Through the Eyes of a Critic: Little Bench Art Center hosts art-viewing workshop in La Jolla


To start his interactive art-viewing lecture at Little Bench Art Center, critic, author, historian and Point Loma Nazarene University art professor James Daichendt turned the audience’s attention to a sculpture of a dog. Specifically, a gold-plated French bulldog with a suspended can of black paint over it, pouring its contents onto the dog, by Los Angeles-based artist Joe Suzuki.

Daichendt’s intent was to guide the participants through the Mittler Method for looking at art, to teach those in attendance to approach a piece as an art critic would.

The four stages in the Mittler Method are:

1) Description, by looking the actual subject matter in the works;

2) Analysis, by focusing on balance, variety, movement, proportion, etc.;

3) Interpretation, by thinking about the mood, feelings or ideas that are communicated with the piece; and

4) Judgment, by determining whether is a “successful” work of art.

“When we look at works of art, the first thing we do is say ‘I like it’ or ‘I don’t like it’ or ‘that’s interesting.’ We go to judgment right away, we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it or talking about it,” Daichendt said.

So, he asked of Suzuki’s gold dog, “What do you visually see in this work of art? What can you point out without emotion or judgment?”

On second look

Members of the 30-plus audience noted the shiny elements of the sculpture, color varieties, the direction the dog is looking and more.

And with that few minutes of simple observation “you’ve beat the average amount of time people spend looking at art in museums,” Daichendt opined. “The average is about 40 seconds, and most of that time is spent looking at the card that accompanies the work. People look at the card, read it, and then they look for verification in the painting.”

Moving to the next stage of art viewing, he sought analytical thoughts on the work. Some noted the “absence of color” by only predominantly featuring gold and black, the perception of action by the dripping paint, the juxtaposition of a solid and fluid together, and more.

Daring those to interpret the mood or intent of the work, some observed that it appeared “the dog got into something it wasn’t supposed to.” A counter-interpretation, another attendee said because the dog was standing still (it was, remember, a sculpture), the paint pouring was intentional. One member noted by having a gold dog — impossible in the real world — there is an element of absurdity to it.

“With analysis and interpretation, you always have to bring it back to the work of art,” Daichendt said. “If there are conflicting opinions, what evidence in there in the work itself?”

Lastly, the audience was tasked with rendering a judgment based on these stages of thinking, along with a reason.

“It doesn’t go past charming, it’s hard to take it seriously,” one member said.

Another questioned whether there is a larger message about the value we place on “things,” but said it didn’t inspire her.

Concluding the 20-minute exercise, Daichendt said: “When these concepts build upon each other, we have something special. We can see something as a powerful work of art, whether we like it or not.” He encouraged “talking through” this method when viewing art.

“Seeing things like an art critic is kind of a way of life for me, so I spend a lot of time thinking and talking out loud about works of art,” he explained. “And to talk it out helps you and those around you make sense of their own thoughts and why there can be conflicting opinions.”

Furthermore, knowing one’s personal attitudes going into viewing art can be crucial, as there are different “types” of viewers.

What type of “viewer” are you?

“Usually when you think of an art critic, you picture someone in a black turtleneck going around telling you what is good and bad in an authoritarian kind of way, which isn’t true,” Daichendt said.

“There are two different types of criticism: portrayal criticism and persuasive. Usually, we think of persuasive criticism, when someone is trying to convince you what this work of art is about. But most is portrayal criticism, when we try to figure out what the work of art is.”

The five types of viewers Daichendt discussed are accountive, constructive, classifying, interpretive and re-creative; and many people flow between one or more types.

Accountive viewers use their personal associations as the foundation for their observations.

“This is the reason beach art is popular in places like La Jolla or Laguna Beach,” he said. “The viewer puts themselves in the narrative of the painting. When you have had an amazing beach vacation with your family, and see a beach painting, you put yourself in the painting and come back to that memory fall in love with it.”

Constructive viewers use measures from the real world as the basis for their judgments.

“These viewers know that if a work of art takes hours and hours of work to create, it must be good, because we associate those rules from other areas of life,” Daichendt said. “This is why realism sells well, it looks like other things and we know that is hard to do.”

Classifying viewers use facts and research to make sense of works of art.

“They want to know who the artist is, their bio and why they did this type of art. These viewers have all the right knowledge. These are your art historians.”

Interpretive viewers rely on feelings to uncover the meaning behind the piece.

“When these viewers have an emotional response to something, they are reflective enough to say ‘huh, that’s bothering me, I wonder why that’s bothering me,’ ” he said. “And they are able to look at what in the work of art is generating a response in us and causing us to say, ‘that is a powerful work of art, but I don’t like it.’ ”

Re-creative viewers spend the longest viewing and reflecting art, sometimes revisiting a piece multiple times in their lives.

“These viewers see art as like visiting an old friend. When you have coffee with a friend, you have had life experience that change the way you view things. These viewers are aware of that.”

— Little Bench Art Center hosts lectures, receptions and rotating exhibitions at 1298 Prospect St., Suite 1U. Learn more at