In the previous post I discussed steps one and two in the process of learning how to make valid critical observations and judgements about works of art. Those steps ask you to slow down and spend some time just looking at the work. Then do a really thorough mental inventory of what you see. You can read that post here.
Keeping steps one and two in mind let’s complete the process…
3. Everything has context including works of art.
When seriously considering a work of art you should look at more than just that one solitary object because nothing exists in isolation.
See if you can find out what the artist is attempting to accomplish and how this particular piece fits into that effort.
Is the artwork part of a larger series or movement? Does it represent an important stage of an artist’s career? Does this piece of art reveal or illustrate an idea that exists beyond the artwork?
If the artist is well known you can learn something about their ideas and work online or in books and magazines. You might even hear them talk about their work. If none of those opportunities are possible you can sometimes get a limited sense of context simply by seeing more examples of the artist’s work.
Some artists create art with roots deep in a larger framework. For example, race, gender, politics, and culture are a few of the large-scale contexts that influence many contemporary artists. To really understand their work you need to explore the relationship between their artwork and that context.
Other artists just want to paint a beautiful picture (for example) or create an elegant cup that feels good in your hand (another example). Even these kinds of artworks have context. How do they compare to other decorative paintings or functional ceramics? Are they influenced by fashion and current trends?
As you look at more art you will eventually bring your own contextual references to the process. You’ll start asking and answering questions such as… Are the formal elements in this work used in a new way or have I seen the same thing many times before? Is the craftsmanship truly exceptional or merely above average?
4. You are now in a position to evaluate and judge.
You have slowed down your hyper-speed, multitasking brain and focused on the artwork in front of you. You have conducted a mental inventory of all the objective information in that same artwork. And you’ve managed to find out what the artist is trying to do and how their work fits into a larger context.
Now it’s time to come to some conclusions.
Keep in mind that your personal conclusions about an artwork are only as valid as all the preliminary efforts you’ve made in steps one, two and three. If you have been thorough and diligent up to this point then your conclusions will have validity. They will certainly be more valid than the average person’s casual opinion.
Let me suggest that you start being an art critic by shying away from making final judgements like good or bad. You will eventually be able to make those determinations (at least in some cases) but let them wait until you’re a little more comfortable with the process.
Focus at first on evaluating the art. What are the strengths or weaknesses of the artwork as it now stands? Can you defend your observations by referring to specific and verifiable information?
You might also use the critical skills you’ve developed to speculate about any significant relationships and references you discover embedded in the artwork’s form or imagery. Important artworks throughout history and across cultures are famous for being layered with subtle clues and references that support the work’s greater meaning. Much of contemporary art is noted for having conceptual underpinnings that are not always obvious on first viewing.
Your informed critical skills will not only give you a more accurate reading of the work you’re examining, they will provide new insights and, hopefully, a whole new way of looking and thinking about art in general.
Enjoy the experience.