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Where does the idea of judging art come from

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Where does the idea of judging art come from

  2. 2. LAST WEEK 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 the arts.
  4. 4. 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?
  5. 5. 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.
  6. 6. 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’:
  7. 7. 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.
  8. 8. 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.
  9. 9. Insofar as art criticism is concerned then, these early theories of aesthetics provide us with various ways of discussing the art experience. 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?
  10. 10. 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 • Landscape • Animal painting • Still life
  11. 11. 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) Weeping Woman Jacques-Louis David (1787) Death of Socrates 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.
  12. 12. 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 groups. 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 perspective.
  13. 13. 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)
  14. 14. 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.
  15. 15. But is ‘ranking and reviewing’ ever really art criticism? Maybe. 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
  16. 16. 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 gender-stereotyped pen, little did they know the Amazon listing would become a site of ridicule thanks to the customer review function.
  17. 17. 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.
  18. 18. 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 Tumblr blog. 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 criticism)
  19. 19. 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.
  20. 20. I think I’ve experienced the sublime in art, here are some examples: 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 down!) 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.
  21. 21. TASK 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 (, or 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?
  22. 22. Has everyone submitted their reviews to the relevant website (, or 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 with you Mostly disagreed with you flyingfish106 X cakemuncher555 X (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)
  23. 23. GROUP DISCUSSION • 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?
  24. 24. NEXT WEEK Screen grab your review and email it along with a link to Bring your laptop to class next week.