A method of criticism for the writer

 Edgar Degas, Jockeys before the Start with Flagpole (1881)

Edgar Degas, Jockeys before the Start with Flagpole (1881). Try out your critical method on this piece of art, but be warned: You have to know a great deal about Degas, Impressionism and art in general before you proceed.

This method focuses on the visual arts, but the same method can be applied to music, poetry, dance, movies, restaurants or books, with a little adjustment.

Feldman describes a four-step process: description, formal analysis, interpretation and evaluation. The steps are in an order that allows for gathering and organizing evidence before analysis and finally some evaluation of a work’s worth. But in writing a critique, the information can be arranged in the most appropriate form.


First, take inventory of the subject matter — what is apparent in the viewing or reading. Avoid drawing inferences as much as possible. Form a simple account of “what is there.” Any reasonably observant person would come with something similar. Do not use loaded language that hints at the value of what is being described. Description is an attempt to find what is objectively present in the subject.

To arrive at a critical description:

  1. Inventory what you see or experience. For example, in a restaurant critique, this could include the menu, the decor and the demeanor of the staff. In a movie, it could include the actors, the settings, the special effects and any number of characteristics. Be concrete; describe line, shape, form, texture, space, action, language — whatever is appropriate to the subject matter.
  2. Describe or analyze the technical aspects of the subject — how it was made, how it functions — while still deferring any evaluation.

Formal Analysis:

In the formal analysis, try to see beneath the descriptive inventory to discover how the things in your inventory are constituted and organized.

  1. Focus on the universal characteristics of the subject and how the elements of the work have been organized by the author or artist.
  2. Look for patterns that are familiar in similar works or in other works by the same author or artist.
  3. As an example, you might see in the content of a movie certain techniques that have been used in other movies — deep focus, long takes, montage — and compare them to techniques used in movies of the same genre or by the same director.


Every object or subject worth a critique has meaning. Description and formal analysis help us discover this meaning and the relevance of the object or subject to our lives or to the human situation.

  1. Begin by forming an idea or principle of organization that relates the description and formal analysis to a deeper level of content.
  2. Try to form an explanation that reveals a meaning that follows from what you have learned in description and formal analysis.


Evaluating an art object, a literary work or any other human activity means giving it a rank in relationship to other works in its class. Evaluation is a way of deciding the artistic and aesthetic merit of and object — of deciding its quality. This evaluation goes beyond “I like” or “I don’t like” to something deeper.

  1. Compare the subject with historical models and relate it to the widest possible range of comparable works.
  2. Determine the relevance of originality. Decide how the subject conforms to or departs from other examples in its class. What is original and compelling about the art object?
  3. Originality also must carry with it some substantive measure and not simply be “novelty for the sake of novelty.” This is where careful description, analysis and interpretation come in.
  4. Varieties of Visual Experience

    Adapted from Varieties of Visual Experience: Art as Image and Idea, by E.B. Feldman, Prentice-Hall, 1981.

  5. Determine the relevance of technique. Because art, music, literature or cooking all entail a process of making something, technical merit is part of the evaluation. Craftsmanship, logic in the use of tools and materials, the proper use of tools, and how things appear and function must be considered. Determine whether a particular technique supports or diminishes the overall impact and import of the subject.

Final Words:

Criticism is talking and writing about the arts; it is not simply my opinion versus your opinion. Critical writing and speaking must be based on sound evidence and criteria that support your conclusions.

Organizing your fine-arts critique along the lines of this step-by-step critical performance is acceptable. But you will do far better to build a narrative that flows seamlessly from one step to another. Following the step-by-step organization leads to a critical paper that reads like an academic exercise or assignment. A well-organized, seamless narrative, on the other hand, allows you to form your own critical voice. The best way to learn how this works is to read good criticism in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harpers, the New York Times or any serious publication on an art form.


INSTRUCTOR: Michael O’Donnell | | 651-962-5281