Although the criticism of every art will be based in the particularities that arise from its specific media, I am interested here in highlighting aspects of criticism applicable across the arts (and which are therefore relevant to film criticism). Equally, although the characteristics of evaluative criticism have developed through and in relation to written criticism, most of the aspects listed below would be germane to work currently taking place within audio-visual formats. I offer this interdisciplinary résumé because my experience is that many students of film studies ‘in the 21st Century’ are currently lacking an awareness of the practice of evaluative criticism.

Some might consider the phrase “evaluative criticism” tautological because the etymology of the word “criticism” implies evaluation. It is derived from the Greek word kritikos, which means to judge, and the kritikoi were the judges or jurymen who gave verdicts (often in competitions). The kritikoi were also encouraged to come to their judgements after careful consideration—for Aristotle criticism was not simply judging but judging well—and mindful that they should be for the good of the society allowing future judges to judge more soundly.[1] Over time, however, criticism has become capacious including all manner of commentary, and its evaluative dimension is less determining and in many cases non-existent. My own feeling is that the other approaches referenced by the term could go by their more specific and accurate names, for example, scholarship, philology, contextual/cultural study, and theory, or critical theory. The distinctive discipline of evaluative criticism would then be less likely to be lost in the broad church.

Contemporary evaluative criticism is now inextricably linked to the aesthetic. Put very briefly, the conception of aesthetics to which I refer is that which came to fruition in 18th Century and most profoundly in Immanuel Kant’s Third Critique. It concerns the philosophical study of artistic judgement and value, and more particularly the evaluative experience of a work’s form and style. Despite the emphasis on form and style, an aesthetic approach does not entail formalism or aestheticism and, therefore, does not discount meaning or “content,” or demean moral, political, or ethical dimensions.

A fundamental aspect of the aesthetic point of view is experience. The actual encounter between this viewer/critic and this work in front of him/her underpins the critical process. This distinguishes criticism from many other prominent approaches to artistic work. Historical or other forms of contextual study wish to illuminate the work by returning it to its original context (place, culture, politics, institutions or people). The individual’s aesthetic experience of the work—in the present—is downplayed and sometimes repudiated. Theoretical study wishes to illuminate the work by placing it within generalised systems and structures, abstracting it, which often, once again, detaches it from the individual’s aesthetic experience (of its particularity). By contrast, criticism is experiential all along the line: it conceives of the work as one that expresses or embodies experiences, and is based on an appeal to experience; it is responsive to the aesthetic experience as the work is encountered; it is mindful that the experience of the work may be modified by knowledge of a range of contexts (historical, cultural, intellectual), new evidence, other works, experiences of life, and by taking account of the experiences of friends, colleagues and students; and, ultimately, it intends to contribute to the reader’s experience of the work.

Evaluation is a necessary but not sufficient component of criticism because evaluation is an important practice in many areas of life that are not criticism. Evaluative criticism also involves:

  • Communicating an understanding of a work which often includes but is not equivalent to presenting an account of its meaning (interpretation narrowly conceived). The work is shown to be intelligible (or unintelligible), or can be experienced in ways we may not have realized, and is a more (or less) significant achievement.
  • Awakening perception by drawing attention to aspects of the work. Something we were partly aware of is clarified or enhanced, or something new is revealed. Criticism often directs itself towards the missed, or dismissed. It advocates that the work be regarded in a certain way. An account shows, prescriptively, how it could, or even should, be seen.
  • Describing and analyzing the form and style of the work attentively and often moment by moment—a practice known as close reading—in order to adjust perception and bring to light the previously unseen (or unheard), explain inner workings, refine interpretations, justify and evidence evaluative claims, and deepen the experience.
  • Appreciating the work and encouraging others to appreciate. Appreciation is not something casually adopted but more fundamentally a “mode of apprehension” that starts with an expectation of value and proceeds as a “structured perception of value.” One believes that paying the work the right sort of attention, something that may require training and experience, will be worth one’s while, and lead to a valuable experience.[2] Appreciation is often admiring, but it may also carry the sense of taking full or sufficient account of—as in, for example, appreciating a problem—rather than feeling thankful or grateful for, or valuing highly.
  • Recognising, and responding to, the particularity and irreducibility of the work. In what way is it distinctive? The English literary critic F.R. Leavis wrote that the critic should regard the work “as something that should contain within itself the reason why it is so and not otherwise.”[3]
  • Detecting the work’s qualities—the distinguishing characteristics, traits, and attributes—and how they are generated. These may be, for example, formal (balanced, tightly knit, economical), emotional (sad, angry, joyful, serene), behavioural (bouncy, sluggish, pretentious, subtle), representational (realistic, true to life, distorted), or historical (original, derivative, daring).[4]
  • Gauging the capacity of the work to engage and stimulate our faculties of perception, cognition, emotion or imagination.[5]
  • Comparing, implicitly or explicitly, with other works. Discriminatory activity draws on cumulative experience.
  • Identifying, and being knowledgeable about, relevant artistic contexts and traditions—authorial, generic, stylistic—to reveal aspects of the work that only manifest when perceived with these in mind, and to show ways in which it is different, atypical, and perhaps exceptional.[6]
  • Acknowledging the work as something made by people and designed to achieve some end(s) that may or may not be accomplished. An important part of evaluation is the recognition that it has been made, and made well, or not so well. Criticism recognises that certain things may be achieved, or not. Leavis believed that the critic should not merely react to the completed work but respond to a sense of the makers’ creativity and choices, to the implied activity of its composition.[7] This creativity will sometimes manifest as a distinctive personal style which criticism will evaluate for its qualities and efficacy.
  • Accepting that there are no fixed evaluative criteria that will apply in all cases. Most critics and aesthetic philosophers believe that criteria cannot be ascertained and prescribed a priori but will emerge as one engages with the particularity of the work and its critical context. Criticism often evaluates whether a feature feels fitting and suitable: does it work here, does it seem right, and why.[8] Criticism is conditional, contingent, practical, and pragmatic, but this does not make it arbitrary. Although they refrain from adopting pre-ordained systems, critics are often systematic because they wish to think in an ordered way about the way the work has been arranged. Rather than absolute or universal criteria, criticism abides by principles or standards of critical practice and procedure.[9]
  • Expressing dissent in order to seek assent. There is a non-conformist impulse in criticism that serves revaluation. The critic feels that the work has been overrated or not rated highly enough and this misjudgement needs rectifying in order to gain fair recognition. This is more than an academic intervention; it is felt to be an ethical imperative.

A piece of criticism contributes, in a formalised and extended manner, to a continuing conversation about a work. This is one reason why criticism endeavours to operate within ordinary language—aside from using the creative terminology and language of its art—and resists being unduly determined by specialist discourses from other disciplines. Such discourses may well be necessary to achieve alternative perspectives, for example, when offering a radical critique. For criticism, however, these would break its continuity with the creative processes of the art to which it attends and intelligent everyday exchange about aesthetic experience.

Author biography:

Andrew Klevan is Associate Professor in Film Studies in the Faculty of English at the University of Oxford. His most recent attempt at evaluative criticism concerns the film Trouble in Paradise [click on title]. A slightly expanded version of ‘What is Evaluative Criticism?’ including a more extensive bibliography can be found at his page.


    1. René Wellek, “Literary Criticism” in What is Criticism?, ed. Paul Hernadi (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981), 297; F.E. Sparshott, The Concept of Criticism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), 17.return to text

    2. S.H. Olsen, The End of Literary Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 137; see also S.H. Olsen, “Appreciation,” in Oxford Art Online, accessed March 30, 2015.return to text

    3. F.R. Leavis, The Common Pursuit (London: Hogarth, 1984 [1952]), 224.return to text

    4. List by Alan H. Goldman, Aesthetic Value (Colorado, CO: Westview Press, 1998), 17; see also Frank Sibley, Approach to Aesthetics: Collected Papers on Philosophical Aesthetics, eds. John Bensen, Bett Redfern and Jeremy Roxbee Cox (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006 [original essays 1950-93]), 1-23.return to text

    5. Alan H. Goldman, “Evaluating Art,” in The Blackwell Guide to Aesthetics, ed. Peter Kivy (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), 93-108.return to text

    6. Kendall Walton, “Categories of Art,” in Marvelous Images: On Values and the Arts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 195-219.return to text

    7. Michael Bell, F.R. Leavis (London: Routledge, 1988), 47.return to text

    8. Roger Scruton, Art and Imagination (London: Methuen, 1974), 247-8); see also Ludwig Wittgenstein, Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989 [1966]), 3, Point 8. return to text

    9. David Hume, “Of the Standard of Taste,” in Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology, eds. Steve M. Cahn and Aaron Meskin (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008 [original 1757]), 103-112.return to text