Description is the cornerstone of art criticism, it leads directly into all the other steps (in fact it should become fairly difficult to separate them out)
How do you describe an artwork
We thought about the idea of judging art and how the concept and
philosophy of aesthetics has helped people think about the art
We considered modern methods of reviewing and rating
experiences like listening to music, reading a book or watching a
movie and how these demonstrate our relationships to taste and
judgment in our everyday lives.
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?
This is the cornerstone of art criticism…
• Many critics think description is the most important task
• It helps you recognise every aspect of an artwork
• It leads to all the other aspects of criticising an artwork
(such as analysis, interpretation and judgment.)
• It takes practice!
= Everything you see before you, without having to do any
analysis or research:
• What is the subject?
• What does it look like?
• What shapes can you see?
• What colours are used?
• What textures are present?
• What is it made of?
= Other pieces of information you can gather specifically
relating to the physical presence of the artwork:
• What is it called?
• Who is it by?
• Where is it/how is it installed in the space?
• How was it made?
Artist: Pablo Picasso (1881–1973)
Title: Weeping Woman
(Femme en pleurs)
Medium Oil paint on canvas
image: 608 x 500 mm
frame: 847 x 739 x 86 mm
Collection: Tate, UK
What is your immediate reaction to it?
Is there anything it makes you think or feel right from the
Did you come across it in a way that is worth explaining? For
example is it a public artwork that you stumbled across. Did
you spend hours looking for it in a gallery? It might even be
relevant what kind of mood you were in before you had this
art encounter if your mood was significantly altered by the
‘Ekphrasis’ is the term given to a type of art writing that is
expressive and perhaps dramatic. It is where the art writer
tries to recreate the impact of the work of art in words.
A good example is art critic Walter Pater’s description of the
“The presence that thus rose so strangely beside the
waters, is expressive of what in the ways of a thousand
years men had come to desire. Hers is the head upon which
all "the ends of the world are come," and the eyelids are a
little weary. It is a beauty wrought out from within upon the
flesh, the deposit, little cell by cell, of strange thoughts and
fantastic reveries and exquisite passions. Set it for a
moment beside one of those white Greek goddesses or
beautiful women of antiquity, and how would they be
troubled by this beauty, into which the soul with all its
maladies has passed!”
(Pater, W. (1873) Studies in the History of the Renaissance )
FIGURES OF SPEECH
Metaphor: where one thing is used to mean another. Artworks are
metaphors but we can use metaphors when writing about art too:
‘it is a carnival of colours’
Simile: a type of metaphor where one thing is compared to another
using words such as ‘like’, ‘than’, ‘as’, ‘so’ or ‘resembles’:
‘The colours are like a carnival’
‘The composition is more hectic than a carnival’
Analogy: where a comparison in made over more than just one phrase.
It is an extended argument that makes a comparison of some sort:
‘The artist combines colours in an almost carnivalesque fashion. They
seem to perform for us as if on parade. There is so much movement
with just the occasional break in the action as if a performer has
stepped out of time or the crowd have interupted’
What tense will you use.
This can make it clear that you witnessed the artwork in the past and
now you are writing it up. It can make the art sound historic, or grand
and emphasises the fact your time with it has passed.
‘I found this artwork was perplexing on many levels’
This can make it clear that the artwork exists even when you’re not with
it. It can make it sound eternal or on-going and can emphasise the way
you engaged with it at the time.
‘It is a perplexing painting, on many levels ’
Can text ever really stand in for an artwork?
Can we truly convey the visual in language?
Can we actually put an experience into words?
Solution 1: Acknowledge what is
‘There is something about the way this
artwork made me feel that I cannot quite
explain. Perhaps it made me feel like…Or
maybe it was more that I felt…’>>>
‘The scale of this work has to be seen to be
believed. Even giving the dimensions does
no justice to how it towers over you.’>>>
Cabaret Crusades (2010-) Wael Shawky
Triple Point (Pendulum) (2013) Sarah Tse
Solution 2: Write in a way that creates the mood of the work or your
encounter with it.
“Because if I think back to when I've said "I've had an experience" (such
as the one outlined below) I realize that I have probably used the word
because I want to register the precise feeling that that which I have just
lived through was something like an approach to the world which I both
recognized, and yet didn't quite recognize, a space which was both in
language but yet not quite in language, at the limit of language but
unequivocally not beyond . I wouldn't have used the word
understanding to describe such a moment because, unlike experience,
which is mobile and fluid, understanding is synonymous with the
feeling of being within the fold of language - positioned or placed by
what you know.”
(Love, K. (2005) ‘The Experience of Art as a Living Through of Language’ in Butt, G. ed. (2005)
After Criticism: New Responses to Art and Performance. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing: 169)
What about writing it like a script or comic strip or mind map?
Solution 3: Don’t use words. Could
you convey something about the art
in another format?
For example, in a form of ‘embodied
art criticism’ art historian Julia
Bryan-Wilson learns and performs
Yvonne Rainer's "Trio A" in order to
better understand it and write about.
So could you dance about an
Could you record your experience of
it in another way???>>>
WHY SHOULD YOU DESCRIBE
Description naturally leads to:
2. Analysis: you look again at everything you’ve seen so far and start to
ask why. For example, why this subject matter, why these colours or
3. Interpretation: you start to understand the content by considering the
what and why together as the way the artwork tells us something.
4. Judgment: you begin to make judgments in what you choose to
describe and how you choose to describe it, but by describing you
naturally lead to analysis and interpretation which gives you a better
sense of whether the artwork ‘works’ for you.
So although we’re trying each step in turn, in just describing the
artwork we discover all sorts of things about it.
Split into pairs to perform blindfolded artwork descriptions. One student
will blindfold him/herself. The other will find an artwork on one of the
suggested websites below and they will be allowed up to 10 minutes to
carefully describe it.
The blindfolded student will then remove their blindfold and give the
describer a mark out of 10 for how accurate their description was.
Then reverse the task by now blindfolding the original describer and
having the other person choose and describe an artwork for up to 10
minutes, before being marked out of 10 for their description.
Perform about 4 descriptions each. Do not pick simple images, the
harder the image is to describe the better you will become at thinking
and writing about art!
Animated Art Critics:
Make a short movie analyzing an artwork of you choice using everyday objects as the
‘characters’ in your movie.
1. Read the first part of the essay on ‘Las Meninas’ by Michel Foucault.
2. Read the introductory slides for class (posted on course website by Monday 22nd
3. Set up a YouTube or Vimeo account (if you don’t already have one)
4. Together with your partner, choose an artwork (either from one of the suggested
websites or from another source) and print it out in colour on an A4 sheet of.
5. Each choose an everyday object to be a ‘character’ in your movie. This could be a
stuffed toy, an action figure, it could even be a pencil, pen or stapler. You just need
to each choose an object that can star in a movie about describing art.
6. Borrow a video camera from SCM (have your smartphone ready).
7. Create a film set by sticking up you're A4 artwork as a backdrop and placing your
two objects in front of it.
8. Together with your partner, make a short movie where your chosen
objects appear as two characters discussing the work of art. You are
welcome to hold and move your characters, or leave them sitting still in
front of the artwork, but you must both provide their voices and take
turns in describing and asking questions about the artwork.
9. The key to this task is to ask ‘why’ a LOT! Try to describe and then
ANALYSE the artwork by asking why this colour, shape or idea. And as
this is a dialogue, try to answer each other’s questions and see what
type of conversation you have.
10. The video should be no shorter than 6 minutes and as long as you like.
If it doesn’t work out the first time, start again until you get the
conversation about the artwork flowing.
11. When the video is complete, upload it to YouTube or Vimeo (if you
prefer, keeping it hidden from anyone who doesn’t have the link) and
email me the link (firstname.lastname@example.org). It’s due by 9am Monday 29th
Things to remember:
• If you don’t have access to videoing equipment, take a set
of still images and jointly write the discussion
above/below/next to each image as though it is a comic
• Be as creative as you can. What location might be fun to
video in? What personality or voice does your character
• Make your characters ask as many silly or serious
questions about the artwork as you can.