Art Appreciation, Art Criticism, and the IB Diploma and Common Core

Why are Art Appreciation and Art Criticism Important?

By Devin Allen 15 April 2015

Art Appreciation is looking at a work of art and being able to form an opinion about it. In order to communicate your opinion it is important to use accepted language standards. We’ve heard of the elements of art and principles of design, correct? Words like color, volume, shape, rhythm, unity, variety. These are the basic terms we use to communicate. You also must be able to use those terms to justify an emotional and intellectual response to a work of art. This also includes making a judgment on the quality of a work of art.

Art Criticism is adding an interpretation to a work of art. It is also called stylistic analysis. In a nutshell, we look at a work of art, examine it from a chosen perspective, and draw conclusions about the artist, his or her work, the time period it was created, the nature of the human condition, or all of these, and much more. These are often open ended in nature and require strong explanation of evidence and logical arguments to be solid.

Here are some things art appreciation and art criticism do for us

  • Help us form an opinion about a work of art.
  • Help us understand a work of art and share that understanding with others.
  • Help us make a judgment about a work of art.
  • Exercise our logical and critical thinking skills.

How does arts writing relate to the Common Core and IB Diploma?

  • Defend your ideas with evidence.
  • Understand context (art history.)
  • Use logical arguments to defend ideas.
  • Expand vocabulary, not necessarily learn new words, but learn new definitions for words you know.
  • Understand the complexity of one particularly subject or artist.
  • Gain nuance of meaning imparted by mode of presentation.
  • Understand visual equilibrium.
  • Make a judgment about a work of art.
  • Understand your own iconography.

(Taken from current IB visual arts standards, examination 2016, and 2014 Common Core standards.)

Formal Analysis

Formal analysis is looking at a work of art based on its visual elements.  You’ve heard your teachers go on about the elements of art and principles of design.  This is where they are used.  The elements are the words to define what we are seeing, color, line, shape, etc., and the principles are how they are used, pattern, emphasis, and the like.  Here are some good links to refresh your memory.

Let’s Practice.  Ask yourself, and maybe even make notes about what you see.  It’s ok to see the image at first, but try to get away from the imagery and look to see how it’s presented.  What emotional and intellectual reactions do you have to how the imagery is presented?  Connect that to the image itself.  When the how and the what are put together do they elicit and idea or a concept?  Is the concept clear or vague?  Does it make you think more?  Do you want to look at it for a long time?  Answers to these questions can help you make a judgment about the quality of the work.

These images are from MOMA’s collection.  The artists in order of appearance: Kiki Smith, Kara Walker, Gerhard Richter, Willem de Kooning.

Pool of Tears 2



Untitled XIX


A bridge between formal analysis and criticism is understanding the context of what you are looking at.  Knowing when the work was created, under what circumstances and era, and how it was originally seen is important to understanding the meaning of the work.  For example, the following two paintings are of the same person but completed by two different artsits at different times, one when Mao Zedong was alive and the other after he died.

Andy Warhol, from the Art Institute of Chicago, Gerhard Richter, MOMA

Art Institute of Chicago Mao


Art Criticism

Criticism is a multi-faceted endeavor.  Analysis explains why an artist chose a particular medium to communicate an idea.  Interpretation is establishing meaning to a work of art. Judgment is ranking this work compared to others.  Begin by establishing what you believe the artist wanted to communicate, defend your answers by referring to your formal analysis.  For example:  In the following painting, Jacob Lawrence draws our attention to the seriousness of the doctor attending to a sick man.  He achieves this through his use of flat colors, simplified forms, and concentrating all the action into the lower right of the painting.  The complete lack of activity on the left side of the painting communicates a quiet, introspective, feeling.  Low-key colors create a somber, almost dire mood.

Among one of the last groups to leave the South was the Negro professional who was forced to follow his clientele to make a living

Interpretation asks us to attach meaning to a work of art by employing a defined system.  Common systems are Feminism, Marxism, Semiotics, and Iconography.  For the IB and Common Core, basic Semiotics (you can leave Deconstructionism for grad school,) Iconography, and Biography will be the most useful.  There’s a heap more, if you have time look them up, it trains your mind to think in different viewpoints.  It is important to note here, there is not so much of a right or wrong interpretation, but there is definitely a well defended (good) interpretation and a poorly defended (bad) interpretation.


Like I said earlier, will just stick with the basics.  This mode of interpretation examines the relationship between the signifier, what you see, and the signified, what it means.  In my years of teaching I have often heard students describe their work according to symbols, “The dark red heart represents my sadness, the ocean represents a feeling of loss” and so on.  This is fine for the artist who creates it but you are the critic here, what symbols do you see and what to they mean to you?  Defend your answer, and use common interpretations, a pink ribbon may mean Easter to you, but to most of us, it means Breast Cancer.


Iconography makes an interpretation based on the subject matter of the image.  What is happening in the image, how does it relate to what we already know about what we see?  We examine more closely how the artist portrays the subject matter.

Let’s try it with Yoshitomo Nara’s painting.  From a Semiotic perspective this painting presents us with the conflicting emotions of being separated from someone we are infatuated with, evidenced by the text, and the anger of unrequited love that we see in the young girl’s face.  From the Iconographic system, this work is making a nod to the tradition of comics in modern and contemporary Japan, but takes a step further by injecting these types of images into a fine art setting.  The artist aims to add a new form of legitimacy to this form of expression.



This is going to come in handy for the IB students particularly when you are putting your exhibit together, because you are going explain how each work fits into the trajectory of your study.  Biographic interpretation is placing a work, or a group of work into the grand scheme of an artist’s entire life.  Look at these two Roy Lichtenstein paintings.  One was completed well before the other but they are both related to his style.

Peace Through Chemistry I from Peace through Chemistry

Drowning Girl

Judging a work of art

I am not one of those people who believes a work of art’s value is completely subjective.  I will concede there is gray area, but there is definitely a difference between better and worse.  There is a lot that can be said on this matter but for now let’s keep it simple:  How does the work of art compare to others?  Where does it fit into the hierarchy of all art created?  To arrive on a judgment we will need to go back to formal and contextual analysis and toss in some critical analysis to solidify the point.  Ask yourself; does this work of art ask you to think?  Does it move you visually? Did the artist choose the right medium for the message?  Is there opportunity for interpretation?  To illustrate let’s look at a child’s painting next to one of Jackson Pollack.

Shimmering Substance

Ok so I didn’t want to punish a child for being a child, so I didn’t post a child’s image here.  In fact I do believe there is value to children painting in an abstract expressionist style.  But I also want to combat the “My kid could paint that” concept that a lot of people hold when looking at abstract expressionist art.  The idea here is Jackson Pollack had the ability to paint realistically and abstractly, but he chose not to for very specific reasons.  He studied Carl Jung’s theories of psychology; he wanted to break away from the idea of communicating through symbols.  We can analyze his work by understanding the context in which he created, its disregard for conventions of composition, its ability to capture a moment in time.  We can do the same with a three-year-old’s work, but the resulting interpretation is less convincing than that of Pollack’s.

A related and final note

Related to judging a work of art is comparison.  Heinrich Wolffin is known for his posting two works of art side by side in order to analyze them.  When comparing and contrasting two works of art it makes it easier for us to see the stylistic differences between the two.  It is not necessary that one is better than the other, just that they are simultaneously similar and different.  We can include context and interpretation into this compare and contrast method.

Here’s a link to a site that has similar artwork for you to compare.

What I’ve written here only begins to open the subject of appreciation and criticism.  There are far more stylistic interpretations that I did not mention.  There are art movements and groups not mentioned and even entire books that are dedicated to defining these.  What I hoped to accomplish is to give you some tools for looking at and writing about art.  If you want to really dig into it try Minor’s Art History’s History and Adams’ The Methodologies of Art.  Both of these are fantastic resources with further explanation.  I hope this blog helps you along your way.

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