Hogarth, and others, on connoisseurship

August 29 2012

Image of Hogarth, and others, on connoisseurship

Picture: British Museum

Here are some more responses to the vexed connoisseurship debate, the strength of which has taken me slightly by surprise. One commentator even took to behaving like a troll - AHN's first - and had to be harshly dealt with. Quite why anyone is interested in what I think on the subject amazes me - but it's perhaps a sign of how introverted modern art history has become that sites like this seem to be one of few places where people can discuss contentious issues such as connoisseurship. It seems there is a stifling consensus in much of academic art history on the subject, and some within that world seem genuinely afraid to speak out. 

Still, connoisseurship has long been a contentious topic, as one reader reminds us:

...'connoisseurs' (and I am unashamedly one, trained at the last, or until very recently, unashamedly connoisseurial art history department in the country ie. Cambridge) have always come in for a bit of stick. Hogarth famously blasted them (‘those who go to France or Italy for studies…talk of antiques in a kind of cant in half or whole Italian…and bring wonderfull copies of bad originals Ador’d for their names only…’) and rather touchingly told Hester Thrale to meet Dr Johnson: ‘whose civilization [he said] was to other men’s like Titian’s painting compared to Hudson’s: but don’t you tell them now that I say so for the connoisseurs and I are at war you know, and because I hate them, they think I hate Titian, let them!’

I particularly love this cartoon, showing the embodiment of the unmentionable c-word.

Another writes:

I am a little lost in all this "art historians vs. connoisseurs" discussion...  I am not an expert, but most of the essays by art historians I read seem to be written by people  (such as Federico Zeri, Gombrich, Bernard Berenson, Roberto Longhi) pretty knowledgeable of matters of style, and often discussing attributions....

Ah yes, those would be what we might call good old fashioned historians of art.

Another reader writes:

My reply to [Prof. Dana Arnold] would be to sidestep apologias which pay lip service to the squeamishness of those who feel uncomfortable when confronting the limits of their knowledge. Nothing is more exciting than to be pushing the boundaries of one’s ignorance by making discoveries. Enquiry and curiosity bridge the gulf of exclusion and launch one on an adventure of learning. Those who want to know will make it their business. So give them something to work on, like the excellent book by Mary Acton, Learning to Look at Paintings.

Another reader says I've misunderstood Prof. Arnold's original point:

I can't help feeling you've called this one slightly wrong. I can't see that much to object to in the offending paragraphs by Dana Arnold [...]

Each of her paragraphs introduces a distinct usage of 'connoisseurship.' In the first, it's connoisseurship as you set it out in your blog post about the newly attributed Ramsay picture. That connoisseurship such as this is elitist is beyond doubt; like any specialist expertise, it is attained by only a talented few, after years of study. What is debatable is whether elitism per se is a good or bad thing. I suspect you read her comments as implying that it was unattractive, that 'elitist' is not merely a descriptive but a value-laden word & perhaps this is how she meant it too (if so, that is unfortunate). Elitism has certainly gained a bad press in recent years.

In her second paragraph, she introduces the other historical usage of the word 'connoisseur', meaning someone who has a certain taste in works of art. Her comment that notions of taste are bound up with ideas of social class, among other social and cultural factors, is surely uncontroversial. The idea that taste can be used as a weapon of social exclusion is also surely right. For example, through history the newlly-rich have used art as a passport to social acceptance. Even today, I wonder how many have walked past your shop window and thought, wow, if I had some of that on my walls then I'd really have arrived? When mega-rich businessmen & oil-rich Arab states build huge collections of contemporary art, they are really building their social & cultural identities. This, too, is why well-brought up young men and women throw themselves at the art trade: so that they can learn - if not real expertise, then at least some of the language of 'exquisiteness', because they know that some social value attaches to the possession of knowledge of art. And quite right too: if art did not have this power, it would not... have any power!

But in your initial response to Dana Arnold's paragraphs, it seemed like you had muddled up the two distinct usages of connoisseurship and, in particular, that you read her second paragraph as describing the connoisseurship she had defined in her first paragraph. As you identify yourself as a connoisseur in her first sense, naturally you took offence at being atttacked under the terms of the second sense. For example, you asked if seeing Leonardo's Salvator Mundi was not enjoyable because 'it was the result of elitist intimidation.' But Dana Arnold wrote of elitism in the 1st paragraph, in relation to connoisseurship as a specialist skill, and intimidation in her 2nd, in relation to connoisseurship as a social marker. You ask 'if a connoisseur is a specialist, then what has this got to do with taste... with social class?' Well, not much, as her paragraphs make clear: connoisseurship as a specialism is para 1, connoisseurship in relation to taste and social class is para 2. Your defence of connoisseurship ('just because connoisseurship is a long, foreign-sounding word...') defends the first definition of the term against the accusations of the second.  Dana Arnold says that the connoisseur's world 'does not belong to art history' - she is clearly talking about the second usage of the term, not the first and, in that, she is surely correct?

On my reading, I'm entirely sure that Prof. Arnold is referring to connoisseurship as a whole throughout the two paragraphs in question, and not in the distinctly dual meanings suggested above. In the second paragraph she explicitly links the connoisseurship of 'taste' and 'class' to the connoisseurship of 'knowing who the artist is'. I also cannot help but detect, in even the most generous reading, a disdainful view of connoisseurship - 'these connoisseurs' and 'their world', with which Prof. Arnold says she wants nothing. After all, the whole tenet of her book is explicitly stated in the introduction - 'This book challenges such traditional ways of seeing and writing about art'. So I think it is fair to assume that connoisseurship is one of the traditional things Prof. Arnold wants to challenge, along with the 'chronological story about great Western male artists.' And I think to use the word 'elitist' in the same sentence as 'just enjoying looking at art' is to surely to cast it in a perjorative sense. 

Another reader reminds us (as I have been at pains to point out, but perhaps not strongly enough) that attribution is of course not everything:

I'm enjoying the connoisseurship debate, and I agree with you. That said, I think your brief comments could be interpreted as bending the stick too far towards saying that attribution is everything. To take one example among many, Jules Lubbock is in my opinion a first-rate art historian. His book on Storytelling in Christian Art is an excellent piece of art-historical scholarship. But I wouldn't see him as a connoisseur - he relies substantially on others' judgments about attribution, and focuses on other aspects of art history.  Yes, attribution is an essential basis for saying anything sensible about art, but art history would be rather arid if that were all it were. Just to be clear, I'm not attributing that view to you, and I don't think that any of this is disagreeing with you.

There's much more to be said on this, I think, and some interesting parallels with other academic disciplines - especially literary criticism.

Too true about literary criticism, and there are also parallels with the way history has been taught lately, which I may return to.

Thanks very much for writing in everyone - please keep 'em coming!

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