BERNARD BERENSON (1865–1959)
When Berenson went to Europe in 1887, there were no notable American art collections. It was his work of attribution and connoisseurship—and the critical volumes he produced—that led the Gilded Age’s robber barons to buy Renaissance art and build America’s great public museums. Berenson practiced criticism at its most advanced, using eyes, brain, and memory to organize and elucidate the remains of a culture—in his case, determining who had painted the surviving works of the Italian tercento and quattrocento. Though he has been derided for his commercial dealings, his work is still among the few towering American intellectual achievements.
CLEMENT GREENBERG (1909–1994)
Greenberg’s Art and Culture is the best book of art criticism ever written by an American; the prose has a knock-down power that hasn’t diminished over a half century. What counts in the influence race, though, is that by 1943, Greenberg had already recognized David Smith and Jackson Pollock as world-class artists. He grasped that abstract art was the dominant mode, and he had the critical eye and intellect to distinguish the greater artists from the lesser. He cajoled, encouraged, learned from, fought with, and critiqued the generation of painters that brought American visual arts into the big time. When you see a de Kooning or a Gorky, a Noland or a Frankenthaler at the museum, you’re under Greenberg’s influence.
JOHN HAMMOND (1910–1987)
Hammond—whose work as a jazz critic for The Nation, Gramophone, Melody Maker, and the Brooklyn Eagle expanded into work as a promoter and producer—was the impresario of jazz. He recorded the last sides of Bessie Smith and the first ones of Billie Holiday. He got Benny Goodman to take up swing—and introduced Lionel Hampton, Charlie Christian, and Teddy Wilson to Goodman’s band—and made Count Basie a national star. While his jazz writings may not have the legs of the work of Leonard Feather, Otis Ferguson, and Gary Giddins, Hammond was largely responsible for moving jazz into the American mainstream.
RANDALL JARRELL (1914–1965)
Randall Jarrell was part of our greatest age of criticism: the age of Eliot, Richards, Warren, Blackmur, Tate, Brooks, Ransom. Even in such august company, he is notable for his combination of acumen and eloquence—and his sensitivity to the difficulty of writing even good poetry. He’s read today mostly for his sparkling invective—“It is better to entertain an idea than to take it home to live with you for the rest of your life”—but his influence is evident in every poetry anthology. Jarrell decided much that we now think of as obvious. He pushed Robert Lowell as the poet of his generation, and he insisted on Elizabeth Bishop’s importance; he saw past Robert Frost’s country-spun persona and elucidated the dark and stirring depths of the verse. His essays, moreover, address all the concerns of contemporary poets. They ought to listen to him more.
ROBERT M. PARKER JR. (1947)
No critic in history has ever wielded as much influence as Robert Parker. His ratings send customers scurrying to wineshops and drive prices skyward. Wines are being made on five continents to suit his preferences. With his exceptional palate and Nader-like devotion to the consumer, he revolutionized an industry that was dominated by insiders, obfuscation, and hyperbole twenty years ago. He’s been attacked from all sides, but it is hard not to admire his consistency and his independence.