We all like to think of ourselves as art critics. After all, we know what we like and we are quick to point out what we don’t. But liking an artwork is not the same as being able to appreciate a piece of art – and this is the difference between an art critic and an amateur.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, art criticism is “the analysis and evaluation of works of art. More subtly, art criticism is often tied to theory; it is interpretive, involving the effort to understand a particular work of art from a theoretical perspective and to establish its significance in the history of art.”
This definition of art criticism is also a good description of art appreciation, which may have you wondering what the difference is. In theory, not a lot. They both require a study of art, an understanding of theory and history, and an ability to examine and interpret artwork. The difference comes when this knowledge is put into practice. Art appreciation is focused on study in order to better understand and analyze art, while art criticism involves evaluating an artwork with a formal assessment.
Regardless of whether you simply want to better appreciate art or critique it, you must be able to identify the universal qualities of great art. This requires an understanding of art movements, history, and techniques. Without knowledge of art in the wider context, it is impossible to truly appreciate any single artwork.
As styles of art developed over time, art movement terms have been applied to help classify different periods of art history. These titles are bestowed upon works of art and artists that share the same general artistic style, philosophy or a specific period, usually by historians or art critics. These classifications are more common in Western Art, and the most renowned art movements occur from the 15th century onwards.
Some of the most famous and influential movements include the Renaissance, Baroque, Romanticism, Impressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, and Pop Art, with the greatest variety of movements found in the Modern Art period. For those looking to learn more, The Art Story is a fantastic resource, exploring the history of modern art, renowned artists, and providing a comprehensive list of art movements.
Art is practically in our DNA. Artistic expression dates back to before recorded history, from the Prehistoric Art periods of the Stone Age, Paleolithic and Neolithic, through to the Ancient Art of the great civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, and others. Art was a vehicle for storytelling, often depicting the stories of current-day rulers or religion. It was also used to decorate everyday utensils and homes, and would become a symbol of status over time as works of art became more opulent and valuable.
The fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century marks the beginning of the “Dark Ages” of Europe, which lasted until the beginning of the Renaissance in the 15th century and spawned the era of Medieval Art. This period saw a focus on biblical artworks and the design of extravagant churches with three main periods: Early Christian, Romanesque and Gothic.
The Italian-centric Renaissance dominated the 15th and 16th century, beginning with famous early artists like Donatello and Brunelleschi. These greats were followed by even more prolific artists: Botticelli, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael. Although most of the renowned artworks were produced by Italians, there were notable Renaissance period artists from outside of Italy, such as Albrecht Dürer from Germany and Belgian artist Jan van Eyck.
A series of styles begin to emerge in Western Art in the 17th century with the Baroque and Neo-Classical periods. These were followed by the Romanticism and Realism movements of the 18th century, which led to the birth of Modern Art in 1876 with the beginning of the Impressionist movement. Many diverse styles would follow over the next century with Symbolism, Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, and Pop Art to name just a few.
Contemporary Art, our current era, is considered by most to have begun in the 1970s. Photorealism, Minimalism, Performance, Video and Installation art are all notable movements from Contemporary Art.
For those interested in learning more about the art history of different regions around the world, check out these timelines from Oxford Art Online. You can choose from Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe, Middle East and Oceania.
While a very broad category, understanding the elements of art design as well as the myriad of techniques is paramount to art appreciation.
Starting from the broader perspective, the term technique can be applied to the form the artwork takes, such as drawing, painting, sculpture, printmaking or photography.
On the form level, we find a range of techniques within each medium. In painting, these would include aspects such as materials (oil, water or acrylic), perspective (aerial, panorama or miniature) and even application (camaieu and action). For drawing, techniques refer to drawing methods such as cross hatching, stippling or blending.
While learning about mediums and their techniques is important, the fundamental component for appreciating technique is knowledge of the visual elements. This is key to understanding the composition of any artwork. The visual elements are universal to all art regardless of form and include line, color, shape, form, space, texture and value.
Art appreciation isn’t something you are going to learn overnight. It takes time and effort, but for those who truly love art, it is well worth the investment. Whether you choose to learn from books, the internet, visiting art galleries and museums, taking a course – or a combination – there are many methods to start building your art appreciation skills. For those looking to get started today, check out this article outlining 10 free art appreciation courses.