Me on connoisseurship! (ctd.)

October 23 2017

Image of Me on connoisseurship! (ctd.)

Picture: Martin Postle

I've been meaning to post this link to a discussion I was involved in on BBC Radio 4's 'Front Row' programme, about connoisseurship. The premise was 'is connoisseurship in crisis?', and I argued that it was, because sadly it's not taught enough in art history courses. Therefore, not enough art history graduates leave university knowing the basics of how to tell who painted what, when. Slightly to my surprise, my felow guest, Professor Alison Wright, head of the art history department at UCL, said that "connoisseurship is a tool amongst many, and it's not one we do teach in that sense, partly because to some degree it's not teachable...". 

Now I'm used to hearing the argument that connoisseurship is not worth teaching, because things like authorship and originality are not important. But I don't often hear leading teachers of art history say that actually you can't teach it at all. 

Of course, like any skill or process, connoisseurship certainly can be taught. I hope to give just a small taste of how to do it at the Royal Academy in December for one of the RA's short courses. We're in the final stages of planing how the weekend might work. Of course, we can't make people into connoisseurs in a weekend, but we hope to at least demonstrate the basics. If you're coming, thanks for booking - it's going to be fun! (The course is sold out, but we're likely to run it again next year.) We will be doing all the things that some of the more trendy art historians hate - including the sin of sins, making 'value judgements'. 

Update - a former head of a UK university history of art department writes:

At the risk of appearing completely obsolete academically, allow me to agree with you that connoisseurship can be taught.  Today universities are as concerned with teaching 'transferable skills' as they are with developing intellectual capabilities: for an art historian, the ability to examine works of art for authenticity and to make (or unmake) attributions is an essential professional competence which anyone with pretensions to knowledge should possess.  It is simply not the case that the essentials cannot be taught, which is not the same as simply not teaching them in the first place.  When I was a BA student we learned a lot of what has been thrown out of the art history curriculum today, including the basics of how to analyse stylistic information in conjunction with material and other evidence because it was assumed we might go on to work in museums, as academics or in the art market where we would develop and refine skills regarded as professionally essential.  Since then of course, art history has indeed broadened its intellectual concerns and expanded into important and enriching new approaches to understanding the contexts in which images are created, consumed and comprehended - all of them offering new and enlightening perceptions for interpreting visual culture which have transformed the subject from one in which scholarship prevailed to one in which theory predominates.  Art's histories are now more concerned with discourse and debate than with art's history - a graduate is more likely to know about Foucault than Fouquet.  

I would agree that connoisseurship is an acquired skill, but in my experience it is something which students appreciate learning about, not least because it is a fundamental practical application of what underpins their subject and its history.  I think I was probably the last person in a British university to teach a course with the word in its title: 'Objects as Evidence. Science, Connoisseurship and Art History'.  It introduced students to visual and material analysis, attribution and authenticity, provenance, collecting history, condition, conservation, forgery and what they had to teach art historians.  More than ten years on I still hear from graduates who say they use what they learned from it.  Of course, it was only a starter, but it had the merit of showing them that anyone can acquire and develop what it takes to be a 'connoisseur' with practice, and far from being something 'exclusive' it made the study and scholarship of art more accessible, not less.  And in an academic world increasingly expected to deliver employability, it had an additional benefit: as well as curators and art dealers, it encouraged several students to go on to become successful conservators.

One of those reader comments that I will treasure. Thanks!

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