Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

AFB’s Terms of Art #25: Criticism


Now that increasing numbers of people are stuck at home and sheltering in place, I figured I’d do a little series. Every weekday for the duration of this intense period, I’ll post a short definition of some term in/related to aesthetics and philosophy of art. Let’s see how this goes! See them all here.

The theme this week is art world stuff. Up today:

Terms of Art #25:


but seriously this isn’t *all* that art critics do!
(that’s part of the joke.)

Pronunciation: KRIT-ih-sihzm

Definition: Art criticism involves analyzing, interpreting, and evalutating art, and then communicating that to others.

It’s that simple!

Anytime you have a conversation with a friend about what you think of the movie you just saw, or whether contemporary country music is any good, or whether Game of Thrones really should have ended the way it did, you too are engaging in art criticism!

Professional art critics sometimes have official credentials, like degrees in art history or other artistic fields. But sometimes they’re self-educated or credentialized in a different area. They might be journalists who’ve made the transition to thinking specifically about art, or art world members (working in galleries or at museums, etc.) who move into writing.

Not to be confused with (or MYTH BUSTING!):
criticism – In normal everyday terms, criticism means saying negative stuff: pointing out flaws and problems, or saying mean stuff to you or about others.


hilarious BUT AGAIN: the art critic at home
might also praise the child’s use of lines and composition! [source]

But art criticism isn’t always negative! It isn’t even primarily negative. Art critics do point out flaws or problems with artworks, of course, but they also point out things that are good and make a work beautiful, meaningful, important, profound, etc. In fact, they often promote and popularize certain artists, genres, or movements.

Key examples:

  • John Ruskin (1819-1900) – possibly the most quintessential, OG art critic, big deal in the 19th century
  • Clement Greenberg (1909-1994) – art critic famous for championing abstract expressionism
  • Jerry Saltz (contemporary) – Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic for Vulture/New York magazine
  • Roberta Smith (contemporary) – co-chief critic for The New York Times
  • Peter Schjeldahl (contemporary) – chief art critic for The New Yorker


  1. What are the best philosophy books or articles on art criticism?

    • Here are some places you might start:
      Noel Carroll’s book, _On Criticism_
      Stanley Cavell also has some art criticism and reflections on it

      And then some article recs, via our own Anthony Cross (who also has a paper about criticism!):
      Some classics: Isenberg’s “Critical Communication”; Sibley’s “Aesthetic Concepts”; Ziff’s “Reasons in Art Criticism”; Beardsley’s “What Are Critics For”; Wollheim, “Criticism as Retrieval.” More recent: Danto, “The Fly in the Fly Bottle: The Explanation and Critical Judgment of Works of Art,” Elkins, “What Ever Happened to Art Criticism”; Carroll’s book mentioned above, James Grant’s “The Critical Imagination.”

  2. You MUST include Arthur Danto too! Here’s something I wrote on his approach as both art theorist and art critic. There was a panel and he replied. They’re all on-line.

    • Yeah, thanks! Glad you brought him up – I thought of him but thought he mostly did on-the-ground art criticism, rather than philosophical discussions of what art criticism is about. Did he write about criticism as such, also?

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