Humanities Through The Arts Discussion Paper

Humanities Through The Arts Discussion Paper

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Responsible criticism aims at the goal of a full understanding of and participation with the work of art. Being a responsible critic demands being at the height of awareness while examining a work of art in detail, establishing its context, and clarifying its achievement. We are not referring to commercial magazine criticism, but to the act of criticism that focuses on clarifying artistic form and discovering the complexities of artistic content. Responsible criticism aims at the fullest understanding possible of the content of a work of art. Humanities Through The Arts Discussion Paper



On a practical level, everyday criticism is an act of choice. You decide to change from one program to another on television because you have made a critical choice. When you find that certain programs please you more than others, that is also a matter of expressing choices. If you decide that Pedro Almodovar’s Pain and Glory is a better film than Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, then you have made a critical choice. When you stop to admire a powerful piece of architecture while ignoring a nearby building, you have again made a critical choice. You are active every day in art criticism of one kind or another. Most of the time it is low-level criticism, establishing your preferences in music, literature, painting, sculpture, architecture, film, and video art. We have all made such judgments since we were young. The question now is how to move on to a higher-level criticism that accounts for the subtlest distinctions in the arts and, therefore, the most complex choices. Humanities Through The Arts Discussion Paper


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What qualifies us to make critical distinctions when we are young and uninformed about art? Usually it is a matter of simple pleasure. Art is designed to give us pleasure, and for most children, the most pleasurable art is simple: representational painting, lyrical and tuneful melodies, recognizable sculpture, light verse, action stories, and animated videos. It is another thing to move from that pleasurable beginning to account for what may be higher-level pleasures, such as those in Cézanne’s still lifes, Beethoven’s symphonies, Kara Walker’s sculpture A Subtlety, or A Marvelous Sugar Baby, Amy Lowell’s poem “Venus Transiens,” Sophocles’s tragedy Oedipus Rex, or David Simon’s video triumph The Wire. One of the purposes of this chapter is to point to the kinds of critical acts that help us expand our repertoire of responses to the arts.



Participation with a work of art is complex but also sometimes immediate. Participation is an essential act that makes art significant in our lives. We have described it as a loss of self, by which we mean that when contemplating, or experiencing, a work of art, we tend to become one with the experience. As in films such as Casablanca, Thelma and Louise, or Do The Right Thing, we become one with the narrative and lose a sense of our physical space. We can also achieve a sense of participation with painting, music, and the other arts. The question is not so much how we become outside ourselves in relation to the arts, but why we may not achieve that condition in the face of art that we know has great power but does not yet speak to us. Developing critical skills will help bridge that gap and allow participation with art that may not be immediately appealing. In essence, that is the purpose of an education in the arts. Humanities Through The Arts Discussion Paper


Patience and perception are the keys to beginning high-level criticism. Using painting as an example, it is clear that careful perceptions of color, rhythm, line, form, and balance are useful in understanding the artistic form and its resultant content. Our discussion of Edvard Munch’s The Scream (Figure 1-5) in terms of the dramatic swirling of the blood red sky behind the central figure and its contrast with the vertical and horizontal lines of the bridge helps us perceive the painting’s artistic form. Our participation with this painting is intense because of its contrast of forms and colors as well as the distorted depiction of a person in horror. The more we know about the painting and the more we establish its formal qualities, the more capable we are of sensing its content. Some background information reveals that Munch had reason for fearing insanity because it was common in his forebears and a personal threat. Only a short distance from the bridge at the time of the painting, Munch’s sister was in an asylum for the insane. Moreover, the eruption of the volcano Krakatoa made the evening sky red for many months in 1883, implying that nature itself was somehow screaming in pain. However, even without this background information, we can see how the formal structures and colors move us to sense the expression of psychological pain on the person’s face.


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We point to three kinds of criticism that aim toward increasing our ability to participate with works of art. In Chapter 2, we argued that a work of art is a form-content and that good criticism, which involves careful examination and thoughtful analysis, will sharpen our perception and deepen our understanding. Descriptive criticism aims for a careful accounting of the formal elements in the work. As its name implies, this stage of criticism is marked by an examination of the large formal elements as well as the details in the composition. Interpretive criticism focuses on the content of the work, the discovery of which requires reflection on how the formal elements transform the subject matter. Evaluative criticism, on the other hand, is an effort to qualify the relative merits of a work.


PERCEPTION KEY Three Kinds of Criticism

In Chapter 2, which portions of the discussion of Goya’s May 3, 1808 (Figure 2-3) and Adams’s Execution in Saigon (Figure 2-2) are descriptive criticism? How do they help you better perceive the formal elements of the works?


Comment on the usefulness of the descriptive criticism of Robert Herrick’s poem “The Pillar of Fame” in Chapter 1. When does that discussion become interpretive criticism?


“Experiencing: Interpretations of the Female Nude” (Figures 2-9 through 2-18) introduces a series of interpretive criticisms of some of the paintings in the chapter. Which of these interpretations, in your opinion, is most successful in sharpening your awareness of the content of the painting? Humanities Through The Arts Discussion Paper


Interpretive criticism is used in Chapters 1 and 2. To what extent are you most enlightened by this form of criticism in our discussion of Munch’s The Scream (Figure 1-5) and Hopper’s Nighthawks (Figure 1-6)?


In what other discussions in this book do you find evaluative criticism? How often do you practice it on your own while examining the works in this book?


Descriptive Criticism

Descriptive criticism concentrates on the form of a work of art, describing, sometimes exhaustively, the important characteristics of that form in order to improve our understanding of the part-to-part and part-to-whole interrelationships. At first glance this kind of criticism may seem unnecessary. After all, the form is all there, completely given—all we have to do is observe. Yet we can spend time attending to a work we are very much interested in and still not perceive all there is to perceive. We miss things, often things that are right there for us to observe.


Good descriptive critics call our attention to what we otherwise might miss in an artistic form. Descriptive criticism, more than any other type, is most likely to improve our participation with a work of art, for such criticism turns us directly to the work itself.


Study Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper (Figure 3-1), damaged by repeated restorations. Leonardo unfortunately experimented with dry fresco, which, as in this case, deteriorates rapidly. Still, even in its present condition, this painting can be overwhelming. Humanities Through The Arts Discussion Paper



Painting awakens our visual senses so as to make us see color, shape, light, and form in new ways. Painters such as David Alfaro Siqueiros, Francisco Goya, Paul Cézanne, Artemisia Gentileschi, Jenny Saville, and virtually all the painters illustrated in this book make demands on our sensitivity to the visual field, rewarding us with challenges and delights that only painting can provide. But at the same time, we are also often dulled by day-to-day experience or by distractions of business or study that make it difficult to look with the intensity that great art requires. Therefore, we sometimes need to refresh our awareness by sharpening our attention to the surfaces of paintings as well as to their overall power. For example, by referring to the following Perception Key we may prepare ourselves to look deeply and respond in new ways to some of the paintings we considered in earlier chapters.


 PERCEPTION KEY Our Visual Powers

Study Jackson Pollock’s The Flame (Figure 3-3). Identify the three major colors Pollock uses. How do these colors establish a sense of visual rhythm? Which of the colors is most intense? Which is most surprising? Humanities Through The Arts Discussion Paper


Study Suzanne Valadon’s Reclining Nude (Figure 2-16). Examine the sofa on which Valadon’s nude reclines. What color is it? Why is it an effective contrast to the nude? What are the designs on the sofa? What color are the lines of the designs? How do they relate to the subject matter of the painting?


Study Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks (Figure 1-6). What are the most important colors in the painting? How do they balance and complement each other? Why does Hopper limit the intensity of the light as he does? What is the visual rhythmic effect of the patterns formed in the windows of the building across the street? How does the grouping of the figures create a visual rhythm? What emotional qualities are excited by Hopper’s control of the visual elements in the painting? How do the formal elements clarify the content of the painting?


Study Paul Cézanne’s Still Life with Ginger Jar and Eggplants (Figure 2-4). How many colors does Cézanne use in this painting? Which color is dominant? Which form in the painting is most dominant? How do the most important elements in the painting direct your vision? Describe the way your eye moves through the painting. How does Cézanne use line and color to direct your attention? Humanities Through The Arts Discussion Paper


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Our point is that everyday life tends to dull our senses so that we do not observe our surroundings with the sensitivity that we might. For help we must go to the artists, especially the painter and the sculptor—those who are most sensitive to the visual appearances of things. Their works make things and their qualities much clearer than they usually appear. The artist purges from our sight the veils of familiarity. Painting, with its “all-at-onceness,” more than any other art, gives us the time to allow our vision to focus.



Throughout this book we will be talking about the basic materials and media in each of the arts because a clear understanding of their properties will help us understand what artists do and how they work. The most prominent media are tempera, fresco, oil, watercolor, ink, and acrylic. In early paintings the pigment—the actual color—required a binder such as egg yolk, glue, or casein to keep it in solution and permit it to be applied to canvas, wood, plaster, and other surfaces. Humanities Through The Arts Discussion Paper



Tempera is pigment bound by egg yolk and applied to a carefully prepared surface like the wood panels of Cimabue’s thirteenth-century Madonna and Child Enthroned with Angels (Figure 4-1). The colors of tempera sometimes look slightly flat and are difficult to change as the artist works, but the marvelous precision of detail and the subtlety of linear shaping are extraordinary. The purity of colors, notably in the lighter range, can be wondrous, as with the gold ornamentation below and around the Madonna. Cimabue’s control of the medium of tempera permitted him to represent figures with a high degree of individuality and realism, representing a profound change in the history of art.


The power of this work, when one stands before it in Florence’s Uffizi Galleries, is intense beyond what can be shown in a reproduction. Cimabue’s painting is more than twelve feet tall and commands the space as few paintings of the period can. The architectural details on the bottom imply a place of worship, while the repetition of the angelic forms to the left and right of the Madonna mirror each other, reinforcing a sense of protection and reverence for the Madonna and child. The forms of the heads and faces are stylized and not distinctive from one another, implying their shared holiness and contrasting with the prophets at the base of the painting. The brilliance of the colors and the detail of the expressions of all the figures demand a remarkable level of participation. Humanities Through The Arts Discussion Paper


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Cimabue, Madonna and Child Enthroned with Angels. Circa 1285–1290. Tempera and gold on wood, 12 feet 7¾ inches × 7 feet 4 inches. Uffizi, Florence. Cimabue’s painting is typical of Italian altarpieces in the thirteenth century. The use of tempera and gold leaf creates a radiance appropriate to a religious scene.


Peter Barritt/Alamy Stock Photo Humanities Through The Arts Discussion Paper


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