Creative Strategies to Teach Art Criticism

Excerpt from paper by Patty Knott

Note: This is written for photography – but activities can be adapted.


This action plan to design activities to develop greater student understanding of criticism and aesthetics will employ Grant Wiggin's acronym WHERE for unit plans (pg.115). Where are we headed? What understandings are desired? Students will understand the assignments, the resources available for accomplishing the tasks, and how the task will be assessed. Hook the student through engaging entry points. Criticism and aesthetics lessons will be organized around questions and problems. Entry points can also include puzzles, role-playing, and current issues in the art world. Explore and engage/equip. Through a variety of activities and strategies the students will uncover the theories and stories that lead to aesthetic issues. Students will be engaged in Wiggin's six facets of understanding: explanation, interpretation, application, perspective, empathy, and self-knowledge (p.125) as well as reaching conclusions through various intelligences.


Madonna and ChildExample: Artist David Hockney claims that the painting masters of the 15th and 16th century used optical devises to achieve their realistic effects. Investigate the arguments for and against Hockney's claims. List the pros and cons. Take the role of the artist, the historian, the critic and the scientist. (Note scientist Charles Falco's extensive research to support Hockney's claims) Simulate a press conference in which Hockney would be questioned about his findings. Simulate the use of convex and concave mirrors. Take an ethical stand. Did these artists cheat? What current technologies may cause similar controversies for today's artists? Visit, on line, the Getty's exhibit "Devices of Wonder." Research how art and optical devices influence ways of seeing.


Reflect and rethink: As the investigation into issues of criticism is a building process throughout the course, students will be guided in self-assessment and inquiry in order to make informed value judgments. Exhibit and Evaluate. Products and performance will reveal the quality and effectiveness of the student's progress through the process.


Projects to consider:

Classify/Connect: Art historians and art critics classify, categorize, and group works according to similar characteristics. Students will be asked to put works together based on good reason. Sort photos according to modes, subject matter, styles, periods, etc. in game like activities. Classify, compare/contrast, and justify reasons.

Project/performance: In what ways can a collection be brought into the classroom? (Keep in mind the Internet as a resource.) What individuals are involved in a collection (viewers, supporters, experts, critics, historians, collectors, conservators, artists) and in what ways do they impact the collection? How is a collection selected? Who decides which works are important enough to be displayed? Create a collection based on a theme.


Logic: Have students compare the four steps of art criticism to the scientific method of inquiry used in their science classes. Discuss the essential questions occurring in each step of the critical process. Ask, "What do I see? (description); How is the work organized? (analysis); What is happening? What is the artist trying to say?" (interpretation); and "What do I think of the work?" (judgment). Have students demonstrate the similarities and differences between the two methods, e.g. a dialogue between a scientist and artist arguing which is the better approach.

  • Simulate a "who done it mystery" about a photo, provide clues.

  • Create mathematical formulas, problems, percentages to describe a photo (i.e. using the rule of thirds for space, levels of contrast, etc.)

  • Create logic puzzles based on art issues.

  • Determine how advances in the technology changed the art form.

  • Investigate the science and technology of determining forgeries.

  • Create a game about photo.

Movement/Music: The elements and principles of art and design permeate the form. How can you find examples of these principles that relate to you? i.e. visual rhythm and musical rhythm; line and form in dance.

  • Relate to a work through the senses. If it had a scent what would it be? A taste? If it made sounds, what would you hear? A song, specific instruments, high pitch or low pitch?

  • Create a song from a photo image or find images to illustrate your favorite lyrics.

  • Create a drama /act out the creation of a historic photo, i.e. Lange's Migrant Mother. Play the role of the aesthetician, critic, historian, and photographer.

  • In groups, students create movements to recreate the space, lines, shapes, textures, etc. in a photo. Decide collectively how to order the movement phrases to make a dance performance. Discuss the choices made and the similarities and differences between dance and the visual arts-- time being an obvious difference.

  • Imagine "walking through" the place depicted in a photograph. As the students imagine themselves as integral parts of a work of art, the work is made more relevant to them and they respond more thoughtfully.

Verbal/Visual: Develop students' interest in the topic with a preliminary journal activity. Have students write about a special photograph they remember. Why do they remember it? What emotions does it evoke? Share responses.

  • Timelines Assign each student/group in the class a specific time period to cover or a specific aspect of research. Present and display in a central location for others to see. Use technology to expand the project by using a presentation program to create individual slides for each entry on the timeline. Introduce a time travel assignment by allowing students to choose a photo from an online collection as a point of focus for their essays/journals. Allow students to think about which historical period they would like to visit. Have students create a timeline of their own over the course of an entire school year. They could gather/take the photos they think shaped life for them during the school term.

  • Find several examples of photographs that caused change throughout the 20th century. Explain the power of photographs as agents of change.

  • Find several examples of photographs where photographers deliberately changed the image. Have students select examples of photos where the photographer deliberately created an artificial scene to photograph. Analyze the motivation behind these changes and the consequences.

  • Discuss the ethics of photo manipulation. Create and research guidelines to determine a photograph's credibility. Distribute or display 3 - 4 photos and ask students to vote whether the images are completely accurate. Ask how they know. Have students try digital manipulation of photographs to see how the truth changes. Discuss their creations. How easy is it to change a photo?

  • Create a persuasive essay/speech about the regulation and censorship of photographs.

  • Conduct a survey about a photo or an issue in photo.

  • Create a skit depicting a meeting where a group is selecting a photo to give to an art museum. Roles include members with various beliefs and issues.

  • Dramatize a TV talk show focusing on a controversial photo subject or issue, i.e. Sally Mann's photos of her children caused her to be censored. Was she abusing her children?

  • Put a controversial photographer on trial.

  • Conduct a debate about an issue in photo. Is photo art? Should digital manipulation be identified?

  • Have a photo "tell it's personal" story.

  • Write a poem about a photo.

  • Create a dialogue between 2 photographers seated next to each other at a dinner party.

  • Investigate a social issue represented through a photographer's body of work (i.e. Cindy Sherman's feminist issues)

  • Write a series of letters between a photographer and a critic.

  • Create the personal diary of a photographer (Ex. Dan Eldon, 23 year-old photojournalist who filled seventeen visual journals documenting his political activism in Somalia, until he was murdered in 1993.)

  • Write a letter to a Hollywood producer explaining why an image could be the basis for a good movie. What is the context of the image? What comes before and after?

Art Criticism Final Exam

Submitted by: Maggie Tucker, Brentwood Middle School, Brentwood Tennessee
Unit: Art Criticism –Theories of Aesthetics
7th Grade Final Exam Template (See student exampleStudent Essay- Paragraph form ) Art Criticism Links
Final Exam Idea for High School – Marvin Bartel


1. Artist:


2. What type of artwork do you consider this painting (what theory of aesthetics)? Why?


3. Description

What is happening?
Where is it happening?
When is it happening?

a. Time of day?

b. Time of year?

4. Analysis

a. Name the type of art movement to which your artist belongs:

How did this influence his/her work?

Did anything happen in his/her life that may have influenced his/her work?

b. Did your artist use rules of perspective drawing? Explain.

5. What is the real meaning behind the painting?


6. Do you think the artist succeeded in what he was trying to accomplish?


From Marvin Bartel:

For students, I use simple language rather Feldman's terms until the they are familiar with the ideas. I start with terms that need no definition. Then in the discussion I begin to use Feldman's terms whenever they are appropriate.

1) (instead of describe) I ask, What is the main thing you see? (if it is conceptual art, substitute notice for see)

2) (instead of analyze) I ask, Why does it get your attention? Sometimes I use a follow up and ask for a second thing noticed.

3) (instead of interpret) I ask, What do you think it means and/or what feelings do you get from it?

4) (instead of analyzing the interpretation) I ask, why do you think it means this and/or feels this way?

5) (instead of judge) I ask, How would you rank it compared to ---? (This is not used with student artwork - only with art world work)

I have students pick from these and write two or more responses before having a discussion. If they are writing and discussing about a peer, I restrict them to making neutral or positive comments - no negative opinions. I skip the ranking. When writing about art world work anything goes.


In the discussion, I ask a student to share one point that she or he wrote. Invite others who wrote a different idea about the same thing. If they miss something that I think is important, I will add a question myself to help them see it.


For sample forms to print for students go to:


For the teacher:

Final Exam Idea for High School – from Marvin Bartel

If the course work has included age appropriate critique methods and practice, the final exam day can be used for writing peer critique. Ask students to each display several of their best works from the term. I ask students to draw classmate names from a box to determine which other student artwork to write about. The number of names they each take depends on the time available and the amount of writing expected for each student. They are told in advance that the other student will be allowed to read what they write. I allow the writer to select one work from each student name that they draw from the name box.


This web page shows a sample of a critique form I developed to guide the critique process. I also ask students to fill this out in preparation for oral classroom discussion critiques earlier in the term.


The emphasis is on analysis and interpretation - not judgment and not on ranking or grading the work. The process is not meant to evaluate so much as to learn what makes artwork work, how it works, what it says, how it feels, what it might mean, why it might mean this or feel this way, and what its purpose might be.

Marvin Bartel