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Defining Art Criticism

Art criticism is one of the four foundational disciplines of Discipline-Based Art Education (DBAE), along with art production, art history, and aesthetics. Art criticism is responding to, interpreting meaning, and making critical judgments about specific works of art. Usually art criticism focuses on individual, contemporary works of art.

When initially introduced to art criticism, many people understandably associate negative connotations with the word "criticism." Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary defines criticism as "the act of criticizing, usually unfavorably." Yet, Webster's second definition is more appropriate for art criticism: "the art of evaluating or analyzing works of art." Art criticism, in practice, is generally positive.

Any agreement on a simple definition of art criticism is difficult to obtain. In Practical Art Criticism, Edmund Feldman writes that art criticism is "spoken or written 'talk' about art" and that "the central task of criticism" is interpretation. Feldman developed a widely used sequential approach to art criticism based on description, analysis, interpretation, and judgment.

Stephen Dobbs, writing The DBAE Handbook: An Overview of Discipline-Based Art Education, states that, through art criticism, people "look at art, analyze the forms, offer multiple interpretations of meaning, make critical judgments, and talk or write about what they see, think, and feel."

Terry Barrett, author of Criticizing Art: Understanding the Contemporary, bases his approach to art criticism on the four activities of describing, interpreting, judging, and theorizing about art. Barrett suggests that, although all four overlap, "Interpretation is the most important activity of criticism, and probably the most complex." Though interwoven with description, analysis, and judgment, interpretation of the meaning of individual works of art is of foremost concern in contemporary art criticism.

The Role of the Art Critic

In all four disciplines of DBAE the practice of each is based upon the roles of each discipline's practitioner or expert. For art criticism, the role model is the art critic. A professional art critic may be a newspaper reporter assigned to the art beat, a scholar writing for professional journals or texts, or an artist writing about other artists.

Journalistic criticism, written for the general public, includes reviews of art exhibitions in galleries and museums. Most people are familiar with journalistic art criticism because it appears in newspapers, popular magazines, and on radio and television. Feldman suggests that journalistic criticism deals with art mainly to the extent that it is newsworthy.

Scholarly art criticism is written for a more specialized art audience and appears in art journals, such as Art in America, Art Papers, and Art News, as well as presentations at professional conferences or seminars. Scholar-critics may be college and university professors or museum curators, often with particular knowledge about a style, period, medium, or artist.

In both journalistic and scholarly art criticism, the viewer, according to Feldman, "confronts works of art and determines what they mean, whether they are any good, and, if so, why."

Art Criticism in the Classroom

Through art criticism activities in the classroom, students interpret and judge individual works of art. Interpretation is the most critical task of art criticism, but we recommend no prescribed order to follow. The work of art itself should guide the approach to inquiry. For example, a non-objective painting initially may be approached through description, while a highly-detailed, symbol-filled realistic painting probably would be best approached first through possible interpretations of meaning.

Written art criticism can be thought of as persuasive writing, with interpretations of meaning supported by reasoned judgments. Terry Barret, author of Criticizing Art: Understanding the Contemporary, states, "Critic's descriptions are lively. Critics write to be read, and they must capture their readers' attention and engage their readers' imaginations. Critics want to persuade their readers to see a work of art as they do. If they are enthused, they try to communicate their enthusiasm through their choice of descriptors and how they put them together in a sentence, a paragraph, and an article."

Similarly, Edmund Feldman believes that words are virtually indispensable for communicating a critic's understanding and that "words enable us to build bridges between sensory impressions, prior experience, logical inferences, and the tasks of interpretation and explanation."

Guidelines and Strategies for the Classroom

Use learning activities and vocabulary appropriate for students' grade levels. Whole class or small group discussions are beneficial as brainstorming and prewriting activities. Allowing students to work in pairs or small groups fosters collaborative learning.

Art criticism strategies for the classroom include comparing/contrasting works of art, writings based on questions on activity cards, and narratives, poetry, cinquains, and other forms of writing.

Interpretation of works of art may extend to dramatic presentations through reader's theater (students write dialogue for the people in an artwork, then perform the parts with different voices), "living paintings" or tableaux, and sound symphonies (students act out the sounds that are suggested by the artwork). A variety of approaches will lead students to enter and interpret many works of art from multiple perspectives.


Barrett, T. (1994). Criticizing Art: Understanding the Contemporary. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company.

The Getty Center for Education in the Arts. (1992). The DBAE Handbook: An Overview of Discipline-Based Art Education. Santa Monica, CA: Dobbs, S.M.

Feldman, E.B. (1994). Practical Art Criticism. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Barrett's Principles of Interpretation

  • Artworks have "aboutness" and demand interpretation.
  • Interpretations are persuasive arguments.
  • Some interpretations are better than others.
  • Good interpretations of art tell more about the artwork than they tell about the critic.
  • Feelings are guides to interpretations.
  • There can be different, competing, and contradictory interpretations of the same artwork.
  • Interpretations are often based on a world view.
  • Interpretations are not so much absolutely right, but more or less reasonable, convincing, enlightening, and informative.
  • Interpretations can be judged by coherence, correspondence, and inclusiveness.
  • An artwork is not necessarily about what the artist wanted it to be about.
  • A critic ought not to be the spokesperson for the artist.
  • Interpretations ought to present the work in its best rather than its weakest light.
  • The objects of interpretation are artworks, not artists.
  • All art is in part about the world in which it emerged.
  • All art is in part about other art.
  • No single interpretation is exhaustive of the meaning of an artwork.
  • The meanings of an artwork may be different from its significance to the viewer.
  • Interpretation is ultimately a communal endeavor, and the community is ultimately self- corrective.
  • Good interpretations invite us to see for ourselves and to continue on our own.

Barrett, T. (1994). Criticizing Art: Understanding the Contemporary. Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing Company.