Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Think about your favorite song, a movie you despised or a modern art installation that made you recoil in confusion. Now ask yourself: why does this art affect me so significantly? Why do these sound waves elicit such intense emotions? Why are these rapidly-changing images so thought-provoking?

Most of us are good at talking about art, especially art that we genuinely like or dislike. It is more difficult, however, to place those likes and dislikes into a broader schema of how we think about art. Such a schema is difficult to articulate because it forces us to reveal fundamental assumptions we make about the character and purpose of artistic endeavors. For this reason, I will offer an approach for analyzing artistic works ones that you like, dislike or anything in between to help you think about and discuss art.

Start by considering why art matters. Maybe you think the purpose of art is to invoke true beauty. Perhaps it is to glorify God through creative endeavors. Or, it could be to release the artist’s insuppressible emotions. Many people believe that art has more than one purpose, giving various importance to different goals. However, all reasons that art matters can be categorized in two classes: transcendent and procedural. 

Transcendent purposes for art are based on some ultimate, theoretically achievable goal. Beauty, symmetry and glorification of God are all transcendent artistic purposes. Alternatively, procedural purposes for art focus on the creation and consumption of the work itself. Expressing the artist’s emotions or conversing with a cultural zeitgeist are procedural artistic goals.

If the criterion is transcendent, discussing art is pretty simple. A good artistic discussion consists of identifying whatever goal you feel is important and asking how well the art accomplishes it. The technique, style and history of the piece can all be subordinated to this end. Understanding this paradigm of art analysis can clarify moments in the history of art that may now seem alien to us. For instance, it becomes clear why the famously-discordant tritone interval was shunned in medieval music as “the devil’s interval.” It was a technique judged to violate the stated goal of musical endeavor at that time, the glorification of God. Of course, the great difficulty of transcendental art analysis is deciding and defending which of an infinite array of possible goals is ultimately the most important.

Procedural goals for art make discussion more complicated. Despite how natural it may seem, historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin describes such an approach to art as a relatively-recent innovation. In an exquisite series of lectures from 1965, Berlin explains that the view of art, and indeed life generally, is not merely the pursuit of a goal, but an important generative process in its own right. This generative, and therefore procedural, approach to art is the fundamental innovation of Romanticism. The Romantic movement introduced the now widespread idea that humans are culminations of will that must create. Therefore, art is the consequent expression of our chaotic will.

When analyzing art for procedural goals, start with your reaction after experiencing the work. This need not be an emotional reaction; it can be a reaction based on rational thoughts, feelings, or something completely different. The central question is: how are you different now having experienced the art compared to before you were exposed to it?

This core reaction exists for everyone and for all art. The response provides a kernel on which the rest of your understanding of the piece can be built and is technically enough by itself to produce substantive art criticism. However, you can round out your discussion of the art at hand by considering its history and technique. Both of these aspects are important in their own right and can help you articulate your core reaction.

Technique is the set of tools the artist uses to produce their piece and to endow it with an aesthetic quality – to make it “art.” Understanding the artist’s technique tethers the tangible features of the work to a more abstract core reaction. Techniques are also important in their own right because they situate the artist in a broader stylistic community. This connection hints at the final critical feature of procedural analysis: history.

The history of a particular artist or work of art positions the artist in a dialogue with a creative community. For most transcendental objectives, the history of a work of art does not particularly matter because it does not reflect how effectively the art accomplishes its goal. To view art through a procedural lens, however, usually requires an understanding of what made the artist choose to create the piece in the place and time that they did. History is what answers those questions and bridges the gap between the general world of arts, the specific work of art, and your experience of it.

Discussing art can seem intuitive and uncomplicated, but what we say about art exposes important assumptions about what we think art ought to be and how we understand its goals. Crafting an analytical architecture through which to analyze art brings and situating our view on art in it fosters a connection between ideas about art and possible goals art may have. By explicitly acknowledging our assumptions, we can make our discussions more compelling and our aesthetic dialogue more insightful.

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Sam Shafiro (he/him) (25C) is a Political Science major from Oak Park, Illinois. He is involved with the Emory Barkley Forum for Debate, Deliberation, and Dialogue and the Emory SIRE undergraduate research program. In his free time, Sam enjoys bananas and celery, as well as other fruits and vegetables.