Famous Art Critics (c.1750 - present)
Visual art encompasses tons of different types of art, each with its own set of aesthetics, and its own set of outstanding artists. Each of the three main categories - fine art, and decorative art (inc. crafts), and applied art (inc. all types of design) - consists of dozens of different disciplines. Plus, there is an ever-expanding category of contemporary art, which includes activities like: photography, installations, conceptual art, video and computer art, as well as performance (inc. happenings), graffiti and caricature art. In short, the visual arts now occupy a huge area.
In simple terms, art criticism is the discussion and evaluation of any artistic activity belonging to the categories listed above. The most common types of art criticism are reviews of exhibitions, involving analysis of works by one or more artists.
Historically, up until the era of postmodernist art (c.1970), the most influential visual arts were painting and sculpture and (to a lesser extent) architecture. Between them, these disciplines occupied the best artists, and exemplified the most important art movements. Thus most art critics focused their attention on paintings and sculptures and architectural design, in an attempt to tackle the following sorts of general issues:
What is the secret of "good
art"? What is "bad art"?
Today, judging by the type of temporary exhibitions organized by many of the best galleries of contemporary art, and by the range of skills demonstrated by the most recent Turner Prize Winners, artistic activities such as video art, conceptualism, and installation art are also extremely important.
As well as tackling general questions raised by a particular item or style of art, critics analyze and compare individual works. Typical questions which they address, include the following:
What is the artist trying to say?
When criticizing an oil painting, critics might refer to its subject matter, composition, line & shape, colour, texture and brushwork. When analyzing a statue, they might refer to its representational or emotional content, its harmony/balance, remoteness, viewability (whether it could be appreciated from more than one angle), texture, and decorative contribution. When judging a building, critics might examine how well it fits into its immediate surroundings; they would also evaluate the visual effect of its exterior (height, proportions, width, and so on), before moving inside to consider the light, space, atmosphere and proportions of the interior. One final question might be: how well does the design of the building reconcile function with beauty (and cost)?
A number of art critics, especially during the 18th and 19th century, were also scholars and art historians. Their knowledge of the history of art - along with their books and treatises - enhanced their contributions enormously. The critic and scholar Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-68), for instance, inspired a whole generation to embrace neoclassical art and thus rediscover the values of Greek art and culture. More modern examples include: the Swiss Professor of art history, Jacob Burckhardt (1818-97), whose seminal work, entitled "The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy", had a huge impact on our grasp of the Rinascimento, as did Bernard Berenson (1865-1959) whose detailed knowledge and expertise in the authentication of Renaissance drawings and Early Renaissance painting made him one of the most influential critics of his day. The early 20th century anti-modernist art critic John Canaday (1907-85) produced at least one standard textbook on art history, as also did Kenneth Clark (1903-83), the British art critic and historian, who wrote and presented the BBC television series "Civilization", a hugely inspirational account of Western civilisation as seen through its art.
They can be extremely influential. The 19th century art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) - who famously compared Whistler's Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, to "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face" - was responsible for making and breaking the reputations of several contemporary artists, while at the same time damning certain Old Masters (like the Baroque Bolognese School) with his criticism. The English critic Roger Fry (1866-1934) was a highly effective champion of Post-Impressionism, and did much to raise public awareness of modern art in Britain. In America, Bernard Berenson virtually controlled the early 20th century market for Renaissance art, while Clement Greenberg (1909-94) was instrumental in popularizing Jackson Pollock and other exponents of Abstract Expressionism, during the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. During the late 1980s, the British art collector and critic Charles Saatchi (b.1943) single-handedly ensured the early success of Damien Hirst and other Young British Artists (YBAs).
However, certain influential critics have attracted controversy. This usually occurs when their knowledge and reputation lend their opinions such weight, that they are able to influence the reputations of artists, as well as the price of their works. Unfortunately, the power wielded by these critics has not always been used honestly, or at least transparently. (Which artist, for instance, would not consider selling a painting to a powerful critic at a reduced rate, if by doing so he secures a glowing review?) Also where critics are also art collectors, they have an obvious incentive to adjust their public comments accordingly.
Art critics belong to the arts profession - the collection of people (artists, curators, administrators, critics, and so on) who make their living, directly or indirectly, from works of art. The more esoteric, mysterious and complex that art is, the more important the art profession - and, in particular, the more important the critic. So, critics have a clear incentive to make art appear as complicated as possible, because this gives them greater status. Perhaps this is why so many articles about art, in journals and newspapers, are so unbelievably dense and full of complex jargon. The less people understand about art, the happier the critics. Furthermore, many postmodernist artists make a habit of issuing long convoluted explanations about the precise meaning(s) of their art. Instead of seeing these explanations for what they (mostly) are - sales brochures - critics tend to lap them up. Remember, the more complex the art, the more important the critic. Of course there are exceptions, and some critics do explain things very well, but many don't.
The independent occupation of Art Critic acquired its modern form during the 18th century, with the advent of daily newspapers in England, France and America. One of the first art critics to develop an individual reputation was La Font de Saint-Yenne who became famous for his entertaining accounts of the French Salon in Paris, from 1737 onwards. He was followed by the French critic Denis Diderot (1713-84), best known as the editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedie (1751-72). Diderot's reviews of the Salons from 1759 to 1780 appeared in the journal Correspondence Litteraire, and became the model for later critics including the writer Charles Baudelaire (1821-67), who himself became famous for his bold opinions and his praise of controversial painters such as Eugene Delacroix, Gustave Courbet and Edouard Manet. The next important French critic was Felix Feneon (1861-1944), who coined the name Neo-Impressionism, after whom came the poet Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918), who promoted Cubism and other avant-garde art.
In England, John Ruskin dominated art criticism during the era of Victorian art (mid to late 19th century), and was followed by Roger Fry (1866-1934) and Clive Bell (1881-1964), who also curated two major exhibitions of Post-Impressionist painting in 1910 and 1912, and Herbert Read (1893-1968) who became the unchallenged interpreter of British abstract art, by the likes of Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth. During the 1950s, the critic and curator Lawrence Alloway (1926-1990) made his name by coining the term Pop Art, before settling in New York to become a curator at the Samuel R Guggenheim Museum and art critic for The Nation.
Other famous 20th century art critics in the United States included the so-called formalist Clement Greenberg (1909-94), his rival Harold Rosenberg (1906-1978) - who tended to focus on the content and circumstances of the artwork - the conservative John Canaday, art critic of the New York Times, and Leo Steinberg (1920-2011) - the critic and Renaissance historian, noted for his scintillating lectures, his clarity of writing and his book Other Criteria: Confrontations with 20th Century Art. Later American critics include Rosalind Krauss (b.1941) and Michael Fried (b.1939).
For more art historians, scholars and critics, see: Homepage.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART