Four Basic Relationships of a Work of Art (Approaches)

“…only an enlightened audience can appreciate great art.”


Every work of art, such as a poem, a novel, an essay, a play, a musical piece, a painting, etc., has four basic relationships: 1. the subject matter 2. the artist 3. the audience and 4. its own form.

In analyzing a work of art, one may ask questions regarding these relationships, such as: (relating to the subject matter) What is it about? What does it depict or represent? What is it trying to say?; (relating to the artist) Who created it? What sort of a man is he? What does his work reveal about him?; (relating to the audience) What is its relevance or importance? Of what value is it to me? How do I react to it?; (and to its own form) What is the nature and structure of this composition? What expressive elements have been employed to carry and convey the meaning of the work? How are these elements combined and integrated to convey this meaning? What principles have been observed in the integration of these expressive elements? Does the application of these principles (and the choice and integration of the expressive elements)

These four relationships of a work of art are the bases for the four principal approaches to art criticism and appreciation. These four approaches are:

1. mimetic (based on the subject matter)
2. expressive (based on the artist)
3. pragmatic (based on the audience)
4. aesthetic or formal (based on the form) succeed in conveying the meaning of the work?


“Art is an imitation of an imitation of reality…”
Plato, Greek philosopher

“Art is a reflection or a mirror of reality.”
Aristotle, Greek philosopher


With respect to subject matter, art is an imitation, depiction or representation of some aspect of nature or life. That which is imitated, depicted or represented in art is its subject matter.

Anything in the universe may serve as the subject of art: aspects of nature such as the sea, the sky, fields, forests, mountains, animals, etc., (often depicted in paintings), human concerns in the realm of the experience, action and deed (as recounted in fiction, narrative poetry and the drama), and emotions and moods (lyric poetry) and ideas (the essay), spatial forms (sculpture and architecture), tonal forms (music) and plastic forms in motion in space and time (dance).

According to subject matter, art may be classified into two types:

1) Representational or Objective Art portrays or depicts something other than its own form. Examples are Venus de Milo, Da Vinci’s Monalisa, Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake. Literature is principally representational.

2) Non-representational or Non-objective Art represents nothing except its own form. Examples: the Pyramids of Egypt, Mondrian’s non-figurative paintings, the symphonies of Mozart. Among the major arts, architecture is most nearly always non-objective. In non-objective art, subject matter and form are one: the form is the subject.

The concept of art as imitation may be traced back to two Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle. Plato, the idealist, believes that art is far removed from reality which exists in the realm of Ideals or Universals, of which our world is but an imperfect imitation, and art is, in turn, only an imitation of our world. He places art on the same level as shadows and reflections of things on water – all these being mere illusions of illusions of reality. Aristotle, an empiricist, rejected the belief in the realm of Ideals. He taught that reality exists right in our own world, around us and within us as perceived by our senses. Art is “a mirror of reality” and therefore brings us in contact with it.

The approach to art criticism through the subject matter is called mimetic (derived from the Greek word mimesis, meaning imitation.) The mimetic approach stresses the importance of subject matter or content in art. According to this approach, the merit of a work of art lies in its subject; the beauty of the subject and its significance are the basis for aesthetic judgment. This approach has been discredited by modern critics who assert that the aesthetic quality of a work of art depends not so much on what is depicted (the subject) as on how it is depicted (the form).

To modern critics, therefore, a poem in praise of the splendor of God is not necessarily beautiful than another poem expressing a lover’s complaint about the horrible smell coming from his lady’s armpits, and a painting depicting a lovely woman by the sea does not necessarily have greater aesthetic merit than another painting depicting a drunken old man sprawled beside a huge pile of garbage. What we should appreciate is not the subject but the manner of presentation of the subject.



“He who touches this book, touches the man.”
Walt Whitman, an American poet
“Leaves of Grass”
From the point of view of the artist (poet, essayist, fiction writer, dramatist, composer, painter, sculptor or architect), art is a means of expression, a medium for communicating an idea, an emotion or some other human experience, an impression of life, a vision of beauty. And because the artist puts something of himself into his art, it becomes an extension of himself, an objectification of some aspect of his personality. Our experience of a work of art, therefore, brings us in contact with the personality of the artist. The individuality of the creator is revealed to us through his creation. However, the degree to which the artist has revealed himself varies from one form of art to another, from one particular work of art to another.

The expressive approach to art criticism stresses the relationship of the artwork to its creator. In this approach, the artist himself becomes the major element generating both the artistic product and the norms by which the work is to be judged. Interpreting art in the light of the knowledge that we have about the artist has some degree of validity: it is an admitted fact that something about the artist, his life-history, his philosophy and beliefs, his character, certain circumstances in his life which may have influenced the creation of the artwork in question, his background, the era during which he lived, and other pertinent information places us in a better position to interpret and evaluate his work. While the possession of such knowledge certainly enhances our appreciation, modern critics assert that it is unnecessary. They question the validity of the expressive approach and insist that an artwork be judged according to its intrinsic qualities and merits and in judging its aesthetic value, we must not take into account its relationship to its creator.

Moreover, in passing judgment on the aesthetic merit of an artwork, we must not be influenced by our personal regard for its creator or his reputation. Hence, we should appreciate a symphony by Mozart, not because this composer is one of the most delightful and admirable personalities in the world of music, but because that symphony has certain aesthetic qualities which make it worthy of appreciation for its own sake, regardless of who composed it or what sort of man he was. Richard Wagner, another composer, was an extremely disagreeable person – selfish, conceited, arrogant – but the fact remains that his music is glorious!

“Literature, to be of importance, must be simple and direct and must have a clear moral purpose…”
Leo Tolstoy, Russian novelist and short story writer

“The purpose of literature is to teach, to moralize, to instruct…”
George Bernard Shaw, Anglo-Irish wit and playwright
From the viewpoint of the audience (readers in the case of literature, viewers in the case of the visual arts, and listeners in the case of music), art is experience; for what is a poem unless one can read it; what is a painting unless one can see it, and what is a sonata unless one can hear it? Art always has an audience, even if this audience is none other than the artist himself.

One aspect of art, which is of importance to the audience, is its value, function or significance. Aside from its essential value (aesthetic), art may have secondary values: religious, philosophical, moral, historical, political, social, scientific, commercial, sentimental, practical, etc.

The approach to art criticism, which emphasizes the value and importance of art to its audience, is known as the pragmatic approach.

Pragmatic critics attach little importance to the aesthetic value and instead judge art according to how useful it is to the audience. For instance, they are partial to artworks that have moral value – that aim to teach, to instruct, to ennoble, or to mold the moral character of the audience (this view may be traced back to the Romans, Horace, and Cicero), or else they have preference for those for those objects of art that are useful or have practical value. Marxist-Leninist-Maoist critics are classified as pragmatic because they assert that the role of art in the socialist order is to contribute to the fulfillment of the objectives of the state, to serve as a vehicle for propaganda in the people’s struggle against imperialism, etc. Again, modern critics reject the pragmatic approach because they consider all the values of art, aside from the aesthetic value, as merely secondary, therefore incidental, non-essential.

It is the prevailing view in the field of art criticism that the merits of art are found in its own form and that these merits are there regardless of whether they are grasped and appreciated as such by the audience or not; only an enlightened audience can appreciate great art. Pragmatists attack this view on the ground that it is “elitist”—that it confines art to the enjoyment of the favored few and shuts out the great masses of people who are not “enlightened”. The Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, a pragmatist maintains that a work of art attains more greatness the more it gives moral upliftment and pleasure to the greatest number of people.

Modern critics assert that the aesthetic judgment of the masses is far from reliable, the masses being for the most part uneducated, ignorant; that the greatness of a work of art does not depend on, and cannot be measured by, its popularity with the people; that a gaudy painting of Mayon Volcano from a shop on Mabini Street is not necessarily greater than an abstraction by Picasso simply because it is understood and appreciated by a greater number of people, or that My Way by Frank Sinatra is superior to Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 for the same reason.



“There are no moral or immoral books; they are either well-written or badly written.”
Oscar Wilde, Anglo-Irish wit and playwright
Preface to his book, Picture of Dorian Gray



With respect to form (the manner of imitation, how the subject matter is handled and presented), art is a composition, a whole consisting of various parts or elements; the selection, organization, and integration of these elements according to certain formal principles and employing certain techniques constitute that which we call the form of art. Hence, in poetry, the organization of such expressive elements as imagery, figures of speech, tone, movement, symbols, sound values of words, meter, rhyme, etc., using language as medium, creates poetic form. In music, the integration of such expressive elements as rhythm, melody harmony, tempo, dynamics, and timbre, using tone as medium and following the basic principles of organization – repetition, variation and contrast – results in the creation of musical form. A film in achieving its objective to tell a story (the subject matter), employs and combines many elements: screenplay, acting, direction, cinematography, pacing, editing, set design, background music, costuming, make-up, casting, etc. How the story is presented in terms of these elements constitutes cinematic form.


Modern critics, advocating the formal and aesthetic approach to art criticism, stress the importance of form in a work or art. They uphold the motto, “Art for art’s sake,” which is attributed to the English playwright, Oscar Wilde. This view seeks to liberate art from the chains of morality, religion, political propaganda, social, reform, etc., and sets up art as something worthy of appreciation for its own sake. The formal approach considers the form as the basis of aesthetic judgment and other considerations are secondary. This approach requires that the audience be knowledgeable, which is the reason why pragmatists charge that it encourages snobbery and elitism. Analyzing the form of a painting (or any work of art for that matter) is an intellectual undertaking that employs a systematic method to arrive at aesthetic judgment. The following may serve as a guide in the analysis of a painting:


Every work of art involves an element of choice; certain possibilities have been employed, others have been rejected. It is absolutely essential to consider alternatives to see what these choices are and why they occur. One may begin by considering the physical properties – size, shape and medium – of the work of art. How do these affect its immediate personality as an object? One can then explore the more complex qualities of the work. For the sake of convenience, try to isolate factors, but keep in mind that they have an organic or functional relation to other aspects and to the whole. Consider what is depicted (the subject matter). What is it? Why is it there? What can be said of the groupings of objects or figures that the artist makes? What personality traits are given to these objects or figures? How are these accomplished? How are these objects of figures depicted, what mode of presentation employed: realism, idealization, distortion, abstraction, or surrealism? What are the choices of posture, position, gestures, expression, in other words the physiognomic qualities of the figures? Balance: formal or informal? How achieved – by masses, tones or colors? What preference as to shapes in objects, areas, colors? What lines are employed? Straight, curved, vertical, diagonal, horizontal? How do they behave? Static, full of movement, restless? Rhythm: regular or irregular? Quality of lines: thick, delicate, fine, erratic, precise, nervous, awkward, graceful, firm, etc.? What about the role of the tone (shading) in the painting? The relations of light and dark areas? Their distribution and concentration? What is the source of light in the painting? The sun, fire, candlelight? What is the quality of this light? Intense, glaring, mellow, dim? Is the transition from light to dark gradual or sudden? To what effect? What qualities characterize the colors of the painting? How are they brought into contact with one another? How are transitions managed? Functions of color: natural, harmonic, symbolic, decorative, affective? Is there a pervasive feeling to the use of color? Gay exuberant, solemn, somber? How are spatial conceptions handled? How is the sense of depth achieved? Linear or aerial perspective or both? Single perspective or multiple? Tempo and mood? Affective character of the work? Any textual interest? How handled? What about the actual painting materials? How treated? Qualities of surface. Brush technique? To what effect? Shape and nature of frame and relations of objects to it? Scale of figures? Values attached to the different elements? Economics of statement: direct, plain, austere, or lavish, extravagant, elaborate? Variety and consistency of expression? Spontaneity? Organizing principles employed: repetition, variation, contrast? Sense of unity achieved? Appropriateness or coherence of choices for their meanings conveyed by the picture? Degree of success of the painting (judgment). The considerations listed above may be hard to differentiate at times. This is because in a work of art, all factors and elements exists simultaneously and interact with one another. One does not have to follow the sequence given above and may proceed according to convenience and necessity. This brief discussion of the four relationship of a work of art and the four principal schools of art criticism may be concluded thus: We can appreciate a work of art only when we grasp or comprehend what it is the artist is trying to say (theme, subject) and realize how well, how effectively, how beautifully he says it (the form).


From Prof. Marj Palencia