Looking at the Masters

Art criticism is a problematic term. In its most useful capacity, art criticism is not actually about criticizing but more about discussion, evaluation, and working towards having an understanding of works of art. But since the word “criticism” can be associated with judgment and lack of approval, art criticism has the reputation of being mostly a method of nitpicking and finding fault with works of art. When art criticism is instead used as a method for understanding, art becomes more engaging and easier to relate to. But why is it important to be able to engage, discuss and evaluate works of art?

Art is closely linked to almost everything that we as a nation say we think is important: academic achievement, social and emotional development, civic engagement, and equitable opportunity. Involvement in the arts is associated with gains in math, reading, cognitive ability, critical thinking, and verbal skill. Learning about the arts can also improve motivation, concentration, confidence, and teamwork. Being able to empathize with and respond intelligently to works of art goes to the very heart of what creative, responsive, art experiences are all about. Not to be able to do so, on the other hand, is to be able to respond only to art already labeled, judged, and acclaimed. Basically, liking only the masterpieces of the world.

Why do so many people look at a masterpiece and feel so ineffective instead of empowered?

What is it about artists such as VanGogh and Munch that make people feel so incapable of using their own unique gestures and perspective to make their own art?

Have you ever really looked at the art of those considered by society to be great masters? I know that most people are already familiar with The Scream and Starry Night but have you actually looked at these works through an unbiased lens, trying to disassociate them from their acclaim? Have you ever looked at these works in a critical way and described, evaluated, and analyzed them to try to understand what makes a work of art a “masterpiece”, and what -other than its notoriety- is so intimidating? What qualities in these well-known works make us feel like making art is beyond our capabilities?

Some of the reasons for a certain artist’s or work’s notoriety lay in its history. While the art historical aspect of these works is significant and interesting, it is not what I’d like to focus on right now. I don’t believe a background in art history is necessary to enjoy and engage with a work of art.

Even if you are already familiar with a work of art, listing what see can be a useful tool to begin to really see it for what it is instead of what it means to you or to the greater art world.

Let’s take a closer look at both of these images and try to see them for what they really are:


In the Scream, I see a man that kind of looks like an alien standing on a bridge. He looks like an alien because his head looks like an upside-down pear, with round eyes, no eyebrows, and a very flat nose with only two holes for nostrils. His mouth is opened wide into a long oval and his hands, which are abstract and nothing but squiggles, are framing his face.  They reach from the side of his temple and run all the way down his face past his chin. He wears a black robe. The water underneath the bridge on which he’s standing is very rudimentary-as is the sunset. Both are made in wavy layers. The water extends vertically across the picture and curves to the left and the sunset extends horizontally across the top third of the picture.

starryAs for Starry Night, we’re familiar with the wavy cypress tree rising up on the left side of the painting, the town spreading out to the right, the mountains, the blue sky with the handful of haloe’d stars and moon, the white and light-blue tendrils of wind blowing across the composition, and of course the whole picture is painted in VanGogh’s signature choppy style.

I know we’ve all seen this a million times and agree, as a society, that this is what art is supposed to be. But what about this depiction of a man screaming and a town under a night sky makes the greater population feel like any art they would make is inferior to this?

I know that everyone reading this is undoubtedly familiar with these images. Moreover it is likely that everyone reading this has at least seen one of these images in person.

I’d like to know, aside from the fact that all these images are used in pop culture, the artists are household names, and if any of these pieces were to be sold in auction they would sell for many millions of dollars, what about them is so appealing? Because to tell you the truth I’m not sure why these specific paintings, out of millions, became heavy-hitters in the art world.

Can you pin point what you do like about these works? Better yet, can you pin point what you DON’T like about them?

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