Everyone has different opinions and styles that they prefer – art is not an exception to this opinion. There are many different styles of art and millions of pieces, it’s only natural that there will be many different reactions to these pieces – we can’t expect everybody to like the same things.

Art in itself is subjective; everybody has different views and opinions on why a specific piece of art is good, or why it’s bad. There are a few theories that group different opinions towards art, and explain why people feel a certain way towards specific pieces.


Formalism looks at the elements of art and the principles of design – a formalist will concentrate on how the artwork looks in terms of colour, line, shape and texture. Formalists don’t tend to take into the account the history or meaning behind a piece, they are solely concerned with the visual aspects. While artists have always used the elements and principles of art, formalism really started with modern art and the rise of abstract and expressionist work, because these pieces put special emphasis on using line, shape, and colour to create a visually aesthetic composition.

For example, when viewing this piece (Benjamin), a formalist won’t take into account the social commentary or philosophical aspect of the piece, they will simply judge it based on what they see.


The imitationalism theory of how art is percieved dictates that artwork is best when it imitates life. The aim is to have a viewer question whether they are looking at a photo or a painting. 

The more realistic, the better.

For example, in this landscape piece (Sunset II) of a sunset over Eye Brook Reservoir in Rutland, England – the reflection of the light on the water is so detailed and well-done that it could be a photo! In fact, when I first saw it I had to step closer just to check!


An instrumentalist is not concerned with composition, only context.

According to this theory, the best artworks are those that convey a message or shape how we see the world. Unlike other theories, instrumentalism suggests that art is good when it attempts to change or impact society in some way.

Take a look at Chillin’ for example, this piece is shrouded with a poignant message, despite the ‘tongue in cheek’ comments it is adorned with. An emotionalist would look at this piece purely for the message that it conveys, not the general composition of the piece.


Emotionalists place importance on the expressive qualities of an artwork. There is importance placed on the communication between artwork and its viewer, if the art has managed to evoke a feeling from the audience, then the artist has created a brilliant piece. Emotionalism is unique among other art theories because it is not concerned with what drew the viewer to the piece, it only matters that the artist was able to evoke a mood or idea – regardless of anything else.

This calming sea-scape (At the End of the Day) evokes a feeling of calmness from the viewer – this is what an emotionalist would be focussed on.

Which theory do you relate to most? Let us know in the comments!

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