Curated Curriculum Unit 6 – Art Theories

In January’s Curated Curriculum, we discuss art theories. An art theory is part of the philosophy of art. It attempts to explain what makes an artwork good depending on the different viewpoints of the artist and the viewer.

Download the Curated Curriculum PDF
Available Resources
Lesson Plan (DOC, PDF)
PowerPoint (PPT, PDF)
Worksheet (PDF, DOC)
Blog Post: What makes art good? A lesson and explanation of art theories

DESCRIPTION:

An art theory is part of the philosophy of art. It attempts to explain what makes an artwork good depending on the different viewpoints of the artist and the viewer.

What makes an artwork good? When it adheres to design principles? If it looks true to life? Should it turn our worldview upside down? Must it fill us with emotions?

The issue of what makes an artwork good has probably been debated since the first splotch of pigment touched a cave wall.  It is nearly impossible to define what art is, so when we start discussing what makes an artwork impressive or worthy or good, we wade into complicated waters. Ask a group of students whether an individual artwork is good or not and you’re likely to get conflicting answers. Ask them what makes an artwork good or not and you’ll get as many answers as students you question.

Many art theories have emerged to encompass the wide variety of ideas and opinions about what art is and what it should do. No lesson could encompass all of the art theories, so this lesson covers the four primary theories. The goal is to get students thinking and talking about the nature of art and artists.

National Arts Standards:

  • Anchor Standard #1: Generate and conceptualize artistic ideas and work. – Essential Question: How does knowing the contexts histories, and traditions of art forms help us create works of art and design? Why do artists follow or break from established traditions?
  • Anchor Standard #9: Apply criteria to evaluate artistic work. – Essential Question: How does one determine criteria to evaluate a work of art? How and why might criteria vary? How is a personal preference different from an evaluation?

DOWNLOADS

Lesson Resources: Download the PowerPoint and accompanying worksheets for this lesson at this link.

Curated Connections Library Related Resources

CURATE

The lesson below includes artworks examples for all of the art theories within the lesson. To supplement this lesson, check out these example artworks from our Artwork of the Week archive as an example for each art theory.

Imitationalism (realistically represents the subject)

  • Edward Hopper, Nighthawks (Lesson)
  • Frederic Edwin Church, The Icebergs (Lesson)

Formalism (effectively uses the elements and principles)

  • Dale Chihuly, Glass Artworks (Lesson)
  • Georges Seurat, The Circus (Le cirque) (Lesson)

Emotionalism (communicates feelings, moods, and ideas)

  • Franz Marc, Fate of the Animals (Lesson)
  • Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, The Mysterious Garden (Lesson)

Instrumentalism (has a function or a purpose or attempts to influence society)

  • Alejandro Duran, Brotes (Shoots)-Washed Up Project (Lesson)
  • Barbara Kruger, I shop therefore I am (Lesson)

DISCUSS

Essential Questions:

  • What is art?
  • What makes art good?
  • What are art theories?
    • Why do we need to know them?
  • How does one determine criteria to evaluate a work of art? How and why might criteria vary? How is a personal preference different from an evaluation?
  • How does knowing the theories of art impact your own artmaking?

Activity #1 (slide 3)

Ask students to make a list of criteria for what makes art good.

Discuss as a class while making a list on the board or slide, making a class list of criteria. As students respond, summarize the students’ ideas and make connections between ideas. After everyone shares their thoughts, discuss the list as a whole. Ask about situations that don’t fit the list. What if an artwork is not beautiful or doesn’t express emotion, etc. Find loopholes to the list and challenge it to get students thinking.

Activity #2 (slides 4-5)

Put two artworks on the screen from the same time period. Assign half of the class to explain why the first painting is “better” and the other half explain how the second painting is “better.”

Discuss how it’s hard to judge art on any sort of standard criteria because each artist, art movement, and viewer are all coming from different places.

Discuss what’s the difference between judging these artworks on personal preference or on artistic merit? (Anchor Standard #9)

ENGAGE

Activity #3 (slides 6-20)

Place the students in pairs or groups, and assign each group one of the following four artworks. (See art theories worksheets.)

  • Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid, c. 1658
  • Franz Marc, Fate of the Animals, 1913
  • Wassily Kandinksy, Squares with Concentric Circles, 1913
  • John Heartfield, Have no fear—He’s a Vegetarian, 1936

Ask students to answer the question, what makes this artwork good? And, have them make a list of questions they might ask themselves about this art.

After each group analyzes their assigned artwork, explain to the students that each artwork represents one of the four main art theories and that art theories attempt to explain what criteria an artwork should be judged on, based partially on the original intent of the artwork. The four art theories in the lesson are imitationalism, emotionalism, formalism, and instrumentalism.

Go through each artwork and have groups present their insights to the class about what makes each artwork good. After discussing the artwork, review the art theory that fits that artwork and discuss provided examples.

EXTEND

Art Criticism Essay

Have students write a formal art criticism essay. See “Writing Assignment” at this link for more information about the assignment criteria. In the evaluation step of art criticism, have students explain which art theory the artist can (or should) be judged on.

Artwork Planning

For future art project assignments throughout the course, have students create a list of criteria that will help guide their art creation. How will the student know if the artwork is successful?