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Connoisseurship and Critique

Why return to the history of connoisseurship, and why now? Its particular virtues—deep looking, an eye for subtle markers of historical merit, and an obsession with the “hand of the master”—seem rooted firmly in the past at a time when art is ever more obsessed with the present. An essay on “Marxism and Connoisseurship” today is likely to seem both ridiculous and dubious, like proposing a political recuperation of dressage. Yet I think that theorizing where we stand in relationship to the concept can save a lot of confusion, and clarify the stakes of cultural critique.

“No moment of the discipline’s history has been more reviled,” one recent scholarly article puts it. “Connoisseurship has become a byword for snobbery, greed, and professional mystification.” Last year, speaking at a conference on “The Educated Eye,” one British Museum curator put the matter even more aggressively: “[I would] rather gouge my eyes out with a rusty penknife than describe myself as a connoisseur.”

And yet, a twist: while art flees from its historical association with connoisseurship, the very same virtues are undergoing a boom in the culture beyond the gallery and the museum. Everywhere consumers are being encouraged to interpolate themselves as connoisseurs. Indeed, the recent past has conjured up entire new fields of connoisseurship, as if by magic.

One hundred years ago, when the classic connoisseurs of art like Bernard Berenson and Max Friedlander were at the height of their prestige, Henry Ford had only just gotten his assembly line rolling, the great symbol of capitalist commodity production. Today, interest in collectible cars among moneyed Baby Boomers far outpaces investment in traditional status symbols like art or wines. Symposia with titles like “Connoisseurship and the Collectible Car” promise the knowledge necessary to navigate this new terrain.

Read the full article here.