Art criticism is the value judgment expressed on works of art in the field of aesthetics, but also with regard to their relevance in a given social and political context.
Art criticism is an inseparable product of writing as well as of the written press as a means of dissemination. It is a genre, between literary and academic, that makes an assessment of works of art, artists or exhibitions, in principle personal and subjective form, but based on the history of art and multiple other disciplines, valuing art according to its context or evolution. It is at the same time evaluative, informative and argumentative, providing empirical and verifiable data.
History and concept
Art criticism is a genre, between literary and academic and even journalistic, that makes an aesthetic assessment of works of art, artists or exhibitions, in principle in a personal and subjective way, but based on the history of art and its multiple disciplines (for example sociology, anthropology, archeology, history, etc.), valuing art according to its context or evolution. It is at the same time evaluative, informative and comparative, written in a concise and entertaining way, without pretending to be an academic study but providing empirical and verifiable data.
In 1381 the historian Filippo Villani was one of those who anticipated the first ad litteram biographies in his books dedicated to the city of Florence and its artists: the construction of the Florence Duomo (Florence Cathedral) gave Antonio Tucci Manetti the opportunity to exhibit the first widely recognized art biography: that of Brunelleschi.
Always in Italy, although already in the Quattrocento (full Renaissance) the artistic historiography appears referring to the lives of artists and their works, also including judgments of merit. One of the greatest representatives of this early art criticism in this period was Lorenzo Ghiberti, who wrote “I Commentari” (The Comments).
Later, after the Renaissance, there is no doubt that Giorgio Vasari’s (“The Vasari”) descriptions are in many cases genuine art criticisms.
Art criticism, understood as the valuation or evaluation and interpretation of works of art, then had a starting point in the 15th century, when the Bolognese Giovanni Battista Agucchi published a long description of the works of Annibale Carracci, followed immediately afterwards by Bellori.
In the 16th century (in Italian Cinquecento) interregional historiography spread in the Italian peninsula, thanks to Giovio who advised Vasari on an extraordinary project for critical descriptions and the amount of data collected.
From the seventeenth century on, thanks to the works of Giovanni Battista Agucchi, the attention of critics was fixed on the styles of the artists, in the attempts to redirect the artistic image in a literary translation. In this seventeenth century the most eminent personality was Giovanni Bellori, who based his model of criticism on classical ideals, taking as reference the canons of classicism derived from Greco-Roman antiquity.
But only in the 18th century, during art exhibitions in Paris, did the critic assume the role of commentator, informant and educator of the public.
Indeed, for an explicit and systematic art criticism to be found, one would have to wait for the French Enlightenment during the “Age of Enlightenment” (the 18th century) Denis Diderot, who is considered the first modern art critic, for his comments on the works of art exhibited in the Parisian salons, made in the Carré del Louvre since 1725. These salons, open to the public, acted as a center for disseminating artistic trends, promoting fashions and tastes in relation to art, so they were object of debate and criticism. Diderot wrote his impressions of these rooms first in a letter written in 1759, which was published in Grimm’s Correspondance littéraire, and from then until 1781, being the starting point of the genre.
In the second half of the 18th century Johann Joachim Winckelmann wrote and proposed an enormous History of Art; it was, however, not very lenient with that by Winckelmann considered “barbarian art” of the Middle Ages, although such work was revalued by romanticist scholars such as John Ruskin.
In the second half of the 19th century the “theory of pure visibility”, introduced by Konrad Fiedler and Adolf von Hildebrand, allowed art criticism a step forward, freeing it from links based on the model of imitation of nature, enriching it with new and more effective interpretive elements of the diverse languages of the artists. Together, idealism and positivism influenced nineteenth-century art criticism. With the ideas of the philosopher Benedetto Croce, whether critical consciousness or artistic conception, they received new impetus, thanks to the understanding of art as an expression of feelings and the overcoming of a philological inquiry.
In the immediately following years, Lionello Venturi was one of the forerunners of the history of art criticism and of some of the fundamental pillars such as the distinction between art and taste.
In the genesis of art criticism, it is necessary to value, on the one hand, public access to artistic exhibitions, which together with the proliferation of the mass communication media since the 18th century produced a direct communication channel between the critic and the target audience. On the other hand, the rise of the bourgeoisie as a social class that invested in art as an object of ostentation, and the growth of the artistic market that it brought with it, provided the necessary social environment for the consolidation of artistic criticism. Art criticism has generally been linked to journalism, exercising a work of spokesmen for artistic taste that, on the one hand, has conferred great power on them, being able to sink or elevate the work of an artist, but on the other hand it has made the subject of fierce attacks and controversies. Another facet to highlight is the current nature of art criticism, since it focuses on the historical and geographical context in which the critic develops his work, immersed in an increasingly dynamic phenomenon such as trends of fashion. Thus, the lack of historicity to make a judgment on a consolidated basis, leads art criticism to be frequently supported by the critic’s intuition, with the risk factor that this entails. However, as a discipline subject to its time and to the cultural evolution of society, art criticism always reveals a component of social thought in which it is immersed, thus there are different currents of art criticism: romantic, positivist, phenomenological, semiological, etc.
”To be fair, that is, to have its reason for being, criticism must be partial, passionate, political; that is, it must adopt an exclusive point of view, but an exclusive point of view that opens the horizons to the maximum.”
Charles Baudelaire, Salon of 1846.
Among art critics there have been from famous writers to art historians themselves, who many times have gone from methodological analysis to personal and subjective criticism, aware that it was a weapon of great power today. As names, one could cite Charles Baudelaire, John Ruskin, Oscar Wilde, Émile Zola, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Guillaume Apollinaire, Wilhelm Worringer, Clement Greenberg, Michel Tapié, etc.
The art critic, or critic of art and culture, is a professional who can be a technician or graduate, teacher, master, or self-taught (connoisseur), in the main areas of art history, art criticism, and all regarding the artistic-plastic and cultural environment of a country or region. Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Baudelaire are considered one of the first art critics. The art critic has a profile capable of analyzing everything related to Art and Culture, which is why it includes an analysis of works of art in space, time and trend, hence the name of art ‘criticism’, for the descriptions to be done both orally and in writing. It is usually considered the most subjective of all disciplines related to the study of art because it is evaluative; that is to say, he makes a personal judgment regarding a work.
Some very general questions that the critic seeks to answer are:
- What is the motif and theme of a particular work of art?
- How have the illusions of space and volume been created?
- What ideas and / or emotions are expressed?
The art critic can further extend his knowledge or deductions, and be an art writer, study literary fragments of other art critics, and cultural historian. That is why the art and culture critic can be a visionary, literary, and cultural entertainer, responsible for the routes that artistic trends and movements can take.