What is Art Evaluation? Definition and Terminologies

The task of evaluating a work of art, such as a painting or a sculpture, requires a combination of objective information and subjective opinion. Yes, it’s true that art appreciation is highly subjective, but the aim of evaluating a picture is not simply to ascertain whether you like/dislike a picture, but WHY you like/dislike it. And this requires a certain amount of knowledge. After all, your assessment of a drawing produced by a 14-year old child in a school playground, is likely to be quite different from a similar drawing by a 40-year old Michelangelo. Similarly, one cannot use the same standards when evaluating the true-to-life qualities of a realist portrait compared with an expressionist portrait. This is because the expressionist painter is not trying to capture the same degree of visual objectivity as his realist counterpart. To put it simply, art evaluers need to generate facts upon which to base their opinions: namely, facts about (1) the context of the artwork; and (2) the artwork itself. Once we have the facts, we can then make our assessment. The more information we can glean about the context, and the work of art itself, the more reasoned our assessment will be.

Art Evaluation is Not Simply Liking or Disliking

Before going into detail about how to evaluate art, let us again re-emphasize that the whole point of art appreciation is to explain WHY we like or dislike something, not simply WHETHER we like it or not. For example, you may end up disliking a picture because it is too dark, but you may still like its subject matter, or appreciate its overall message. To put it simply, saying “I don’t like this painting” is insufficient. We need to know the reasons behind your opinion, and also whether you think the work has any positive qualities.

How to Appreciate a Work of Art

The easiest way to get to understand and therefore appreciate a work of art is to investigate its context, or background. This is because it helps us to understand what was (or might have been) in the mind of the artist at the time he created the work in question. Think of it as basic detective work. Start with these questions.

A. How to Evaluate the Context/Background of the Work?

When was the Painting Created?

Knowing the date of the work helps us to gauge how it was made, and the degree of difficulty involved. For instance, landscapes produced before the popularity of photography (c.1860), or the appearance of collapsible tin paint tubes (1841), had a greater level of difficulty. Oil painting produced before the Renaissance, or after the Renaissance by artists of modest means, will not contain the fabulous but astronomically expensive natural blue pigment Ultramarine, made from ground up mineral Lapis Lazuli.

Is the Painting Abstract or Representational?

A painting can be wholly abstract (meaning, it has no resemblance to any natural shapes: a form known as non-objective art), or organically abstract (some resemblance to natural organic forms), or semi-abstract (figures and other objects are discernible to an extent), or representational (its figurative and other content is instantly recognizable). Obviously an abstract work has quite different aims to that of a representational work, and must be judged according to different criteria. For example, a wholly abstract picture makes no attempt to divert the viewer with any naturalism and thus depends entirely for its effect on its formal qualities (line, shape, colour and so on).

What Type of Painting is It?

Paintings come in different types or categories (known as painting genres). The established genres are: Landscape, Portraiture, Genre-Paintings (everyday scenes), History, and Still Life. During the 17th century, the great European Academies, such as the Academy of Art in Rome, the Academy of Art in Florence, the Parisian Academie des Beaux-Arts, and the Royal Academy in London followed the rule laid down in 1669, by Professor Andre Felibien, Secretary to the French Academy, who ranked the genres as follows: (1) History Painting – with religious paintings being perhaps an independent category; (2) Portraiture; (3) Genre Painting; (4) Landscape Painting; (5) Still Life. This hierarchy reflected the moral impact of each genre. Experts believed that a moral message could be conveyed much more clearly through a history picture, a portrait or a genre painting, rather than a landscape or still life.

Other types of painting, in addition to the above five, include: cityscapes, marine paintings, icons, altarpieces, miniatures, murals, illuminations, illustrations, caricatures, cartoons, poster art, graffiti, animal pictures, and so on.

A number of these painting-types have traditional rules concerning composition, subject matter and so on. This applies especially to religious art. Christian themes, for instance, which appear many times in Renaissance and Baroque paintings, are obliged to contain certain Holy figures, and must conform to certain compositional rules. In addition, painters often hark back to earlier pictures within the same genre (Francis Bacon’s Screaming Pope was modelled on one of the greatest portrait paintings – the Portrait of Innocent X by Velazquez). Because of all this, paintings are best evaluated against other works of the same type.

What School or Movement is the Painting Associated With?

A “School” can be a national group of artists (eg. the Ancient Egyptian School, the Spanish School, German Expressionism) or a local group (eg. Delft School of Dutch Realism, New York Ashcan School, Ecole de Paris), or a general aesthetic movement (eg. Baroque, Neoclassicism, Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, Pop Art), a local or an artist group (eg. Der Blaue Reiter, New York School of abstract expressionism, Cobra Group, Fluxus, St Ives School), or even a general tendency (realism, expressionism). Alternatively, the School may concern itself with a particular genre (eg. Barbizon School and Newlyn School, both landscape groups; Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, historical or literary-themed pictures), or painting method (eg. Neo-Impressionism, based on Pointillism – a variant of the colour theory of Divisionism), or aspect of the natural world (eg. Constructivism, devoted to reflecting the modern industrial world), or politics, or mathematical symbols (eg. the austere Neo-Plasticism).

Knowing which of many art movements the painting belongs to can give us a greater understanding of its composition and meaning. In the school of Egyptian art, for instance, painters had to adhere to specific rules of painting concerning composition and colour. Thus figures were sized according to their social status, rather than by reference to linear perspective. Head and legs were always shown in profile, while eyes and upper body were viewed from the front. Egyptian painters used no more than six colours: red, green, blue, yellow, white and black – each of which symbolized different aspects of life or death. Other cultures and cultural schools have their own specific guidelines. Dutch Realist artists valued exact, true-to-life replication of interiors and surroundings – except in portraiture, where the aim was to flatter the subject: cf. The Night Watch, by Rembrandt. Impressionist painters typically valued loose brushwork in order to capture fleeting impressions of light. Cubists spurned the normal rules of linear perspective and, instead, disassembled their subject into a series of flat transparent geometric plates that overlapped and intersected at different angles. De Stijl artists like Piet Mondrian only used geometrical forms in their pictures, while lines were always horizontal or vertical – never diagonal. And so on.

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