Art Criticism and Art History: A Symbiotic Relationship

Dr. Abel Mac Diakparomre
Dr. Abel Mac Diakparomre

In this paper, the relationship between art criticism and art history is considered. The cynicism with which early scholars and writers looked at criticism, generally may have been responsible for the lack of prominence or depth of this subject in the art programmes of many institutions in post colonial Africa. This is particularly prominent when compared with the provision for art history.

Dr. Abel Mac Diakparomre, Delta State University, Abraka-Nigeria

“Criticism is to art what history is to action and philosophy to wisdom.”
Northrop Frye (1912 – 1991)[i] (1957)


The paper interrogates the ambits of art criticism and art history and comes to the conclusion that they are mutually related through the use of art historical language in art criticism.


Art criticism does not occupy a position of significance in the art training processes that were bequeathed many conventional art institutions in Africa by colonial administrations that introduced western modes of art training to the colonized territories. Greater emphasis was placed on art-making. This situation has remained more or less the same some fifty years after all the countries gained political independence.

The “Approved Minimum Academic Standards” of the National Universities Commission (NUC) of the Federal Republic of Nigeria for art training at the undergraduate level of academic study, for instance, bear eloquent testimony to the place of art criticism in the scheme.[ii]

Conversely, art history; generally understood as the academic study of objects of art in their historical development and context; is taught at every level of study through undergraduate programme. The reason for this is not distant from the fact that art criticism is usually perceived a much lower risk activity than art-making.

Tom Stoppard
Tom Stoppard

This perception of art criticism may have informed the comment by the Czech-born British playwright and screenwriter – Tom Stoppard (1937 – ) – which ridicules art critics when he said that he doubts if “art needed Ruskin any more than a moving train needs one of its passengers to shove it.”[iii]

The same perception of art criticism may have also informed the opinion of the British prime minister and writer, Benjamin Disraeli (1804 – 1881), when he said that art critics are “men who have failed in literature and art.” Disreali’s perception of critics was given another vent in the British House of Commons when he said that “it is much easier to be critical that to be correct.”[iv]

But, art criticism is probably the real reason for art-making because it stimulates the creative instinct, drives innovation because of the queries it generates, and as a consequence, enhances art appreciation because of explanations that it offers.

A work of art is usually perceived by many as a mystic creation whose essence lies at an indiscernible trajectory, and therefore, requires paranormal capabilities to comprehend. The creator of the work of art is also usually trapped in a web of transcendentalist tendency in his thinking and the products of those thoughts. All of these misapprehensions require a demystification and deconstruction.

Philosophy has assigned to art criticism the responsibility for this demystification and deconstruction through the use of art historical language. However, the symbiotic nature of these two instruments of art decoding – art criticism and art history – seems to be oblivious to many art makers and connoisseurs hence the antagonism usually faced by art critics.

The effort here is an attempt to interrogate the relationship between ‘art criticism’ and ‘art history’ and to highlight their linkages.  Attempt is also made at identifying the convergence of the two terms, and showing how both art criticism and art history reinforce each other in their effort towards making the artist’s statement more comprehendible. This is be done by explicating the term – art criticism, pointing out its differentiation from aesthetics and art philosophy, and drawing attention to the significance of art historical language as the vehicle for art criticism.

Art Criticism and Art Historical Language

Arthur Danto
Arthur Danto

Art criticism is usually the discussion or evaluation of visual art. According to Arthur Danto (1924 – ),[v] it involves analyzing structures, meanings and problems of particular works of art by comparing them with other works, and then, evaluating them. This process is usually to ensure that a rational basis is created for the appreciation of works of art. Ragans’ recommends a four-step systematic approach for the realization of this ‘rational appreciation’.[vi]

Denis Diderot
Denis Diderot

Though it is not known when art criticism began, it is believed to have its origin in the origins of art itself. Art criticism as a genre, and in its modern sense, however has its origin in the 18th century. The earliest individual to attain reputation as an art critic in 18th century was La Font de Saint-Yenne who wrote about “The Salon of 1737” and “The Salon of 1747.”[vii] It is Denis Diderot that is, however, usually credited with the invention of the modern medium of art criticism – the capture of art in words – in “The Salon of 1765”.

According to art historian Thomas E. Crow, Diderot followed on the footsteps of the first generation of professional writers “who made it their business to offer descriptions and judgments of contemporary painting and sculpture. The demand for such commentary was a product of the similarly novel institution of regular, free, public exhibitions of the latest art” (1995: x).

The term “art criticism” is commonly applied to judgment of man-made objects from the aesthetic point of view. It is said to be concerned with establishing a relative artistic value upon individual works with respect to other comparable styles or sanctioning an entire style or movement. This was probably why Assunto (1959) defined art criticism as the process that leads to a qualitative judgment on works of art.

But art criticism is not aesthetics. It is distinct from aesthetics which is concerned with the nature of art including investigating and determining the essence of beauty. This distinction lies essentially in the fact that whereas the purpose of art criticism is to judge single work or group of works, aesthetics is directed towards the evaluation of art in general. Art criticism is also distinct from the philosophy of art. This is because the latter aims at interpreting works, rather than assessing their quality, and discovering the nature, significance, and symbology of art in general.

The distinctive character of art criticism does not, however, imply any incompatibility or conflict with aesthetics or philosophy of art. Every aesthetic theory presupposes a body of criticism, and is expected to be applied practically in criticism, just as doing so, reinvigorates and modifies it. Criticism, according to Assunto, is always a practical manifestation of aesthetics; even as aesthetic is the theory of criticism.

There is, therefore, reciprocity, though of different type, in the relation between art criticism and aesthetics or philosophy of art. Every interpretation of a work of art implies a qualitative judgment which is formulated by criticism. The interpretation paves the way to other judgment. Also, every evaluation of the quality of work of art is always an implicit or explicit interpretation of the meaning and value of such a work. Whatever evaluation is carried, it has to be expressed through an intelligible and appropriate medium.

The vehicle for art criticism is a kind of specialized language which captures the essence of the object being described, analyzed, interpreted and judged. This language utilizes certain constituents in its description, analysis, interpretation, and judgment of particular work of art or group of works of art. These constituents include art elements, principles of design, and correct terminologies. In these constituents inhere historical attributes which make art criticism and art history more or less mutually in-exclusive.

Over the years, “art history”, has emerged as a specialized discipline which addresses the need of chronicling developments and sequences in art-making. The study of the history of art works develops in people the professional habit of tracing the forms and imagery of works to their influences and sources as well as establishing the value of the works. In doing this, art history seems to have evolved a language that facilitates understanding the historical surrounding of the creation of a work of art.

This historical language makes it possible to pass qualitative judgment and opens the vistas for acquiring the ability to read the visual languages of the past as well as conveying these in historical manner.

Cubism: 'Portrait of Picasso' by Juan Gris, 1912
Cubism: 'Portrait of Picasso' by Juan Gris, 1912
Expressionism: 'On White II', by Wassily Kandinsky 1923
Expressionism: 'On White II', by Wassily Kandinsky, 1923
Futurism: 'Cyclist', by Natalia Goncharova
Futurism: 'Cyclist', by Natalia Goncharova, 1913
Surrealism: 'Indefinite Divisibility', by Yves Tanguy, 1942
Surrealism: 'Indefinite Divisibility', by Yves Tanguy, 1942

Gombrich’s perception of this relationship between art criticism and art history is instructive. According to Gombrich, “the field of art history (is) much like Ceaser’s Gual, divided in three parts inhabited by three different, though not necessarily hostile tribes [1] the connoisseur, [2] the critic, and [the academic art historian].” The point being made here is that irrespective of the individual distinctiveness of art criticism and art history, there is a kind of symbiosis.

The Symbiosis

Art criticism, aesthetics, and the philosophy of art tend to form a unified body as it is often very difficult to find art criticism or aesthetics or philosophy of art exist in isolation. An investigation of art criticism, for instance, will require a constant reference to the allied fields of aesthetics and philosophy of art; both of which implicate art history. These allied fields complete the framework of art criticism.

This relationship between art criticism and art history is explicated in, for instance, the act of a sculptor who begins a creative process with a mass of clay which may eventually results in the production of a work of art. Out of the soft yielding material with which the sculptor started, a piece of sculpture develops; shapelessness turns into ordered forms and spaces; and chaos into meaning.

This ordered and purposive act of the sculptor is not strange because rarely does the sculptor build a work of art as a child would build a tower of blocks.

In producing a work of art, the sculptor would manipulate his material(s) in a process that yields selected number of parts arranged in specific order that is satisfying to the person organizing them. Every sculptor begins with the basic elements of his medium, and applies the principles of design. The final state of the work is usually dependent upon the nature of these elements and the manner in which the principles have been applied. All of these acts of the sculptor which involve material, technique and style and ends in a form are aimed at communicating with an observer in a language that illuminates the observer’s perception through the tying of the present to the past.

No subject in the visual arts is a better purveyor of the artist’s message than art criticism, which responsibility it is to unroll the creation of the form created by the artists as an intellectual event in time (its historicity), while keeping an eye on it as a visual object.

Another illustration of the symbiotic relationship between art criticism and art history is conveyed in Nathan Knobler’s allegory of a discussion between two persons of different linguistic and cultural backgrounds. According to Knobler, “communication between persons of wholly dissimilar background can occur only on an elementary level; separated by the barriers of language and by the absence of common customs and attitudes, the participants in the dialogue may find that their only basis for communication exists in their common experience of the immediate physical world” (1966). Even between individuals who share a common heritage, the exchange of ideas, information, and feelings is often difficult.

Often, the inadequacy of communication is the result of a limited ability to use the appropriate language. For the work of art to communicate, it needs both a vehicle and a medium. In this instance, the art critic is the vehicle and art historical language is the medium. Art historical language deploys appropriate vocabularies from art elements, principles of design, and correct terminology.

Just as the writer combines parts of a written language to produce his method of communication, so does the art critic combine his knowledge of the history surrounding the art work to pass qualitative judgment. Therefore, art criticism requires knowledge of the history – the time, place, and person – of the art work because the work of art is an object as well a historical event.

When discussing a sculpture piece, for example, the art critic reports on the act which falls within the previous acts of the sculptor; that is a previous work by the sculptor; and upon an event within the continuity of the work. The sculptor’s act could not have taken place without preceding acts of creation performed by him and by others. In estimating the value of the work, the critic also considers what it has brought to the history of art.

This knowledge of what has been derived from whom and in what manner and degree that is brought to the fore through art criticism sheds light on the artist’s process of creation, his motives and the shape of his imagination. By so doing, art criticism also provides the continuity between the arts of the past and those of the present day. If what an art object means is to be understood and qualitative judgment is to be passed, the meaning communicated by the work of art must be understood. In all of these, a historical essence is implicated and a historical language is inevitable.


Attempt has been made in the foregoing to show that art criticism and art history are in-exclusive of each other. In art-making, the artist usually produces a visual statement which in turn becomes the subject-matter for a response or reaction from the observer. In this sense, a work of art may be considered a language.

It has been shown too that in the visual arts; as in other languages; there is a source of communication, which in this case is the artist; there is a medium that carries the information originating from the source – the work of art; and finally there is a receiver – the observer. Effort has been made here to show that the observer must recognize and decipher the symbols and pattern of symbols before understanding can occur, and that art criticism plays a significant role in achieving this.

The paper has also drawn attention to the fact that the use of specialized language (art historical language) in art criticism imbues it with the capability of guiding the observer to an understanding of works of art of the past and the present.

Abel Mac Diakparomre, formerly an ethnographer with the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), currently holds a Readership position at the Delta State University in Nigeria and has a Masters degree in Sculpture and a doctorate in Art History.
[i] Herman Norrie Northrop Frye, (July 14, 1912 – January 23, 1991) was a Canadian literary critic and literary theorist.

[ii] The National Universities Commission (NUC) is the regulatory organ of the Federal Government of Nigeria for monitoring academic curricula and adequacy of staff and facilities in Nigerian Universities. In the approved modules for the visual arts, art criticism is subsumed   under art history and appreciation, and in many of the institutions, this is only provided for in the fist or first and second years of study. This does not only limit the capacity of the students to learn but also inhibits the realization of the significance of art criticism to art appreciation.

[iii] John Ruskin (1819 – 1900) was an English art critic and social thinker. He is most known for his support for the work of J. M. W. Turner and his defense of naturalism in art.

[iv] A perception similar to Benjamin Disreali’s is conveyed in Phillipe V. Destouches’ comment that “criticism is easy, art is difficult”.  Glorieux (II, 5).

[v] Arthur Coleman Danto is an American art critic and professor of philosophy. He is best known for critiques in the Nation and for his work in philosophical aesthetics and philosophy of history.

[vi] Rosalind Ragans’ four-step approach to rational art appreciation involves providing answers to basic questions such as “what do I see?” (Description), “how is the work organized?” (Analysis), “what is happening?” and “what is the artist trying to say?” (Interpretation), and “what do I think of the work?” (Judgment).

[vii] La Font de Saint-Yenne was a French critic whose review of the 1747 salon was considered even more noteworthy than paintings that were displayed in the exhibition.