A (Rightful) Call for ‘Old-Fashioned’ Connoisseurship

August 6, 2010

Artfully

Tuesday’s New York Times ran a piece on two art historians’ quest to restore “old-fashioned connoisseurship” among art historians. As a graduate student of art history myself, I give a hearty “hear hear” to their cry.

From the story:

“Art history has been hijacked by other disciplines,” said Mr. Kanter, who teaches a connoisseurship seminar to Yale graduate students. “Original works of art have been forgotten. They’re being used as data, without any sense of whether they’re good, bad or indifferent.”

He added: “No one wants to turn art history back 150 years. But we’re lacking an important tool that we threw out the window 70 years ago.”

The outspoken Mr. Feigen, who graduated from Yale in 1952, went further. “There isn’t a single art history department in the world that I consider first-class,” he said, as he toured the exhibition earlier this year. “I’m hoping Yale will develop a focus on objects instead of theories.”

The idea is a simple one: If Mr. Feigen can spot Fra Angelico-level quality by closely looking at art with his well-trained eye, perhaps students too one day can learn to tell gold from dross.

Mr. Kanter and Mr. Feigen do have allies in their cause, though it is a small club, many of whose members are white, male and over 40.

“It’s not uncommon to encounter bright students who are able to express the most abstract ideas with ease and who, when faced with actual works of art, are tongue-tied,” said Keith Christiansen, a curator of European paintings at the Met and Mr. Kanter’s former colleague there. “Connoisseurship needs to form an alliance with the very academic approach. They inform each other.”

Like most (all?) graduate art history students, I took a required theory class my first semester, and now I regularly apply some aspect of some theoretician’s thought to my own research. However, I totally agree that this doesn’t promote an intimacy with art itself — in fact, theories can exhaust the art, boiling it down to semiotic mush. Recently, I wrote on frescoes in San Clemente in Rome depicting St. Catherine of Alexandria attributed to Renaissance painter Masolino da Panicale. It was clear from my research that the verdict is still out whether or not these were Masolino’s works for certain, or whether they could be attributed to his teacher Masaccio. Frankly, as a graduate student focusing on architecture, and not Renaissance frescoes, I don’t feel qualified to make my own judgement,  but it illustrates the need for connoisseurship — someone has to have the skills to decipher the difference between a master and his student, and if it’s not the historian, who will it be? Students of art history need to get out of the classroom and into the museums, churches and private collection to see the art itself, and spend time in studios of artists who have mastered the craft.

Mastering feminist theory, hermeneutics or iconographic analysis is not knowing art. To put our focus there, as we have for decades now, means we risk missing both the trees and the forest.

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About Maria Wiering Pedersen

Maria Wiering Pedersen was a writer for The Catholic Spirit between 2004-2010.

View all posts by Maria Wiering Pedersen
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