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Writing at Wheaton

How to Approach Writing Art Criticism

Despite the fact that all Wheaton students need to take Visual Performing Arts classes in order to graduate, the tools to enter a discussion about art can be hard to find. According to Dr. Matthew Milliner, Associate Professor of Art History, “Criticism is a form of art in and of itself, and a vanishing one.” Whether writing an art criticism paper or talking about a live performance  with friends, getting past “I just like it because it’s good” can be a daunting task. This post offers some guidance for discussing, engaging with, and interpreting works of art.

Set the Scene

As you begin your discussion of a work of art, take an inventory of the artistic elements. Establishing an understanding of your first impression of the art will create a solid foundation for the rest of your discussion. 

Consider the following questions:

  • Who are the authors? These could include the creator, artist, playwright, director, performers, etc.
  • When was it created? Consider the authors’ time and context.
  • What is the subject matter? For visual art, what objects, shapes, scenes, or figures are depicted? For a live performance, pay attention to the basic plot, characters, themes, and motifs. 
  • What are the major design elements? Consider size, medium, color, texture, line, shape, composition, use of space, lighting, sound, costuming, acting choices, staging, etc.  
  • How does the audience interact with the piece? For example, is this an interactive installation? Where is the audience seated in relation to the stage? How large is the viewership?

Answering these questions will help you create an entryway into the piece for your reader. By writing from the perspective of a first-time viewer, you evoke a representation of the piece for your reader to keep in mind as they encounter your interpretation.

Unpack the Rhetorical Choices

Once you have taken the time to introduce the piece, you can now engage with questions about the rhetorical effects of the creator’s choices. Every work of art must be considered from two perspectives: the artist’s and the audience’s.

The Artist’s Choices

First, examine the artist’s choices. Start by asking the question “Why?” of each design element. Why is the piece staged a certain way? Why did the artist use this medium? Asking these questions moves you from making a simple observation to analyzing the artistic intent behind a piece. 

Another helpful route for discussing artistic intent is to take a step back from the piece and look at the world around it. Professor Michael Stauffer, a director and designer for Arena Theatre, says to ask: “Why this particular piece, for this particular place, at this particular time?” 

Artists are aware of the world in which they create, and they realize their audience will receive their art within individualized contexts. The job of an art critic is to analyze how the artist’s intentions line up with the audience’s reception.

A masked man standing in an art gallery looking at art
Photo by Nathana Rebouças on Unsplash

The Impact on the Audience

Even though it’s easy to forget, the impact of a piece of art ultimately comes down to the viewer. The essentials of theatre, as defined by Peter Brooks, include a person walking across a stage with someone there to watch. In order to resonate beyond the artist, an audience is necessary. The crux of a criticism comes through asking personal questions about how you as the audience member interact with the piece. 

Professor Stauffer lends more insight with the following questions to ask when you see a live performance:

  • What brings you a sense of joy about the production?
  • Where did you find yourself in the production?
  • What questions did it make you ask about yourself and the world in which we live?
  • How did the artistic choices all work together to engage you in the moment – and with the overall production?

Considering the ways each artistic choice impacts the audience allows the critic to examine the rhetorical effect and, if appropriate, make an evaluation about the piece.

Draw Conclusions

Taking the time to mull over these and other questions can help you organize your thoughts about the piece of art before evaluating the effects. 

Dr. Milliner cautions against the “tendency to imagine what you wish the artist had done instead of evaluating what they did.” Instead, he suggests leaning into Henry James’ three guiding questions for critics: 

1. What is being attempted? 

2. Was it successful? 

3. Was it worth doing?

As an audience member, you have the opportunity to make a personalized evaluation of the worthwhileness of a piece given your context, experience, and interpretive lens. Consider what the artist did, why they did it, and whether or not they should have based off of how the audience receives it. Then, discuss how effective the artist’s choices were in creating the intended impact on the audience.

Learn from the Experts

As with any genre, familiarity with the art criticism discourse community will help you with your own discussions of works of art. Reading a few of these critics’ works may give you a better understanding of what art criticism looks like in a larger setting. Here are some recommended critics from Dr. Milliner and Professor Stauffer:

  • Jed Perl – American Art Critic
  • Chris Jones – Chicago Tribune Theatre Critic
  • Steven Greydanus – Film Critic
  • Ben Brantly – New York Times Theatre Critic
  • American Theatre Magazine – Reviews plays around the country (and sometimes the world)

In closing, I’ll leave you with a word of advice from Dr. Milliner: “Artists crave sincere engagement, and to offer it is no small thing.” Creating and discussing art are both worthy of time, consideration, and care. 

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