For many years, critique in the visual arts has followed a basic formula featuring three key components. A viewer is first asked to identify the work, then to describe it, and finally to interpret it, attempting to hold judgment in abeyance until the process is nearly complete. Of course, there are many variations on this theme, but the basic principles remain the same.
After participating in critiques as both a student and an instructor, and as I continue to evaluate artworks I encounter in my professional life, I found myself dissatisfied with traditional approaches. This led me to conduct research into the ways people form judgments and evaluations about what they see, leading to the formulation of a new model offering a more naturalistic approach to critique. It takes into account the fact that human beings tend to form nearly instantaneous judgments about what they see, but it also recognizes that the viewer can revise or even reverse his or her initial opinion by studying an artwork more closely. This process will be the subject of an upcoming book, but in this blog post I’d like to present a brief outline of the way it works.
The first step is Encounter, in which the audience sees a work of art. This stage of critique is very brief: almost instantaneously, the audience then chooses to pay attention to the work or to disregard it, merely glancing and then turning their eyes elsewhere or continuing to look.
Following closely on the heels of our initial encounter is Judgment. If we remain engaged with the artwork after the initial encounter, we tend to make an immediate decision about whether we’re interested and/or whether we like or dislike the work. Our reaction is spontaneous and qualitative, based on our prior knowledge, experience, and individual personality or taste. It is emotional and intuitive, not logical or rational.
The steps of Encounter and Judge in the new critique model make sense: we encounter visual objects and judge what we see thousands of times a day. Even in a place where we expect to pay close attention to what we’re looking at, such as in a museum, we tend to scan over things very quickly, we pass judgment on them (Do I like it? Does it interest me?), and we simply move on if the answer to those questions is, “No.”
If we decide to keep looking, we move on to the phase of Interpretation. We make intuitive connections between the artwork and our personal experience or prior knowledge. These connections allow us to identify the work and perceive its message or meaning. However, if we have no prior knowledge or experience, interpretation fails—we cannot understand the artwork or perceive the artist’s message if we cannot understand what we’re looking at.
Once we think we understand the artwork and have discerned its meaning, we refine our judgment and interpretation by looking more closely. This is where Analysis comes in. At this stage of the process intellect is engaged, emotion is scaled back, and we can consider external data and information linked to the artwork. If no additional input is available, we might choose to seek it through a third source, such as reading any accompanying materials like captions, titles, or an artist’s statement, or even by engaging in informal research to enhance comprehension. Analysis of an artwork can reveal new depths of meaning that were not immediately visible in the work itself, or it can provide additional knowledge that allows us to understand the work more fully.
The last step is Evaluation, which typically takes more time than prior levels of the critique process. Although judgment is an immediate and emotional reaction to the artwork, evaluation is the intellectual, deliberate formation of an informed, rational opinion. As the result of interpretation and analysis, evaluation may contradict judgment: what we first judged negatively may receive a positive evaluation or vice-versa.
By recognizing that it’s merely human nature to make quick judgments about what we see, and by working within this process rather than against it, this new model proceeds in a more intuitive, less artificial manner than traditional methods of critique, leading the viewer from an immediate emotional response to a reasoned evaluation.