Common tactics for explaining art and portraying artists
July 20, 2012 4:26 AM   Subscribe

Is there such a thing as meta-analysis of art literature?

This question is motivated by:

1) I am a young artist who is still trying to figure out what art criticism is all about. I've started to notice different strata within art literature. For example, you have what I like to call "high criticism" (see Rosalind Krauss), and on the other hand you have works like this. Watered-down summaries of great artist's lives and works...PBS specials perhaps too sentimental to be labelled as criticism. And everything in-between. Each stratum has their own methods and cliches - each skews its subject matter in its own way.

2) I did some HCI research (wiki) in undergrad and coded a lot of qualitative responses. So, as I now read art literature and I begin to see common tactics in the way authors explain art and the accompanying narrative of artists' lives, I start to think, has anyone ever coded these? I went to SIGGCHI and saw a lot of studies where researchers do a meta-analysis of design, i.e. "how do designers design?" In fact, analyzing some aspect of the design process seems to be quite in vogue.

So who has done this for art literature? The literature is so important to how we understand art history that it seems worthwhile to try and understand it from a higher level. Of course, works of criticism will often pivot back and forth between considering the work at hand and looking at the meta level. The most interesting answers to my question may well be works that are plain old art criticism, or cultural theory. I have read bits of Adorno, Benjamin, Barthes, Foucalt, etc. and I would love to hear more about that stuff. But I am also curious about the more data-driven social sciences methodology.


Aside: there may be a relationship between the high-to-low criticism spectrum I outlined above and the degree to which it can be reduced through analysis. For example - innovative works of criticism are probably self-reflexive. TV documentaries on renaissance painting are probably not, and tend to stick to the same themes. I don't want to discount studies of the fact I'd find that really interesting.
posted by victory_laser to Media & Arts (4 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I think that systematic review is a better term for what you are describing.
The PRISMA statement might help you:

Good luck - it certainly sounds interesting!
posted by Prof Iterole at 4:38 AM on July 20, 2012

There may be work under the headings 'citation analysis' or 'bibliometrics' that does some meta-analysis of art criticism or research in art history, though it wouldn't be 100% what you have in mind. And it's not unlikely someone has written a rhetorical analysis of art criticism, but it's probably still an interesting topic.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 6:06 AM on July 20, 2012

Art criticism provides threads for viewers to enter the labyrinthine realm of art. At best it opens the imagination of a viewer so that s/he can experience a work of art on a deeper and more profound level. At worst criticism attempts to close down experience to a formula so that the viewer can check off a given art work from a list, having "gotten" it.

The meta idea sounds like it could be an interesting art project for you, that could last a lifetime. All the reviews, popular writings, academic writings, primary artist sources and more amount to a very large amount of material to read, digest, index, analyze, and interpret.

As far as the project being useful as a tool for art historians, artists, or the public to better understand art history, I am not so sure. The project would wind up being subjective and biased, at best another view to contemplate. Great art is open ended and cannot be nailed down or reduced to a formula. Our understanding of art and art history comes from looking at art, personal life experience, and study. It is always an interpretation, a grasping of something a little bit farther away than one can ever reach. It changes as we change, and it changes as the world changes.

I always loved Benjamin's Das Passagen-Werk [The Arcades Project]. Susan Buck Morris wrote a good book on the work: The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project. If I were going to take on the project you suggest, I would use the Arcades Project as a mode. Also Foucault's Order of Things could be useful.
posted by snaparapans at 6:07 AM on July 20, 2012

Has it occurred to you to take an art history course? I am an art history professor and we cover the answers to much of this question in the methods and theory seminar that I teach at both the undergraduate and graduate level.

If coursework is not practical for you, there are a ton of different books that people use to teach such seminars -- all eminently googlable. I personally put together a set of readings from multiple sources (because none of the available books are *quite* what I want), but you sound like you could benefit hugely from any of the existing compilations, since you're starting from somewhere near scratch.

It is true that these books won't be social-science style in their methodology, but it sounds like you'd be able to read between the lines and probably learn a lot, and then perhaps reassess the need for/value of such a quantitative approach.
posted by obliquicity at 7:09 AM on July 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

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