Art is an elusive umbrella concept that covers such a wide range of output that it becomes difficult to provide a standardized definition. That may be why an old punchline simply states, “Yes, but is it art?

Everyone from art collectors to アート批評家 (āto hihyōka, art critics) will have a different opinion on how a single piece can be interpreted, making it somewhat daunting for a beginner to dabble in アート批評 (āto hihyō, art criticism). Fortunately, the アート批評家 Edmund Burke Feldman came up with a four-step process to make things easier and guide the casual viewer in formulating an opinion. It involves: 記述 (kijutsu, description), 分析 (bunseki, analysis), 解釈 (kaishaku, interpretation) and 判定 (hantei, judgement). So, let’s put those steps into practice in Japanese.

Suppose you walk into a 美術館 (bijutsukan, art museum) and see Katsushika Hokusai’s famed “神奈川沖浪裏” (“Kanagawa-oki Nami-ura,” “Under the Wave off Kanagawa”) and you want to offer your thoughts on it.

Going by Feldman’s process, the first step is 記述. The goal here is to identify facts about the artwork that are easily observed or known. This could include some basic details about the artwork and the artist.

Every 展覧会 (tenrankai, art exhibition) provides some historical context, so it should be fairly easy to find out that the “神奈川沖浪裏” is part of a 浮世絵 (ukiyo-e) landscape print series known as the “富嶽三十六景” (“Fugaku Sanjūrokkei,” “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji”), and that Hokusai was in his 70s when he started producing the series from 1830-32. Additionally, you’ll learn that the medium is 木版画 (mokuhanga, woodblock print) and that Hokusai used a new pigment at the time, 紺青 (konjō, Prussian blue).

Initial descriptions will usually need quite a bit of vocabulary, but in this case you might just want to say: 青色が印象的です (Aoiro ga inshōteki desu, The blue is impressive/striking), 波は細かく描かれています (nami wa komakaku egakarete-imasu, the wave is depicted in such minute detail) or, putting those sentences together, 細かく描かれている青い波は印象的です (komakaku egakarete-iru aoi nami wa inshōteki desu, the minutely depicted detail in the blue wave is striking).

The next step is 分析. This is where you evaluate the artist’s use of デザインの要素と原則 (dezain no yōso to gensoku, the elements and principles of design). This may be easier if you’re a 専門家 (senmonka, specialist), but even amateur critics can comment on things such as 色 (iro, color), 線 (sen, line), 形 (katachi, shape), 空間 (kūkan, space) and 構成 (kōsei, composition). Essentially, you’re asking, なぜこの作品はこのように構成されたのでしょうか? (Naze kono sakuhin wa kono yō ni kōsei sareta no deshō ka?, Why was this work composed in this way?)

One answer could be: 湾曲した線と白と青の繰り返しは、見ている人の視線を富士山へ誘導します (Wankyoku shita sen to shiro to ao no kurikaeshi wa, mite-iru hito no shisen o Fujisan e yūdō shimasu, The curved line and the repetition of both white and blue guide the viewer’s eye to Mount Fuji).

A more nuanced analysis is provided by Timothy Clark, curator and Japan specialist at the British Museum. To paraphrase him in Japanese: 富士山は日本で一番高い山であるはずなのに、北斎は波を通して深い空間を感じさせるように作品を構成し、巨大な荒波が漁船だけでなく、富士山にも押し寄せていきそうな雰囲気を作っています。そして、波の触手のしぶきが富士山の頂上に降る雪のように見えてきます (Fujisan wa Nihon de ichiban takai yama de aru hazu nano ni, Hokusai wa nami o tōshite fukai kūkan o kanjisaseru yō ni sakuhin o kōsei shi, kyodaina aranami ga gyosen dake de naku, Fujisan ni mo oshiyosete ikisō na fūn’iki o tsukutte-imasu. Soshite, nami no shokushu no shibuki ga Fujisan no chōjō ni furu yuki no yō ni miete-kimasu, Mount Fuji is the highest mountain in Japan, but Hokusai composed the work in a way that [makes us] feel a sense of deep space, so that the huge storm wave looks like it’s about to come crashing down not only on the fishing boats, but also on Mount Fuji. And the spray from the tentacles of the wave starts to look like snow falling on top of the peak of Mount Fuji).

The third step in the process is 解釈, in which you determine the meaning of the artwork. 作品のコンセプトや表現力、自分が作品を見て感じること、などが重要になります (Sakuhin no konseputo ya hyōgenryoku, jibun ga sakuhin o mite kanjiru koto, nado ga jūyō ni narimasu, The work’s concept or expressiveness, and what you feel when you look at the work, are some of the things that are important here).

A question to consider at this stage could be: 波と漁師と富士山の関係はなんですか? (Nami to ryōshi to Fujisan no kankei wa nan desu ka?, What is the relationship between the wave, the fishermen and Mount Fuji?)

One assessment could be: 動と静、近と遠の鮮明な対比がこの図の主要なテーマです (Dō to sei, kin to en no senmeina taihi ga kono zu no shuyōna tēma desu, The main theme of this picture is a clear contrast between movement and stillness, near and far).

Another interpretation could be: 大波をさらに誇張することによって自然の圧倒的な力を表現しています (Ōnami o sara ni kōchō suru koto ni yotte shizen no attōtekina chikara o hyōgen shite-imasu, Exaggerating the tremendous wave expresses the dominating power of nature).

Finally, we arrive at 判定, in which you express your opinion of the artwork and evaluate whether it is a success or not. A simple way to do this would be to say, この作品は気に入りました (kono sakuhin wa ki ni irimashita, I like this work) or この作品は綺麗です (kono sakuhin wa kirei desu, this piece is beautiful).

Expanding on those phrases, you can make your reasoning clearer: 鮮やかな色が気に入りました (Azayakana iro ga ki ni irimashita, I like the vibrant colors) or 小さな富士山と強烈な波の対比が面白いです (chīsana Fujisan to kyōretsuna nami no taihi ga omoshiroi desu, the contrast between the small Mount Fuji and the powerful wave is interesting).

If you don’t like the artwork, starting off with うん、ちょっと… (un, chotto…, hmm, [it’s] a bit…) is always a good way to soften a negative opinion. Another opening statement with the same effect is: 人気の理由はわかるけど、私には… (Ninki no riyū wa wakaru kedo, watashi ni wa…, I understand why it’s popular, but for me…). Of course, you could opt to be fairly straightforward by saying: 私の好みではありません (Watashi no konomi dewa arimasen, It’s not to my taste/It’s not my cup of tea).

It is said that Hokusai wanted to live until the age of 110 (he died at 88), at which point he believed his work would attain perfection and come alive. 70歳以前までに描いた絵は取るに足らないものと思っていました (Nanajussai izen made ni egaita e wa toru ni taranai mono to omotte-imashita, [He] thought that the pictures he made before turning 70 were lacking and insignificant). I can’t help but wonder: 北斎が今生きていたら、いったいどんな絵を描いていたのでしょうか? (Hokusai ga ima ikite-itara, ittai dona e o egaite-ita no deshō ka?, What kind of pictures would Hokusai be depicting if he were alive now?)

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