Week 01
An introduction to criticism and interpretation

Wilson Road, October 8, 2010

We got off to a great start with our introductory session at Wilson Road.

After a brief welcome and introduction from me, everyone introduced themselves and said what they hoped to get out of the elective.
Some of the aspirations included:
· More experience and confidence in talking about work
· Familiarity with some of the concepts and language used in criticism and interpretation
· An ability to contextualise practice better
· More knowledge of art history.

The programme
There followed an outline of the programme .

One of the main elements is a series of visits, so that we can see and discuss work together. There will be also be guest speakers who will come in to speak with us – Gareth Polmeer and Peter Nencini. And the most important element is the work that you will be doing yourselves in collaborative groups (and individually if wished) in looking critically at work, or other elements of the world, and presenting to the rest of the group – and you will see that time has been programmed in for this. I would like everyone to have the opportunity to be involved in presenting in some way.

You may also wish to suggest a visit to your studio to discuss your own work, or other experiences we can share (last year at the suggestion of one of the group we watched and discussed a short film from the 1970s).

What is criticism and interpretation?
I gave a short presentation on some ideas on criticism and interpretation. Among these is a suggested simple approach (based upon Terry Barrett’s (2000) book – Criticizing Art: understanding the contemporary) in which you can break down this process into
· Describe
· Analyse
· Interpret
· Evaluate

And also Contextualise (which Barrett actually includes within description).

In truth, these elements may all be happening in a different order when you approach a work, but it is sometimes helpful to have a basic method.


'The absurd debasement of the 'designer' is a fascinating episode in the history of taste, and all the more extraordinary when you consider that only a little earlier this century 'design' began to usurp art in its power to delight and astonish the public. As soon as painters and sculptors ceased to communicate with people and chose instead to create commodities of debatable artistic interest exclusively for dealers and museums, it was inevitable that the public would take its aesthetic pleasures where it could find them: in the styling of cars, the cinema and in popular culture. Put another way, the century of consumerism has moved the entire man-made world into the province of aestheticism.'
Bayley, Stephen. (1991) Taste: the secret meaning of things. London: Faber and Faber. p20

Jesus and Mary clock from a second hand shop

Everyone had been asked to bring an object – there was great and wonderful diversity in these: some examples were a tiny lightbulb filled with water, a spent bullet, a camera, a Jesus and Mary clock, a brass crucifix and a statue of the Virgin that changed colour according to the weather, plus a postcard of a photo of work and many other items.

Brass crucifix

How do you approach criticising and interpreting such objects? Are designed objects approached in a different way to ‘art’ objects?

The clock and the crucifix, for example, differ in many ways - in terms of materials, weight, functionality, aesthetic (the word 'kitsch' - see Clement Greenberg (2003) - seems somehow inescapable with the clock, but could not be applied to the brass crucifix - why?). As a religious symbol with a religious purpose, the crucifix invokes a clear and obvious interpretation (but still dependent on context - hung above a bed on a wall is different to being placed in an art studio). But perhaps an interpretation of the clock is more complex, and more layered. It has after all a dual function of providing a religious image but also functioning as a clock (it had broken down so this was also negated). The evaluation of the clock would include its functionality. The evaluation of the crucifix might deal with issues of craft as well as aesthetic?

The bullet was strangely soft and elegant, if not 'beautiful' in shape - in striking contrast to its purpose of killing.

Ornamental blue bird

People then divided into groups, mixing up the various courses and discussed the objects further in groups before feeding back.

I think it was a very good session with some good in depth discussion, touching on issues such as ‘taste’ and ‘aesthetics’ – which can of course be further studied by selected reading from the reading list.

Bayley, Stephen. (1991) Taste: the secret meaning of things. London: Faber and Faber
Greenberg C. (2003). Avant-garde and kitsch. In: Harrison C and Wood P, Eds., Art in Theory: 1900-2000: an anthology of changing ideas. Malden: Blackwell