Why connoisseurship matters, ctd

August 30 2012

Before I write a more considered defence of why connoisseurship matters, let me see if I can get away with this reductio ad absurdum - how would art history work if we didn't know who painted anything?

Update - some interesting reaction to this. Art historian Dr Matt Loder tweets:

Isn't there a marked difference between "knowing who painted something" & "connoisseurship"?

I don't want to read too much into Matt's tweet - but perhaps here we see the extent to which connoisseurship has acquired its extensive baggage - be it to do with taste or whatever - which in turn has helped make the word controversial. I define, or perhaps should say, want to re-define, connoisseurship at its most basic level, that is a close examination of the object. From this can come the skill of getting to know the work of artist well enough to be able to tell, with the aid of science and documentary evidence where relevant, whether or not they made the work in question. Therefore, in order to certainly know who painted something, we must exercise a degree of connoisseurship. Or, we may have to rely on the connisseurship of someone else before us. Art historians may all now know that Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window is by Vermeer, and one of his most famous works. But once it was thought to be by Rembrandt - and that is why connoisseurship is a vital and basic skill in art history. I make no greater claims for it than that.

However, another reader writes:

As a medievalist I'm frequently confronted by works which have no clearly attributed artist. Some artists are distinctive by particular stylistic traits and can be termed "the master of such and such", but many remain anonymous. Although this restricts our knowledge of artistic development, it does not diminish our appreciation of the works that have been produced.

If anything, might it liberate our perception of each work in its own right, rather than as part of an overall body of work related so significantly to personality? Surely the world would breathe a sigh of relief if we could remove the attribution from Damien Hirst's dot paintings?

Just a passing thought!

Now that's an interesting thought on our friend Damien, but alas even for him I would always be interested to know who painted the spot pictures (ie, not Damien!). The fact that Hirst did not paint them, but merely came up with the concept, tells us a great deal about him, his art and the society that buys it, exhibits it and appreciates it. It is, if you like, a form of inverse connoisseurship - but still the key question is - who created the work and how did they do it?

Turning to the medieval point, although I certainly agree with the 'we can still appreciate them' line of argument for anonymous works of art, I don't think that should stop us trying to find out more about the artist. The desire to move away from 'personality' is where modern art history has taken its cue from much of modern history. Here, if I may, I'd like to repeat an argument I made in our recent 'Finding Van Dyck' exhibition catalogue at Philip Mould & Company:

From about the late 1970s onwards, art history as a discipline saw a considerable reaction against connoisseurship, and by extension the whole question of making attributions based on visual evidence. In essence, the study of the object, be it a painting or a sculpture, became less important than the study of its context. Some art historians went so far as to declare the very notion of authorship irrelevant, their thesis chiming with the growing trend amongst historians to turn away from the study of the individual (not to mention the rise of literary criticism). As a result, both art history and history as disciplines increasingly focused on identifying other elements that determined historical and art historical ‘outcomes’, be they economic, social, or gender based, in a headlong quest for generalisation. And since connoisseurship inevitably involves a detailed biographical study of an individual artist, connoisseurship as a skill became less valued. The shift of emphasis in both history and art history is best reflected in their respective historiographies – modern historians wrote fewer biographies, and art historians wrote fewer catalogue raisonnés.

Some art historians may not like a personality-led approach, and some may. I fall unashamedly into the latter group, just as in my work as a historian I am happier focusing first on the actions of individuals. To explain why, I can do no better than to quote one of my heroes, Kenneth Clark, who said when revealing himself to be a 'stick-in-the-mud'; 'Above all, I believe in the God-given genius of certain individuals, and I value a society that makes their existence possible.' If that's what a stick-in-the-mud is, then count me in.

On this point, a reader writes:

As a lifelong  art “appreciator” but no connoisseur, my favourite game is to go into a gallery and see what I can recognise – and then of course read up on the info to learn from my mistakes: I have to know who created everything.  And yes Gombrich has helped to educate me.  

Also having fun with a book I ordered accidentally on Amazon (trying to find another by same author) “Masterpiece” by Thomas Hoving where the curators of the Met. have shared their game of bringing along a small detail of a painting and making others in the team work out where it is from (and improve their connoisseurship).  Beautifully printed too with nice scholarly essays at the end of the book, on each of the paintings from which the details are derived. 

Yes please go into lit. crit. and history teaching – I was so badly taught that it has taken me until (almost) retirement to start reading it for pleasure – shocking really.

Another reader writes:

Interesting debate and I have a partial answer to your question. As an artist I'm a big fan of Constable's sketches and the insight they give into his approach to the more 'finished' studio work. If no one knew who painted either then I for one would be the poorer for it, so in that sense I appreciate the connoisseurship behind the attributions...

Finally, art historian Edward Goldberg gives this invaluable view of the whole debate (which is really worth reading):

There has been a  recent flurry of posts on various websites focusing on the state of “connoisseurship” today.  I have been reading them with a mixture of frustration and nostalgia: Frustration at the generally overwrought tone of  the discourse;  Nostalgia because “connoisseurship vs. the new art  history” brings back so many memories.  

When I returned to the States in 1980, after finishing a D.Phil. at Oxford with Francis Haskell on Medici art patronage and collecting, I took up my first (and presumably last) university post—in the Fine Arts Department (as it was then known) at Harvard University.  And I tumbled head over heels into a raging controversy—one that I never even knew existed.

There was a fight to the death between the old-line “object-oriented” art historians (a.k.a. “connoisseurs”) and the younger  “contextual”  art historians (like myself).  It was one of the most poisonous academic environments that I have ever seen outside of Italy and there were many external agitators stirring up trouble.  (I even  received an “anonymous”  threatening  phone call  at two in the morning from a distinguished member of the Departmental Visiting Committee!)

By the time I left Harvard in 1987, however,  the “discourse” had shifted and I was dodging the political correctness commissars,  not the connoisseurs, in American academe.  “History of patronage and collecting” had been  reclassified as elitist and insufficently theoretical.  The  defining moment came when The Art Bulletin sent back a proposed article accompanied by a bizarre ideological diatribe.  What gave me the right to discern “quality” in art, thereby implying that some objects—and by implication, some people—were “better”  than others?  Etc. Etc. Etc.  (I published the article elsewhere, by the way.)  It seemed a good time for me to go back to Florence and back to the archives—where I have been ever since.

I have always been committed to the essential role of  “connoisseurship” in art history, but without silliness and mystification, of which there is far too much.  (For the record, I prefer “visual analysis”,  but the “c-word” doesn’t drive me crazy.)  For those of us who wish to rehabilitate this body of skills and practices, it seems a mistake (strategic and otherwise) to put so much emphasis on one-off identifications—attributional magic tricks, so to speak. When  someone states, point  blank, “This is Raphael because this is Raphael  (full stop).”, it trivializes a complex and subtle process –and it doesn’t do nearly enough to help us understand the work of art.

I find it far more interesting when a  “connoisseur”  says something like, “I saw your picture. It looks like Bergamo or Brescia to me, not Venice, probably a little later than your are thinking. Have you considered those two altarpieces in San Giovanni in Alto and Santa Maria in Basso? Why don’t you put your picture in the middle and see what you can do with them?”  

I personally see “connoisseurship”  (or “ trained visual analysis” ) as the engine that powers art historical research of many kinds (needless to say, I am thinking primarily of Western Art from the 13th through the 19th centuries).  It puts us on the ground in a particular place and time;  it starts us thinking about the terms of the commission and the use and meaning of the object;  it tell us where we should start looking for documentation. And so on…

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