment
However, if you really want to get into the middle of the thing, you can
begin to try to decide if there are unchanging rules concerning the value of
art which can be applied to all art through all ages. Should we take the
objective position and try to make our judgment by holding up the same
yardstick (rules of beauty) to the Venus of Willindorf as is held up to
the Venus de Milo, Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus", or Titian"s "Venus of
Urbino"? If that doesn't seem to work, do we need to be subjective in our
judgment and try to consider the changing values and accept all art as
equally valid because the artist has the right to be expressively creative
without concern for tradition and past standards of quality? If that
position does not seem to work for us, either, perhaps we should try the
relativist's middle ground where there are standards within every culture
and every cognitive system but we must be sympathetic of other's values,
especially if they are removed from our own place and time. We must also
realize that the story of art is a record of humanity which has included a
wonderfully varied and rich progression of work which may show influences
from that which has come before but much of it has been created in a spirit
of rebellion, rejecting the art of the past. When we try to make our own
judgments about art we will do well to appreciate that this is a field in
which there must be some freedom to explore and invent new methods of visual
So, when you posted the statement that "relativist aesthetics (beauty is in
the eye of the beholder) is not useful for classroom critiques" I was kind
of taken back. Relativist aesthetic does not mean the same thing to you as
it does to me.
I had the same confusion upon reading your next comments "standards of
aesthetic worth are real and necessary." Again, I was confused because I
was not sure if you were talking about the artist's standards, the standards
of the artist's patron, your standards, my standards, or general, collective
standards which are in place in our contemporary culture or in some past age
when the work was created.
I was also at a loss when you asked "do we all know how to establish a
useful criteria for good?" I must admit that I am not sure if you are
talking about student art projects or art objects in the real world. Often
student work can hold its own in either place but a great deal of the work
in the classroom is limited by the learning objectives and expectations
which are imposed upon the learner in that situation. Certainly a criteria
for art must be different that that of many classroom assignments. The
simple fact that most of the assignments come with limitations of time,
material, subject matter, formal objectives and issues of content.and they
do not spring freely from the interest and free will of the student artist
would cause one to choose different criteria forjudgment in projects from
the art classroom and for judgment as the final stage of criticism when
looking at art in the real world. In your question, I have no idea who
"We" are. (Did you mean we theeducators on the list "we" or "we" the
general population of this culture?) Also I am confused by your use of
"good" in the question. Do you mean good as in"beauty, good as effective
emotional communication, good as in content which supports a sense of
morality and religiuon, good as in a good job at rendering a likeness of the
subject matter, or a good job on the art project based upon the teacher's
specific objectives for the learning experience. .
Now, I hope others will offer their insight or conflicting opinions.
I believe last year Craig Roland shared a list of suggested questions to
use when students are looking at art work. Perhaps he would care to share
that list with the new members on the list. I found his suggested questions
helpful when working with my Art 1 students (grade range 9-12).