When art history goes wrong

August 22 2012

Image of When art history goes wrong

Picture: OUP

Rant alert. I've recently come across a book called Art History: A Very Short Introduction by Dana Arnold, a Professor of History of Art at the University of Southampton. Sadly, it wasn't short enough. Just two pages in, when describing connoisseurship, it demonstrates what has gone wrong with modern art history:


Art appreciation and criticism are also linked to connoisseurship. By its very name this implies something far more elitist than just enjoying looking at art. A connoisseur is someone who has a specialist knowledge or training in a particular field of the fine or decorative arts. The specialist connoisseur may work for an auction house – we have all seen how on television programmes such as the Antiques Roadshow experts are able to identify and value all manner of objects, not just paintings, on the basis of looking at them closely and asking only very few questions of the owner. This kind of art appreciation is linked to the art market and involves being able to recognize the work of individual artists as this has a direct effect on the work’s monetary value.

Another aspect of connoisseurship is its relationship to our understanding of taste. A connoisseur’s taste in relation to art is considered to be refined and discriminating. Our concept of taste in relation to art is quite complicated, and inevitably it is bound up in our ideas about social class. Let me take a little time to explore this more fully. I have already discussed the practice of art appreciation – art available for all and seen and enjoyed by all. By contrast, connoisseurship imposes a kind of hierarchy of taste. The meaning of taste here is a combination of two definitions of the word: our faculty of making discerning judgements in aesthetic matters, and our sense of what is proper and socially acceptable. But by these definitions taste is both culturally and socially determined, so that what is considered aesthetically ‘good’ and socially ‘acceptable’ differs from one culture or society to another. The fact that our taste is culturally determined is something of which we have to be aware, and this crops up throughout this book. Here, though, it is important to think about the social dimension of taste as having more to do with art as a process of social exclusion – we are meant to feel intimidated if we don’t know who the artist is, or worse still if we don’t feel emotionally moved through the ‘exquisiteness’ of the work. We have all read or heard the unmistakable utterances of these connoisseurs. But luckily their world does not belong to art history. Instead, art history is an open subject available to everyone with an interest in looking at, thinking about, and understanding the visual. It is my intention in this book to describe how we can engage with art in these ways.

Now, Dana, I have a few questions for you. When you look at a painting, don't you want to know who painted it? Why is being a specialist in any field of study, even a branch of art history, 'elitist'? If a connoisseur is a specialist, then what has this got to do with taste? More importantly, what has it got to do with social class? Do you really think that knowing who painted a picture is a skill a) only related to the art market, and b) designed to intimidate those who don't know? When Leonardo's newly discovered Salvator Mundi was exhibited at the National Gallery last year, were you not able to enjoy it because it was the result of elitist intimidation, or did you think it was a significant advance in art history?

I pity anyone who has the misfortune to study art history under Dana. When I look at a painting, I like to know who painted it. And I bet that, secretly, quite a few of Dana's students do too. So let me remind them, and Dana, that just because connoisseurship is a long, foreign-sounding word, it has nothing to do with matters of taste or matters of class. The word connoisseurship derives from the Latin cognoscere, which means 'to get to know'. So a connoisseur of, say, Rembrandt, is someone who has got to know Rembrandt's work so well that he or she can begin to discern what is and isn't a Rembrandt. That's all there is to it. It isn't elitist. It isn't intimidating. Anyone can do it. In the past, some connoisseurs may have been intimidating, and even elitist. Many were just plain wrong. But that's just a reflection on the person, not the skill. In the same way, some art history professors can be wallies. It doesn't mean all of them are.

On his blog, the art historian and Poussin expert David Packwood gave a glimpse of how art history used to be taught when he wrote that a previous tutor of his had once said to him (I'm paraphrasing) 'before you say anything about this picture, prove to me that the artist painted it'. The tutor was asking him to be a connoisseur, and showing how the basic technique of being able to tell who painted what, and when, should be the first skill of any aspiring art historian. In that sense, some connoisseurial* ability should be the foundation of all art history.

But Dana Arnold says that 'luckily' the connoisseur's world 'does not belong to art history'. I say that, luckily, her form of art history does not belong to my world. In fact, one can increasingly draw a distinction between the history of art, and 'art history'. The former is what we talk about on this blog. The latter, in the context described above, is merely chippy sociology, with pictures. 

* I think I've made this word up, but you know what I mean.

Update - some lively responses to this, particularly on Twitter. One tweeter writes:

Critiques of connoisseurship don't argue that the name of the artist is not useful, just of limited use. 

...and AHN weeps. However, Tribune De L'Art tweets:

100% d'accord avec Bendor Grosvenor.


Another reader highlights the strange anxiety that many art historians have got themselves into over connoisseurship - many think that it is something seperate from art history, and to be treated with caution:

Connoisseurship is a basic tool for art history, but art history encompasses many more approaches. Connoisseurship is needed to define what we're talking about, but to interpret we need the 'sociological' etc. approach too.

Another reader, art historian Dr Matt Loder, writes in a similar vein:

Before you can start to work out who produced an artwork, you have to look at it. And in looking, you will react. And understanding that reaction is what you call "sociology with pictures". It logically must come before attribution. So, whilst I agree that Arnold is too blunt, you are too. There's useful middle ground most of us are trying to occupy.

All of which is self-evidently true. Examining the human reaction to art is a perfectly valid field of study (tho' surely the extremity of the reaction suggested above - that is, the first reaction before you know who painted a picture, or know in which context to place it - belongs more in the field of pyschology than the history of art). And of course there are more approaches to art history than just connoisseurship. Nowhere above did I say that connoisseurship was the only way to look at and understand art. That would be silly. My point is that some people, such as Dana Arnold, seem to think that connoisseurship is not the 'basic tool for art history' that it surely must be. For if we are not first sure of the basic facts of any work of art - who created it, when it was created, what condition it is in - no other analysis can be securely made. Obviously, in some cases we cannot know the artist's name, but it's always worth trying to find out.

Here's a true story to show what happens if art historians don't have the basic skill of connoisseurship: a friend of mine went to a lecture about how a certain seminal painting told us everything there was to know about artist X. The painting in question, however, was by another artist entirely.

Further updates - Three Pipe Problem, who should know better, choses to bring race into the debate:

In response to me posting the above, 3PP tweets back:

I think the less said the better, don't you? Meanwhile, an art historian writes:

I was called a connoisseur at a conference earlier this year, and I don't think it was meant as a compliment. Sometimes, in order not to startle or alarm anyone, I will refer to connoisseurship as 'comparative visual analysis'...

Great idea!

Another reader writes:

BTW, art history academics seem themselves to confuse two senses of the word "elite": one is a matter of power, of politics (including family and class politics); the other is a matter of quality.  They can overlap -- e.g. in the Soviet Union where taste in quality was imposed by crude power, even arguably in capitalist marketing although that seems more likely to go for the lowest common denominator with money to spend -- but they are not the same thing.  Otherwise, elitist is just a jargon insult, without useful meaning.

Another reader observes:

[It] strikes me connoisseurship is valuable for pricing so this commercial side of it would put academics off.

True, but surely sad as well.

Update III - this post sparked off a long debate on the site. To see more, put 'connoisseurship' into the search box.

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