Baxandall, Michael. "The Language of Art Criticism" in The Language of Art Criticism,
edited by Salim Kemal and Ivan Gaskell. Cambridge UP, 1991
annotation by Elisabeth Kilpatrick (Theories of Media, Winter 2003)

What kind of language constitutes effective criticism about art? Michael Baxandall addresses this concern in his article “The Language of Art Criticism”, reflecting on the problem of using words to describe art, which is primarily image-based. In fact, Baxandall asserts that the first misconception most people have about art criticism is that it is meant to describe a piece of art; instead “these words [should be] not so much descriptive as demonstrative”. The hearer, as Baxandall terms the recipient of art criticism, should take the criticism as a directive to thinking about the piece itself as opposed to another’s description of the piece. Baxandall laments the “crudeness of our language” for this task of demonstrating. One must use words within the lexicon of European language in order to conjure the same cultural associations for each hearer, and European languages lack adequate directly demonstrative words for some aspects of art.

The majority of art criticism, therefore, is composed of oblique and indirect terms. Baxandall divides them into three categories, namely comparative words (“agitated”, “calm”), words that refer to the artist (“calculated”, “skilled”), which are also causal or inferential words, and finally, words referring to the beholder of the piece (“unexpected”, “startling”), or ego words. Despite the distinctions between these terms on the surface, though, words of each category can be construed as projections of the subject or beholder, and words from the different three categories can point to the same area of a work of art, further blurring the lines between the categories. The fundamental differences in these indirect demonstrative categories of terms are nevertheless readily apparent in the discourse of art critics.

Aside from the inadequacies of the specific lexicon in being properly demonstrative about art, Baxandall brings to light the issue of attempting to critique art, which is non-linear in nature, with a linear string of words. There is no effective way to style words to fit a piece of art: “we do not see linearly”. Thus, the art critic must either draw the hearer into his “own active art of perception”, causing the hearer to see the piece in the same way that the critic does, or the critic must explicate the piece in a way that provokes thinking as opposed to simply describing. In both cases the lexicon of demonstrative words for art criticism is a crucial tool. However, Baxandall asserts that words inferential about cause (words of the second category) are the most effective in constructing effective art criticism. They are active words, as well as the words most likely to spark inferences in the hearer to other pieces and genres of art, and to the world. This helps to firmly situate the piece of art in reference to the rest of the art world and the world at large, the basic aim of art criticism.

Baxandall’s critique of words and language in terms of describing images suggests a dialectical opposition in his mind between word and image. The only way that art criticism can be effective is if it paints a picture in the hearer’s mind similar to the one in the mind of the art critic, a feat difficult to accomplish even through the use of demonstrative words. The divide between word and image in his article evokes the theories of language explicated by Peirce and Saussure, who draw the connection between the signifying word and the image it evokes. For Saussure, the word serves as the link between a concept, or image, and a sound; he concedes that the word used is arbitrary, not having any real link to the image it is signifying. Peirce’s concept of the “symbol” is much the same; all words are symbols which stand for an object only because convention has dictated it. Both Saussure and Peirce maintain that words for specific images and objects have no actual relation to the image they evoke, and it is this problem that Baxandall explores in his discussion of art criticism. Descriptive words cannot adequately explain the “visual interest” in a piece of art. It is demonstrative, causal words, words unrelated to image, that give the art critic his only hope of effectively relaying the interest of an art piece.

Baxandall’s ideas about the power of words appear to be in concert with those of accepted language theorists. He is correct in pointing out that the chasm between word and image becomes painfully obvious when attempting to use one to describe the other. However, Baxandall appears to be talking about painting throughout his article, though he only refers to the vague category of art. It is interesting that he fails to distinguish between categories of art when discussing art criticism, simply assuming that art automatically constitutes image. His criticisms of language in critiquing art would not stand up in the face of many other forms of art, for example films, suggesting that he should perhaps refine his definition of art.