16 Critics Who Changed the Way We Look at Art

Alina Cohen
Sep 11, 2018 3:54PM

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.

Pliny the Elder (23–79)

Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 15th century. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Title page of Pliny, Natural History, published 1519. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In his book Natural History, Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder addresses zoology, astrology, botany, and all subjects he deemed worthy of their own history, including several chapters dedicated to craftsmen, artists, and architecture. Pliny traces the origin of painting, suggesting that it began when man tried to trace his own shadow. Scholars have theorized that Pliny’s writings (in particular, his reverence for antiquity) influenced Giorgio Vasari, who wrote his famous history of art over 1,000 years later.

Xie He (6th century)

Hundreds of years ago, art was an explicit competition. In the 6th century, Chinese artist Xie He developed his “Six Principles” in order to rank painters according to merit. Even then, however, the standards were subjective. For example, “spirit resonance” refers to a certain ineffable vitality. Other measures are more technical or formal: “bone method,” or structural brush use; composition; and, in the case of artists who made copies of existing works, adherence to originals. Xie He’s principles have proven so enduring that they are still used to evaluate traditional Chinese painting today.

Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574)

Giorgio Vasari, Portrait of Giorgio Vasari, between 1571-74. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Giorgio Vasari, Cover of Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, 1550. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.


Often considered the first art historian, Giorgio Vasari also established influential preferences and prejudices. His canonical 1550 text, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, created a (highly biased and exaggerated) roster of the day’s most important creative figures. They were all Italian, and skewed Tuscan, in particular (Michelangelo, Giotto, Sandro Botticelli). Vasari himself coined the term the “Renaissance,” mythologizing the so-called rebirth of culture in Europe from the 13th to 16th centuries.

Jonathan Richardson the Elder (1667–1745)

Jonathan Richardson, Juliana Boyle, Contess of Ailesbury (d. 1739), first half of 18th century. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Jonathan Richardson, Self-portrait, 1729. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1715, British painter and collector Jonathan Richardson the Elder penned what’s widely accepted as the the first work of art theory written in English. Richardson begins his “Essay on the Theory of Painting” by finding fault with what he claims is a widely held belief: “Many, I believe, consider the art of painting but as a pleasing superfluity; at best, that it holds but a low rank with respect to its usefulness to mankind.” Painting, Richardson counters, is important because it allows us to communicate ideas, elevates us beyond brutishness, and allows for individual style or expression. Richardson is also credited as the first writer to use the term “art criticism.” In his 1719 “Essay on the Whole Art of Criticism,” Richardson attempts to lay a groundwork for how to judge an artist or a painting, as well as how to ascertain the authenticity of an artwork.

Etienne La Font de Saint-Yenne (1688–1771)

One of the earliest documented art critics in France, Etienne La Font de Saint-Yenne visited and reported on the salons at the Louvre in the mid-18th century. In a 2009 essay, Marijke Jonker posits his enduring influence on aesthetic critiques. “After a discourse on the state of contemporary art and of contemporary society,” she writes, the salon works “were then subject to critical analysis, beginning with the highest genre of history painting. This structural approach established the pattern for art criticism for more than a century to come.”

Yet La Font offered more than just a framework for writing reviews. In another 2009 essay, Katerina Deligiorgi notes that since the days of Plato, philosophers have considered the morality of art itself. In Enlightenment France, La Font was eager to integrate his revolutionary views into his writings (some scholars suggest that he was critical of the king in the years leading up to the French Revolution). Jonker, however, isn’t so convinced of La Font’s radical politics. According to her, the critic blamed art’s “decadence” on women’s “growing influence” in society.

Denis Diderot (1713–1784)  

In 1747, at the height of the Enlightenment, Denis Diderot began editing the widely influential French Encyclopédie, which covered philosophy, criticism, and science. Throughout his tenure, he published such major thinkers as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jacques Necker, and Voltaire. Diderot himself contributed many articles on literature, as well as art. His “Essay on Painting” (written in 1765, published in 1796) influenced both poet Charles Baudelaire (himself a prominent art critic) and polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Diderot began visiting the salons at the Louvre in 1759. According to Thomas Crow, he’d assess the artwork during the summertime run of an exhibition, then spend months writing his analyses. Perhaps more than any of his predecessors, Diderot integrated his own personality into his long, involved art essays. He wrote not for political ends or for the benefit of other artists, but, perhaps, for himself. This style introduced a significant amount of subjectivity into the genre.

Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717–1768)

Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Cover of Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums, 1764. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Anton Raphael Mengs, Portrait of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, ca. 1777. Photo via the Metropolitan Museum of Art

German art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann encouraged the resurgent interest in classical art during the Enlightenment. In his 1765 essay “Reflections on the Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks,” he asserts: “The only way for us to become great, or even inimitable if possible, is to imitate the Greeks.” Working at the Vatican (as a librarian, then president of antiquities, and finally secretary to a cardinal), Winckelmann had access to the Catholic Church’s vast collection of ancient treasures, and developed a system to distinguish different periods in early Western art history that is still used today.

Notably, Winckelmann never visited Greece: His life was cut short when an acquaintance murdered him in Italy under mysterious circumstances. “On the learned world of Europe the effect of Winckelmann’s murder was similar to that of President Kennedy in our own time,” claimed Lionel Grossman in a 1992 essay. Call it art criticism’s greatest unsolved mystery. The sordid affair has inspired poems, novels, and plays.

John Ruskin (1819–1900)

A devotee of J.M.W. Turner’s landscapes, John Ruskin concerned himself with what “truth” meant in painting. He published five volumes of his Modern Painters (1843–60), which celebrated and popularized Romantic art. Ruskin helped to cement Turner’s legacy and translate his ideas into persuasive critique—his writings encouraged the English to accept the painter’s later, more abstract work. Yet Ruskin’s moral view of art eventually lost out to the philosophy of British-based aesthetes such as James Abbott McNeill Whistler, who favored “art for art’s sake.” Truth, according to them, was of no consequence to aesthetic production.

Guillaume Apollinaire (1880–1918)

Jean Metzinger, Etude pour le portrait de Guillaume Apollinaire, 1911. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Guillaume Apollinaire, 1902. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Best known as a stylistically innovative poet, GuillaumeApollinaire is also responsible for popularizing modernist art. In particular, he supported the Cubist endeavors of his friends Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris, and Georges Braque well before the public accepted their new, fractured painting style. In a 2003 essay, Pamela A. Genova connects the painters’ patchwork technique with the poet’s verse. Apollinaire identified, she writes, with “the juxtaposition of reality and imagination, and the simultaneity of spatial and temporal movement.” Apollinaire wrote prefaces to salon catalogues, as well as a text, The Cubist Painters, which lyrically affirmed the artists’ place in history.  

Walter Benjamin (1892–1940)

Walter Benjamin’s membership card to the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 1940.

Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” situates art within a larger socioeconomic context. He notes that as long as humans have been making art, they’ve also been copying it—printing, retracing in a master’s style, or reusing the same sculptural molds. Yet in the modern age, photography and film could capture the world better than any traditional art form. Then why are painting and sculpture still worthwhile? Benjamin suggests that what truly makes an original artwork special is intangible. “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art,” he writes, “is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” After Benjamin, it’s difficult not to connect an artwork to the larger system in which it operates.

Harold Rosenberg (1906–1978) and Clement Greenberg (1909–1994)

Elaine de Kooning
Harold Rosenberg #2, 1956
Forum Gallery

Clement Greenberg, 1977. Photo By Kenn Bisio/The Denver Post via Getty Images.

A critic for the erudite quarterly Partisan Review and then The New Yorker, Harold Rosenberg may be most famous for developing the term “action painting.” Along with Clement Greenberg, he avidly promoted Abstract Expressionism, which required fluid, personal gestures (or actions) to apply paint to canvas. He was a particular fan of Willem de Kooning, while Greenberg preferred Jackson Pollock.

Greenberg, for his part, wrote for The Nation and Artforum, and offered a doctrinaire approach to art. In his writings, abstraction is the endgame, and art’s political or social context is unimportant. In his 1975 book The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe writes: “Greenberg hadn’t created Pollock’s reputation, but he was its curator, custodian, brass polisher, and repairman, and he was terrific at it.” A critic, Wolfe asserts, can also be an artist’s best publicist.

Linda Nochlin (1931–2017)

Philip Pearlstein, Portrait of Linda Nochlin, 2010. Courtesy of the artist and Betty Cuningham Gallery.

Linda Nochlin’s influential 1971 essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” posited a simple reason for the title question. The canon is full of male artists not because they’re better, but because institutional structures have prevented women from advancing in the field. Nochlin suggests that, for centuries, “good art” has merely been sanctioned by white men. Her essay called for a change. Nochlin was a prolific author, and throughout her career, she wrote monographic essays on female artists like Louise Bourgeois, Mary Cassatt, and Sophie Calle, among many others.

Lucy Lippard (1937–)

From the start of her career, Lucy Lippard was critical of the division between art and earthly concerns. Unlike Greenberg and Rosenberg, her interests lay in unpacking the larger social context in which artworks were produced. In 1977, she co-founded the feminist art journal Heresies. For Lippard, art and activism could be linked. The collective of women artists who contributed to the journal—a group that included Joan Snyder, Miriam Schapiro, and Pat Steir—frequently addressed female representation in its pages.

Rosalind Krauss (1940–)

Prominent editor and scholar Rosalind Krauss was propelled to art world notoriety in 1974, when she published an article in Art in America taking to task the imperious critic Clement Greenberg for mishandling the estate of sculptor David Smith. Krauss was making a name for herself as a proponent of the burgeoning Minimalist scene (she once wrote an entire essay on how to explain Richard Serra to the French). In 1976, she co-founded October, an influential, theory-heavy journal that introduced the dense post-structuralist ideas of French thinkers like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault to American art audiences.

Jerry Saltz (1951–)

Jerry Saltz, who won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for criticism, diverges from the quintessential academic, theory-revering critic: An avid social media user, he’s unafraid of sexually explicit content, hot takes (Burning Man attendees, for instance, are deemed “Fauxhemians”), and outright provocation (Saltz on Mary Boone’s tax evasion: “More power to her….I think it’s a little bit bad-ass”). He writes for New York magazinewith an accessible, enjoyable tone about topics ranging from must-see exhibitions to art fair disdain to Salvator Mundi (the alleged, recently uncovered Leonardo da Vinci portrait).

Alina Cohen