Why connoisseurship matters (ctd.)

June 5 2014

Video: Paul Mellon Centre

I recently went to speak at a Paul Mellon Centre conference on connoisseurship, called 'Connoisseurship Now'. You can watch the proceedings in the video above, if you're so minded (amazingly, over a thousand people already have). I was asked to be polemical (not usually a problem for me) and paired in a session with Tate Britain's lead curator for British art pre-1800 Martin Myrone, which was good fun, as I like him, and he's decidedly sceptical about the point of connoisseurship, and even more so about those who practice it (especially programmes like 'Fake of Fortune?').

Martin thinks (I'm paraphrasing from his paper) that connoisseurship is 'a mundane skillset' and that 'champions of connoisseurship are more likely to be part of the problem, rather than the solution.' In other words, he doesn't entirely like the fact that suit-wearing dealers like me are not only advocates of connoisseurship, but may be good at it, and may thus accrue some sort of 'authority' in art history. Furthermore, he does not believe that anyone like me can genuinely care about making attributions in the 'public interest', because there is always another motive involved in connoisseurship, be it money or the naked pursuit of fame. There will always be a 'struggle for authority' in making attributions, because 'that is how the world works'. Only public servants (ie, curators) can act from a pure motive in making connoisseurial decisions in the public interest. 

I came up against this 'struggle for authority' when we thought of focusing on one of Tate's unattributed landscapes, catalogued as 'Manner of Gainsborough', for 'Fake or Fortune?' Tate were, how shall I say it, not exactly keen to be involved. In his paper Martin mentioned the painting, and said he that he hoped the authority to decide whether the picture was or was not by Gainsborough (a question to which, incidentally, he said he was inclined to answer 'so what?') would never lie in the hands of a programme like 'Fake or Fortune?

As you might expect, in our papers Martin and I disagreed strongly, but sitting next to each other in the Q&A session afterwards we were best buddies. As one audience member said, it was very British. But I must say I found his overall suspicion of motives, background, and even class slightly puzzling. Now, you might say, as Martin might, that I make TV programmes about finding lost paintings because I 'want the limelight'. Or you could say that I do it because, first, people seem to be interested in it (heck, let's even call it a 'public interest'), and secondly, because I'm an art evangelist who likes to tell people about art in (what I hope is) an accessible and engaging way (a bit like a curator, perhaps). I suppose you could say the same about this blog; do I write it (all for free, of course) as part of my 'struggle for authority' in the art world, or do I do it because readers are interested in the things I'm interested in, and we all want to explore them together? Does the fact that I pay the mortgage, as we all have to do somehow, by spotting misattributed pictures at auction, and selling them for a profit, negate anything I do that might be called public-spirited? 

Anyway, the conference has provoked a lot of debate, and has received favourable reaction so far in the wider world of art history, judging by this editorial in Apollo, and a well-observed write-up by Jamie Edwards of the University of Birmingham.

The Art Newspaper asked both Martin and I to write a short piece for their latest edition; round two, so to speak. Today they went online, which has prompted me to write this rather ranty post; here's mine, and here's Martin's. The part which may tell you all you need to know about Martin's approach is this one:

There is nothing, I think, radical or outrageous in pointing out that connoisseurship has served to reinforce social difference and further material interests over history. There are numerous studies which testify to this. What would be absurd would be to claim that this has somehow abruptly stopped in the present age and that connoisseurship is now absolutely removed from struggles over cultural authority.

I'm not really sure that knowing who painted what has got anything to do with social difference. But let me know if you disagree.

Update - The Wallace Collection, in response to my TAN article, which is titled, 'Do we need a return to connoisseurship?', tweets:

It's a yes from us!


Update II - a reader reminds me about this article by David Freedberg called, 'Why connoisseurship matters', all about the work of the Flemish art scholar Hans Vlieghe, one of the great connoisseurs of our age.

Update III - a reader writes:

On your presentation at Connoisseurship Now. HEAR  HEAR  !!!! 100%

Another reader writes:

Curators operate within a guild structure and are averse to others particularly dealers practicing art history. Curators needn't be connoisseurs and can rely on accepted authority. 

Dealers presented with fakes and copies and misatttributions have both their reputation and capital on the line and haven't luxury to ignore connoisseurship which examines the characteristics that distinguish the work of any particular artist.

If authorship is irrelevant then why do museums and collectors bother purchasing catalogues raissonne and squander their funds paying more for an important name when a school of painting might be just as good or better. Their behaviour belies their curators’ disingenuous arguments against connoisseurship.

Then why argue. First because connoisseurship is difficult and risky and the new art historians aren't trained or skilled in it.  Second because it is inapplicable to some contemporary art where technique (such as it is) is secondary to concept and Rothko or Newman can be convincingly imitated.

Update IV - a pedant writes:

Because you're not one of the Eaton Hall Grosvenors, I imagined you would know how to write in English.  "The Art Newspaper asked both Martin and I to write a ....." 

What happened?

Another reader has this interesting suggestion:

Very interesting, your post today. Needless to say, I'm on your side. As a matter of fact, though, you frequently aren't a suited dealer; the problem is that you don't dress down far enough.  I suggest more infrequent use of the razor, crumpled jackets and trousers, and - the master stroke - a change of name - perhaps Bob Grey?

Update V - a reader writes:

I'm afraid I find the connoisseurship debate, albeit fascinating, somewhat predictable and without foreseeable resolution - and I did watch the available Mellon Centre discussion well past my bedtime, and am catching up with the articles in the Art Newspaper by Martin Myrone and your good self. Martin Myrone has agreed to come to the far-flung wastes of the 'Principality' [Wales] in October to talk about the Tate show and its contents. Our local museum/gallery has contributed two pub signs (one of which, The Four Alls, is featured on the Tate website) and some carved slates to the show - hardly High Art I know). Maybe we can get him to comment on a curator's approach to 'Folk Art'. (Incidentally, I found Hugo Chapman's talk most engaging - and revealing of the 'expert's' rewards and difficulties, in both trade and museum context).

Update VI - I don't usually publish praise, but this one's too nice:

Only you know why you write your blog. The judgments (and I have chosen the word carefully) that Mr Myrone makes, which are a product of his own perspective and interest, hardly matter. I can only say that what you do has made a very great difference to me, and I suspect to many others.  I knew nothing of art, or its history, and having happened upon a episode of Fake or Fortune, become intrigued and followed it to your website, a new world is opened to me. Every day I read your site, looking forward learning something new. Your work is serving the interest of art, and that can never be a bad thing, no matter how or why it is done. I don't really care what Mr Myrone thinks about your motives and reasons, and neither should you.

Update VII - The Grumpy Art Historian has considered the matter from the view of neither curator nor dealer, here.

Update VIII - a reader from Swedish art trade writes, promisingly:

I am, by the way, completely agreeing with you on the connoisseurship debate. The interesting thing is that here in Sweden, I have had very good contact with the academy regarding these issues (all advanced students are sent to the auction house and to dealers to "learn the facts of life"). Actually, most professors agree with me that it is very strange that you can get a PhD without having the slightest idea how a painting looks from the back. I guess that it is more related to the fact that most students of art history are completely unhirable after only a BA or MA degree, so the universities here are trying to form connections to the art industry rather than dissociate themselves from it.

Update IX - Wowee, over a thousand more people watched the conference video since I posted this. Thanks for taking the time, and your interest, I am very flattered. 

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