Elisabeth Schellekens, Uppsala University

How Critical Language Lets Us See

What if experiencing art is more than just the perceptions of our senses?

What if art criticism is more than just a moment-in-time evaluation?

What if we better understood how art, and art criticism, helps us make sense of the world?

Grant Title
Perception, Knowledge and the Prospects of Criticism
Legal Organization
Uppsala University
Project Dates
Start Date: 01 June 2022
End Date: 30 September 2023
Grant Amount

Consider this: The musical works of Beethoven (1770-1827) were among the first artistic works ever described by critics as “revolutionary.”

Or this: Already well known in 1937, Picasso startled the art world with his new work “Guernica,” a response to the Spanish Civil War. Critics described it as “horrifying” and “powerful.” Many, then and since,  also said that it spoke universally to the awfulness of human violence.

Or this: A prominent New York art critic recently described major works of the 21st century as “neither new nor retro.” Instead, he said, they reflect our digitally informed “culture of an eternal present.”

Are reviews such as these merely one person’s opinion, more or less interesting at a certain point in time? Or do they contribute meaningfully to our experiences of the art they examine? Does art criticism build paths and create gateways to experiencing art in ways that we otherwise wouldn’t … or even couldn’t?

Works of art can generate forms of meaning and value.
Elisabeth Schellekens

Elisabeth Schellekens, a professor of philosophy at Uppsala University, and John Gibson, a professor of philosophy at the University of Louisville, are both convinced that the language used to describe art determines the way artworks convey meaning significant to our aesthetic experience of art. With funding from Templeton Religion Trust, they’re leading an ambitious interdisciplinary project to investigate that interconnectedness.

Their exploration hinges directly on the theory of aesthetic cognitivism — the idea that works of art embody crucial forms of knowledge. As such, art offers a singular way to understand better our humanity, our world, and perhaps even the transcendent or spiritual realities beyond us. Among the many big questions surrounding the theory of aesthetic cognitivism is exactly how that might occur.

By exploring the entanglement of aesthetic perception and criticism — a link that has been largely overlooked — these researchers hope to find convincing answers to that question. They’re testing the hypothesis that art criticism makes explicit the forms of knowledge that artworks embody. Essentially, they say, art criticism educates perception. It makes understanding possible.

Worthwhile criticism is fundamentally a sense-making practice.
John Gibson

“Scholars tend to focus exclusively on what you find in a work of art,” says Gibson. “But we think that you must look at the audience of a work of art and our critical traditions together. They’re mutually implicated in a practice that helps us understand why art is such an important source of knowledge.”

“Our argument for the interconnectedness of criticism and aesthetic perception explains how works of art can generate forms of meaning and value in excess of what their surfaces bear,” Schellekens agrees.

It’s a premise that so far has been largely philosophical. However, the project is now looking to expand this philosophical investigation into the realm of empirical studies, with the help of techniques from experimental psychology and the digital humanities.

Collecting Insights, Scouring Data

An event in Uppsala, Sweden, was a key moment for the project. It brought together an international team of scholars in philosophy, art criticism, psychology, digital humanities, and theology. The aim was to get grounded on existing theories and research, brainstorm where to go next, and then develop well-informed new inquiries for investigation. A symposium on the second day, open to the public, invited art critics, journalists, and arts practitioners to join the discussion.

Central to this project are its empirical elements. First, the researchers are using digital text analysis methods to track key terms over decades of critical texts from a wide variety of sources. These computer-reliant methods allow them to analyze enormous amounts of data efficiently to discern how the critical discussion of works has changed over time. Additionally, with the help of machine learning, the researchers intend to scour the data to gain additional new insights.

They’re also bringing into their philosophical debates and analyses the work of experimental psychologists. For example, they’re reviewing and factoring in lab experiments showing how the experience of art can be affected by exposure to even just a snippet of art criticism.

An Original Approach

In addition to more workshops and symposia as well as numerous presentations and publications, the researchers hope this project will ignite a network of researchers who will sustain and guide investigations of this topic into the future.

“Our goal is to strengthen the case for aesthetic cognitivism by looking at the philosophy of art criticism and the many ways in which different angles of art criticism can enable us to better understand how it operates in our engagement with art,” notes Schellekens. “We find  remarkable the way art is able to address our intellectual, emotional, social, and spiritual dimensions when turning us into knowers as well as appreciators.”

“We think it’s a mistake to think of criticism as just interpretation plus evaluation,” adds  Gibson. “Worthwhile criticism is fundamentally a sense-making practice. And in making sense of works of art, great critics are making sense of the world.”

“Very few empirical studies have been done on how art criticism actually operates and what it contributes to our relationship with art,” Schellekens notes. 

“So, we’re looking at criticism in a really original way,” Gibson says.


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