1.13 / Review

Wordsmith: The Art of the Review

By Lea Feinstein April 21, 2010

In a recent New York Times article on the future of criticism, A. O. Scott noted that “Criticism is a habit of mind, a discipline of writing, a way of life—a commitment to the independent, open-ended exploration of works of art in relation to one another and the world around them.”1 In my own critical writing, I try to understand the work I observe. Not necessarily to judge it, but to understand it. Writing at length, and through several drafts, I grope my way to a more thorough and refined appreciation and appraisal of the work at hand.

I try to do three things in a critical essay—to locate the work in a context, to understand how the chosen medium expresses the artist’s ideas, and to characterize colorfully and with verbal precision what those ideas might be, as I perceive them. When I speak of the work in a context, I mean its art-historical context, or the context of the artist’s biography, or a particular political or philosophical context. A work of art is part of an ongoing fabric or conversation, no matter how arcane it might appear.

Convinced that good art always asks questions, I approach the work looking for those questions. I read the artist’s statement. Sometimes I ask the artist, “Whose work do you admire? What inspires you?” An artist grapples with small questions and big ideas, such as the follies of war, or the meaning of using tar and elephant dung instead of paint on canvas. How do words written on a wall function as both image and text? How do women’s traditional crafts, like lace-making and stitchery, reflect and relate to biological rhythms and, following that, to life and death? I think of the Three Fates. 

Metaphor abounds, and is rich. Careful, thorough research helps me understand and decode the personal metaphors an artist might employ. For instance, the artist Marina Abramovic uses her fertility “porn” films as well as her endurance performances as part of an ongoing dialogue with her Serbian origins.

Marina Abramovic. Balkan Erotic Epic: Women in Rain, 2005; single channel video. Courtesy of the Netherlands Media Art Institute.

I am interested in the details of technique and fabrication, and look carefully at the artist’s choice of medium and how it shapes the questions being asked. Materials have their own rigorous demands and dictate what can or can not be said. Oil paint on canvas has a different historic load than a digital print, or a sheet of lead rolled and propped against a wall. Silkscreen, glitter, collage, and found materials bring their own identities and histories to a work of art, as do spray paint and video. The material an artist uses determines what is being said, and also who might hear it. As I perceive it, a work of art is a call, communicating an inner attitude, an inchoate feeling or a carefully considered proposal. If no one responds, why make the work? At its best, criticism is a carefully measured response to that call.


This article is a prelude to our two-part Critical Sources workshop, co-hosted by The Lab on May 1 and May 8. The workshop will focus on developing strategies for writing about art, and feature Bill Berkson, Whitney Chadwick, and Kevin Killian, among others.


  1. A. O. Scott. "A Critic's Place, Thumb and All," New York Times, March 31, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/04/movies/04scott.html

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