How to Experience and Critique Art

When exploring the galleries of a museum or the booths at an art fair, the experience of transitioning between artworks from different eras can be jarring. To overcome the contrast between the detailed and ornate masterpieces of the European Romantic era and the expressive, gestural paint application by the American Abstract Expressionists, an understanding of the artist and the artistic movement must be established.

So what makes a work of art “good” in the eyes of a critic or art historian? In order to develop the skill of critiquing art, the comprehension of a work’s social and historical events must be understood. The goal will not be apparent without the ability to place a piece of art into the proper context. Therefore, understanding the talent and dissecting the skill is critical.

If experiencing art in a museum, be sure to read the wall text for further context; often, museums will offer visitors brief historical information about a work of art. Borrow audio guides from the front desk for a walking tour with a pre-recorded docent. These offer further insight directly from the museum’s curatorial team. Or, if available, ask a museum docent or visitor assistant your questions. They are there to help.

To better understand how to critique art, follow the six simple steps outlined below.

Gather background information on the artist, the medium, the period in which it was created and other general facts. This is also a good time to notice first impressions.

  • Who created it and when?
  • What artistic elements are being used? Lines? Color? Lighting?
  • How are color, space, lines, and perspective used?
  • Did the work instinctively elicit a reaction?

Deduce which period the piece fits within and start gathering historical clues. Below are a few questions to ask yourself.

  • Can you recall any major events that occurred within a time-frame that may have influenced the artist?
    • Was there a monarchy? Was their reign controversial?
    • Were there any rampant illnesses or massive wars happening at the time?
    • Had any major technological innovations recently taken place?
  • What was happening with popular culture at the time?
    • What was in vogue?
    • What were the fashion trends?
    • Who did members of society idolize?

Critics need to understand who or what informed the creative process. This step may entail more research than just what comes to mind. Be sure to read wall labels and gallery text, check for any pamphlets relating to the exhibition, and peruse the store to see if the curator published a book on the exhibition.

  • Is the artist associated with a movement or group?
    • Have they been classified as a certain type of artist?
    • If the work of art in question is European, were they part of or against the Academy?
    • Were they part of or aligned with a political organization?
  • What artistic predecessors can you think of that may have influenced the art you are examining?
    • Did they have an apprenticeship?
    • Were there any highly admired painters active when the piece was being created?
    • Can you detect any similarities with another piece of art?
  • What artistic movements were taking place?
    • Was the artist rebelling or breaking the mold?

The quality of a work of art varies significantly based not only on the artist, but also on the era and the movement they were (or were not) a part of.

  • What was the artist trying to accomplish?
  • If they wanted the paint to look flat, does it? If they intended the work to appear random, does it?
  • What is happening in the present day that relates to the time period in which the work was created? What is different about our lives today compared to the artist’s life?

Now that the broad influences have been determined, assess how they are used in the work.

  • What is the focal point?
    • Was this easy to find?
  • Are there any themes present in the artist’s work?
    • What are they and how are they manifested?
    • Relate any themes back to movements with which the artist is associated.
    • What is the symbolic meaning of the themes?
  • What do the materials look like up close and from a few feet back?

Rather than using subjective language like “good,” or “bad,” think of whether the work communicates what the artist seeks to convey.

  • Is the concept original?
    • Is it reminiscent of something you have seen somewhere before?
    • Does it borrow a significant amount of creativity from another artist?
    • Does it borrow something, but also repurpose it in a novel way?
  • Did the artist achieve his or her goal?
    • Consider your assessment on quality in step four with the additional information you gathered to determine how well the artist was able to use their given medium to convey a purpose.

Critiquing art may seem intimidating because it involves much more than simply determining whether a piece is “good” or “bad” from a quick look. The art must be analyzed, interpreted, and then evaluated based on several elements, including social context. Art is so much more than it may appear at first glance. It is a reflection of the time during which it was created, and it reveals complex layers of a society.

Art is also meant to evoke feelings and opinions based on aesthetic qualities upon close inspection. When looking at a piece of art and deciding whether you like it, consider the sociopolitical and aesthetic principles from which you can make an informed assessment.