A major voice lost
With the death of Robert Hughes, we have lost one of our most respected contemporary art critics. A major voice in the art world since the Sixties, Hughes combined an extraordinary knowledge of painting and sculpture, a prodigious intellect and a magnificent ability to communicate. He was hated, reviled, feared, adored and appreciated by artists, collectors and other critics as well as by ordinary people the world over.
The critic's role
The role of the critic has often been disputed. Today it is almost certainly not as significant as many critics would like. Most of the power in the art world today lies with gallery owners, private collectors, museum directors and the artists themselves. There is, however, no denying that critics have helped both launch and destroy artists. They have also contributed to public understanding of art. They have said to have shaped our world, not by producing art themselves, but by influencing the art that gets produced.
So here are eight notable art critics from the past 200 years. Some are influential because of their championing a particular artistic movement. Some have helped make or break an individual artist. Some have simply helped people understand and appreciate art in a new way. People have hated and loved them in equal measure. Art criticism is, after all, not something which yields neutral reactions.
French, 1807 – 1869
The spectacularly named Thoré-Bürger has been a major contributor to the artistic career of Scarlett Johanssen. How? For the very simple reason that he rediscovered Vermeer, the painter of "Girl with a Pearl Earring”, having stumbled upon a single painting by the Dutch master on a trip to the Netherlands in 1842. Today, Vermeer’s surviving paintings – only 34 of them – are some of the most cherished (and valuable) in the world. Something of a political firebrand, Thoré-Bürger was eventually exiled to Belgium.
British, 1819 – 1900
Massively influential, Ruskin was a true polymath.
Ruskin thought that “truth to nature” was central to the artist’s role in society, and that it was an artist’s duty to depict nature as well as their own morality. He was standard reading across Victorian society and was a hugely popular lecturer, often having to repeat talks at universities, town halls and working men’s institutes.
Ruskin's influence in shaping our world is still around us. We see it in Victorian Gothic buildings, which Ruskin inspired. Perhaps more importantly, though, his views are still present in society. The early Labour movement thought that his views more important than even Karl Marx. He may well be responsible for shaping much of the social and political history of the last 100 years.
American, 1865 – 1959
Bernard Berenson was the single most important figure in establishing the "Old Masters" business. Originally from a poor background – which he took great pains to hide – he started his career as the “enfant terrible” of the art world, pricking reputations and often re-attributing paintings from major artists to minor (much to their owners' consternation.) Ultimately, he became the single most important authority on Renaissance paintings in the early 1900s. By confirming an artist's identity, Berenson could effectively set the value of a painting. This he took full advantage of, acting as advisor and dealer for a host of fabulously rich clients and taking a generous cut of every sale (presumably “conflict of interest” standards were lower in the early 1900s).
Berenson is largely responsible for the vast quantity of Italian renaissance paintings which are now in the USA, and his most famous publications, Venetian Painting in America, The Study and Criticism of Italian Art, Essays in the Study of Sienese Painting, and Studies in Medieval Painting eventually formed the basis for the art history courses being developed by American universities. A connoisseur in the grand tradition, a dealer (Rene Gimpel) described him as having “velvet paws and killer talons of steel” – perfect for a critic.
British, 1866 – 1944
American, 1888 - 1969
Thomas Craven was one of the most widely read critics of his day. Men of Art, his best known book, was a Book of the Month Club choice, and he was known across the US for his conservative views of art, once describing the modern artist (in which he included such figures as Claude Monet) as "an inferior being...dumb and dull and conceited, an antisocial coward who... runs frantically to his dealer and back again, bleating like a sheep about his soul, his poverty, and his unappreciated genius....the general public has no conception of the feebleness, stupidity and ignorance of the painter." This did not endear him to artists of the day, but contributed to the public's view of art and their suspicion of the modern, which took decades to overcome. Strangely, for a man so opposed to the contemporary, Craven felt that the art of the cartoonist had very significant merit and was a vocal supporter of the work of Walt Disney.
American, 1909 - 1994
The man principally responsible for “action painting”, and in particular the success of the work of Jackson Pollock, Greenberg is, perhaps, “the most influential critic of the 20th Century”. A native New Yorker, he was intensely passionate about the art and artists living in Greenwich Village after WWII – people like Willem De Kooning and Barnett Newman – and was a huge supporter and promoter of Abstract Expressionism, the first truly “all-American” art movement to gain traction internationally. A socialist as a young man, Greenberg moved politically across the spectrum, becoming an ardent anti-communist (along with Pollock.) One of his most memorable quotes is entirely relevant to many gallery visitors today, who continue to struggle with contemporary art: “all profoundly original art looks ugly at first.” Becoming, perhaps inevitably, more conservative later in life, Greenberg struggled with later movements such as Pop Art, but his influence is still felt today across the art world.
British, born 1931
Brian Sewell is by some distance the most well-known art critic in Britain.
Sewell has not exactly gone out of his way to make friends with the public, suggesting that a COBRA exhibition not be shown in Gateshead (in the north of England) as the people there were not sufficiently well educated or knowledgable about art. He then concluded that "most of the North [of England] is dreadful" and that a plague should be developed so that people in the North "could quietly die". Despite his presumably somewhat tongue-in-cheek put-downs, Sewell is very popular, well-known, and has been many people's first exposure to art criticism.
American, born 1951
Jerry Saltz is the art critic for New York magazine. Irreverent, witty and urbane, Saltz is about as switched on to current social networking trends as it's possible to be. Writing in a fast paced knowledgable style, he has stated that he doesn't actually think that today's critic has much influence any more - which is about where we came in. As Saltz himself observes, "we live in a Wikipedia art world" - it is almost impossible to tell the real from the fake, and the informed from the frankly clueless. Today, being an art critic does seem more difficult, simply because everyone is a critic.