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Writing Criticism

Art Criticism is best understood as a way of showing. You should help us see what we might otherwise miss (or sometimes, help us avoid what we wouldn't want to waste our time on). So criticism, in this context, does not mean attack. You may or may not have anything negative to say in your review. Your goal is to describe and evaluate the work in a way that will be helpful to your readers.

There are many ways to write criticism well, depending on the audience, the purpose of the criticism, and the vision and goals of the critic. Some of these ways include: telling readers enough about a work to help them decide whether it would interest them; drawing readers' attention to particular aesthetic aspects of a work that they might otherwise miss; placing a work in relation to the other works of the artist or of other artists, or in relation to historical or cultural trends; interpreting obscure or puzzling parts of the work; seeking to answer questions of philosophical aesthetics in connection with examination of the work in question.

You may do any of these things in your two critical essays; however, in each of them your must address some question of philosophical aesthetics, and where the readings are relevant to your topic I expect you to interact in some way with those readings.

The following formula will usually help you produce a readable piece of criticism; after that, it's practice plus insight!

I. Description/Interpretation:

  • Give specific details about where or in what venue the work was seen or heard or performed, and say how readers can have access to it.
  • Describe the work you are commenting on well enough that your reader can understand the rest of what you say, and will be able to tell whether he or she is interested in hearing/seeing more.
  • Describe any unique features of the work.
  • Say what general categories the work fits into, if it seems to you to fit any such categories. Indicate how it compares with other work in this category. Also indicate what other connections the work makes.
  • If the work is puzzling or obscure in some way, you may wish to give an interpretation of it, or of some part of it. There will often be far more interpretation to be done than you can or should attempt in a short piece of criticism. However, if the interpretation of the work is difficult or controversial or intriguing in any way, you should mention this in your review.

II. Evaluation:

  • Comment briefly on the strengths and weaknesses of the work.
  • Indicate what standards of evaluation you are using, and why you think they apply.
  • Make your evaluations as specific as your descriptions, and connect them to your descriptions. NEVER just say "This is a good movie" or "This is a bad painting." Use much more specific language. You might say that a Jackson Pollack drip painting has energy and a thickness you can almost feel. You might say that listening to a Bach fugue is like watching a cathedral being built from start to finish. In each case you would be drawing attention to specific features of the work (you would need to describe these; in the second case it would be the structure of the fugue, and the way that that structure develops). And you would be saying that because the work has those features, it succeeds in some way.

III. Aesthetic Issues: (Optional for criticism in general; required for this class!)

  • Discuss any aesthetic issues that the work raises for you. Use the list of questions in aesthetics as a jumping-off point; but you are not limited to these questions. Try not to make an arbitrary leap to one of these questions just to fulfil the assignment. Instead, try to move naturally from specific criticism of the work to more general aesthetic reflection on issues raised by the work. See "What's an aesthetic issue?" for more help with this part.

Here are some samples of succesful critical essays by students in this class:

Elizabeth Samuels reviews Munch's The Scream (good example of a review of a well-known work from the past)

Sample Question Topics

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