For over 1,000 years, humans have attempted to define what makes an artwork “good.” Deciding factors, such as a work’s realism, beauty, decoration, and moral idealism, have gone in and out of fashion. Fresh generations of art critics have significantly spurred these shifts in taste, forever altering the public’s perception of aesthetic styles.
The following 16 critics have helped translate and unpack now-seminal artists’ occasionally confounding visions, and cemented our conception of the canon. This list, admittedly, comprises predominantly European and American white men. For centuries, they’ve dictated what artwork has been seen and appreciated. Slowly but surely, the demographic is shifting. (Although Jerry Saltz’s recent Pulitzer Prize win prompted many on the Internet to quickly assert that his fellow critic—and wife—Roberta Smith deserved it more.) Diverse critical voices don’t just offer new perspectives on art: They change how we look at the world, beyond the frame.