In a previous post, we made light of an estimate that there were 300,000 art advisors loose upon the world and perhaps someone ought to license them like financial advisors or real estate brokers. That also brought to mind this recent broadside by the art sleuth Bendor Grosvenor who worries that connoisseurship has lost its value among art historians. Perhaps that points to a solution whereby art advisors are licensed based upon a combination of transactional knowledge and connoisseurship.
As Grosvenor himself shows, connoisseurship can thrive among commercial pursuits. Why not add the incentive to study and identify artists and their works as part of an international accreditation scheme?
Of ten highly qualified candidates for an art history post at York, Professor Prettejohn told us, only two could recognise a well-known etching by Rembrandt. Most couldn’t even place it in the right century. That’s scary.
In fact, “crisis” may not go far enough. I’m continually amazed by how few art historians are able to recognise the artist of a particular painting, and how they blindly rely on the connoisseurship of previous generations, as if it is infallible. I’m surprised that one can look at the online collection of a major British museum and see a painting demonstrably by, say, George Romney called simply “Circle of Romney”. I’m puzzled too that many museums seem still to revel in the safe catch-all of “English School”, and show no curiosity at all about the artist. It’s like living in a world where doctors are all fully trained and can write diligent papers on diseases, but can’t make a diagnosis.
That’s why I believe that the basic lack of connoisseurial skills we are faced with in art history is weakening the foundations of the discipline. I may be selfishly delighted when major US museums accidentally de-accession works by Van Dyck or Rubens (it happens more often than you might think), but for the public’s trust in an institution it is a disaster. It upsets me to open a handsomely printed monograph only to find basic errors of attribution, and thus see our understanding of that artist’s oeuvre set back for a generation. I despair at seeing a picture over-cleaned through a conservator’s basic misunderstanding of how an artist worked, and the removal of an original glaze in the belief that it is either dirt or over-paint (the Sistine Chapel is the most depressing example of this). Such calamities are what happens when those involved in art history, be they students, teachers or curators, spend their days looking at illustrations in a book, and writing impenetrable and impossible to prove theories on social context.
Art historians and museums are in danger of becoming detached from two of the fundamental purposes of their job—to help preserve our heritage, and to accurately inform the public about the works of art they’re looking at. If, as an institution, you refuse to closely study the object you are charged with preserving, here is what happens: you’ll end up with many of your best pictures in storage; you’ll display pictures without any form of explanatory label; you’ll sack leading specialists on individual artists, leaving a vacuum in the study of that field of art; and you’ll put on misguidedly political exhibitions nobody goes to see. You also won’t pay your curators enough.
Do we need a return to connoisseurship? (The Art Newspaper)