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Where does the idea of judging art come from
We discovered that Western art criticism originates in the 18th
Century in France and has developed into a largely written
approach to evaluating art. We learned that there have been
many recent assertions that art criticism is in a state of crisis not
least because few art critics still practice judgment, but instead
write more descriptive pieces. We also learned that in Asia there
is no comparable history of art criticism and that here it is a much
more recent and still under-populated discipline. And we decided
we’d be pioneers in discovering new ways to respond to art. This
week we are going to consider how we formulate our opinions on
In 1970 a professor of art at Georgia University, Edmund
Feldman, came up with a 4 step technique for looking at art which
is used again and again to teach art criticism.
It looks like this:
1. DESCRIPTION: What can be seen in the artwork?
2. ANALYSIS: What relationships exist with what is seen?
3. INTERPRETATION: What is the content or meaning, based on
steps 1 and 2?
4. JUDGEMENT: What is your evaluation of the work, based on
steps1, 2, 3?
We are going to use Feldman’s ideas, but in a slightly different order
We’re working on step 4: Judgment, first!
and there are three reasons for that:
1. When you decide to write about an artwork or art show, you have
already performed at least part of step 4 - you have decided its
worthy of your attention.
2. We make judgments all the time based on our own tastes and
preferences and its good to leverage that natural instinct from the
start, it will help you develop your own voice.
3. As we found out last week, many art critics argue that judgment is
the most important part of art criticism and could safe-guard the
value of art criticism.
Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy that deals with perception,
beauty and taste or preferences.
The word comes from the Greek term ‘aisthetikos’ which means
things we perceive via the senses. It’s worth thinking of it via the
opposing term ‘anaesthetic’ which means to dull the senses, so
when we are operated on by a surgeon, for example, the
anesthetist has first placed us under anaesthetic so we don’t feel
what’s going on.
Today we use the term a great deal in relation to visual perception
and even to describe certain styles. I keep a Pinterest board on
fashion I regard as having a cyborg ‘aesthetic’:
But as an area of philosophy, Aesthetics is concerned with how we
experience things and whether we can establish frameworks that
help us say with any certainty if a work of art is good or bad.
The study of aesthetics becomes a particularly important area of
thought in the West in the 18th Century.
In 1757 the Scottish Philosopher, David Hume, wrote ‘Of the
Standard of Taste’ in which he suggested that although we are all
entitled to our own taste, those who prefer lower or less acclaimed
arts have inferior taste. He asserted that quality became clear
through the convergence of similar opinions over time. Therefore a
good artwork would be judged as good because over several years,
many more people would regard it as good rather than bad. And he
believed good taste could be cultivated through experiencing lots of
art and learning more about the arts.
In 1790 the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, began writing a set of texts
exploring taste and judgment. He was the first Western philosopher to suggest that
beauty was not a universal quality. Not everybody would find the same things
beautiful. Instead, taste is highly subjective but often there are overarching factors
that create commonality in taste. Fashion is an excellent example of this. When a
new style of clothes becomes popular, it is not that everyone who likes it has the
same taste but that a number of circumstances have contributed to making
everyone like that style at that time (these days familarisation though advertising
plays a massive role in this kind of ‘taste-making’)
Importantly, Kant developed the idea that there is a difference between judgments
of the ‘beautiful’ and the ‘agreeable’. Things that we like: egg tarts, glittery
sneakers, the dance remix of Let It Go are judgments of agreeableness - I ‘like’
these things. I’d give them the thumbs-up on Facebook.
But beauty is of a wholly different order. Beauty is not found by everyone in the
same things, but the idea of it does have a universal value – its something we all
think of as good. We might not all ‘like’ the same things, but a judgment of ‘beauty’
occurs as we judge something as having some kind of cultural or transcendent or
eternal value (something that can make us, somehow, better people) for all.
Insofar as art criticism is concerned then, these early theories of
aesthetics provide us with various ways of discussing the art
And what they lead towards is the concept of criteria - or standards
we might measure art experiences against in order to rate them
somewhere on some kind of scale.
But what types of scales might we use?
In the 18th Century Western art critics looked for the quality
of moral content in art, followed by pleasing composition and
realism. The French and English academies of art ranked
paintings by genre:
• History painting, including narrative religious mythological
and allegorical subjects
• Portrait painting
• Genre painting or scenes of everyday life
• Animal painting
• Still life
In the late 19th and early 20th Century however, artists began
to experiment with all manner of new styles and the old
criteria for evaluating art no longer applied. Increasingly
critics looked for originality and expressiveness. In the shift
from this to this….
Pablo Picasso (1937)
Jacques-Louis David (1787) Death of
This new high rating of expressive qualities in art ushered in a great
deal of ‘formalist’ art criticism, with Modernist critics favoring innovative
styles of creation.
Today all manner of qualities jostle for our critical attention.
We might favour art that is difficult to understand and takes
us on a journey, or that changes our minds about something,
or highlights an important and/or overlooked social issue.
We might choose to only critique art by women, or by our
peers, thereby drawing attention to certain people or minority
Our opinions are also shaped by who we are and where we
grew up. Different cultures will privilege different aesthetics.
And we’ll each look at things from our own very unique
We might decide to judge whether something is:
• Art or not
• Beautiful or not
• Engaging or not
We might even use judgment to pursue a particular political agenda, noting if something is:
• Worthy of our attention or not
Or we might decide if a work of art is
• Successful or not (according to its apparent aims)
These days it is argued that everyone is a (potential) critic
because we are constantly being asked to rate our interactions
and experiences. And it’s very likely we also use these rating
systems as a guide.
But is ‘ranking and reviewing’ ever
really art criticism?
Early art critic Jonathan Richardson
the Elder used a ranking system he
shared with his readers, rating
paintings on seven categories with a
maximum score of 18 per category
Jonathan Richardson the Elder’s art criticism score
card for evaluating Anthony Van Dyck’s ‘Countess
Dowager of Exeter’ from 1717
Can today’s commercial
ranking systems and
platforms for review ever be
a place for real critique,
discussion or even protest?
When the Bic biro
manufacturers made such a
little did they know the
Amazon listing would
become a site of ridicule
thanks to the customer
Art critic Brian Droitcour has turned Yelp pages into a site
for art criticism, rating galleries and installations as though
he were writing reviews of his local garage or pizza place.
The New Aesthetic began as a blog post by writer
and designer James Bridle. On 6th May 2011 he
posted about the ‘new aesthetic’ to the Really
Interesting Group and then turned his idea into a
Bridle began with several images from mapping
technologies and suggested that a new aesthetic
was coming into focus as machines and digital
technology allow us different view points on the
world and new ways of making visuals.
It’s not quite an artists manifesto and its also not
quite art criticism in that he isn’t critiquing art,
but Bridle was using social media to present a
visual thesis on our changing visual culture and
the project spawned a meme of the same name
which allowed anyone to provide examples of the
so-called ‘new aesthetic’ and make their own
statements on contemporary aesthetics and
future art history.
(This kind of approach will come up again when
we consider more expanded forms of art
But can a ranking system really cover everything?
The Sublime – literally OFF THE CHART!!!
Kant was also key in discussions of the concept of the sublime.
The sublime it is argued is an experience that outranks beauty
alone. Sublime experiences are over-whelming, they create an
excess of experience that is beyond description and perhaps even
comprehension. For Kant a good example is an extreme
environment in nature - a cliff edge perhaps, where one might
experience a range of sensations. Sometimes a sublime
experience can be created by an artwork.
I think I’ve experienced the sublime in art, here are some
1. Frida Kahlo at Tate in 2005 because she knew something about
me I didn’t know myself until she showed me, and it made me feel
complete and happy somehow…
2. Eva and Franco Mattes at the Site Gallery in Sheffield 2011
because they gave me vertigo. Not a fear of falling, but a fear that
in the event of a lack of boundaries I might throw myself into the
abyss and this made me sick (truly, I had to go outside and lie
3. Theaster Gates at Documenta 2012 because he provided so
many layers of harmony I felt it in my body every bit as much as
my mind and it spilled out in tears.
Without reading any of the other reviews of your book/movie/album (we don't want you to be
influenced by anyone else), you have 30 minutes to write a 250 word live review on the
relevant website (Amazon.com/GoodReads.com, or RottenTomatoes.com or
Use the following questions to help you structure your review.
Why did you decide to purchase (tickets to) this (book, movie, album)?
What was your first impression of it?
How would you summarise the content of this (book, movie, album)?
What were some of the stronger/better/more exciting parts?
What might you compare it to in this regard? What is it like? What is it as good as?
What were some of the weak/worse or less exciting parts?
What might you compare it to in this regard? What is it like? What is it as bad as?
How would you judge this (book, movie, album) over all?
Do you regret purchasing (tickets to) it?
Has everyone submitted their reviews to the relevant website
(Amazon.com/GoodReads.com, or RottenTomatoes.com or
You now have up to 30 minutes to read some of the other reviews of the book,
movie or album you chose. Make a table for the number of reviews you read and
mark a tick or cross depending on whether they mostly agree with you.
Name of reviewer Mostly agreed
(If few people have reviewed the same item as you, think of another book,
movie or album you have strong feelings about and make the same table
noting who agrees or disagrees with you)
• Tell us what you wrote about, what was your opinion of the
book, movie or album?
• Look at your table and consider whether people mostly agree
or disagree with your opinions on the book, movie or album.
Was there consensus or was it a mixture of responses?
• What did you learn from other reviewers? Was there a review
that might have started to change your mind, or at least made
you think differently? Or were the other reviews ill-considered
or just internet trolling?
• What did you notice about how you judged the
book/movie/album? Did you go with your gut or try to evaluate
it according to certain criteria?
Screen grab your review and email it along with a link to
Bring your laptop to class next week.