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Session 1: The Educated Eye? Connoisseurship Now

Mark Hallett: Great I think we’ll begin everyone, so good morning everyone. It’s really nice to see so many
of you here so early in the day. My name is Mark Hallett,
I’m the director of studies here at the center. I’d like to welcome you
all to this one-day conference addressing the
issue of connoisseurship. Now, this is a topic
on which I’ve been mulling about for
quite some time now. I hope she forgives me mentioning
this, but I remember talking to professor Liz Pratt John
over a late evening glass of wine quite a few years
ago now about what we both recognized was a resurgence
of interest in the formal and material properties of the
art object, on the part of our fellow academic art historians,
and an increasing willingness on their part to address and
explore the distinctive stylistic characteristics of
an individual artists work. We were wondering whether this
trend in the discipline might even be described as the emergence
of a new connoisseurship and agreed that a conference,
this was a few years ago we never really did anything
about it that quickly. Did we Liz? That a conference on the topic of connoisseurship itself,
a term that is notoriously slippery and prone to misunderstanding would
be very welcome. In some ways today’s
events I think do have their origins in
that conversation, and Liz of course will be giving a keynote lecture
later this afternoon. The more immediate
stimulant for today’s events however, was
a meeting that my colleague Martin Postle
and I held here at the center last year
in which we gathered together a group of
professionals from the art trade and sounded
at them out about issues that they thought
deserved further scholarly investigation
and analysis. Part of a series of meetings we had
a whole group of different kind of constituencies from there from the
art world, in the historical world. It became quickly became clear not
only that connoisseurship was at the top of their list, but also that
there was a great deal of anxiety on their part about what they saw
as the withering away or dismissal of such skills in the university and
even in the curatorial sectors. Having recently moved to the
Mellon from a university history of art department that placed
close looking at the art object at the center of much
it’s activities and having worked closely over many years
with colleagues, museums and galleries engage with our art
object on a daily basis, I’d say I was quite surprised
even startled by the strength and the passion with which
this argument was advanced by the auctioneers and dealers
gathered around our table here. For them it was clear, and I’m very
pleased to say that one of their number Bendor Grosvenor will
be speaking later this morning. Connoisseurship was a crucial
form of our historical expertise that was in danger of being lost
partly due to the fact that such expertise was no longer
being inculcated in universities or even encouraged or given
us proper due within museums. Now as someone who
thinks that the study of British art has
been enormous enriched by the development of
what’s been described as a new artistry,
it’s no longer new. This was in the 80s and
90’s I guess, that pays close attention to the
social and cultural conditions under which
works of art were produced and consumed,
but also things that this new art history or
that kind of artistry is often paid too
little attention to the formal complexity,
the visual logic, and the material properties
of the art object itself. I was enormously stimulated
by this discussion, and the same was true
I know of Martin. The two of us together agreed that
the time was ripe for an event that began the process of thinking
anew about connoisseurship and about his contribution
and relevance to studies in British art in particular, both
historic and contemporary. Martin and I working together
closely with our new assistant director of a
research Sarah Turner and our events coordinator Ella Fleming
I spent quite a bit of time discussing how such an
event might be structured. We concluded that it would be
best to ask a mixture of art dealer’s, museum curator’s,
conservators, and academics to give personal position
papers based on their own professional perspectives on
experiences of connoisseurship. The topics and questions that we
invited our speakers to think about exploring and then we hope might be touched upon in our
broader discussions today include the issue of whether
connoisseurship can be taught, and if so how are such skills
learnt, developed and communicated. The issues of the overlaps
between connoisseurship, technical knowledge,
and conservation as well as conversation, the role of connoisseurship in the marketplace, the relationships
between connoisseurship and collecting, between
connoisseurship and art theory, and between
art connoisseurship and art history is an
academic discipline. We’d also like to think
about the ways in which connoisseurship
is tied to issues of class gender and
identify what might be described if we find
them as connoisseurship blind spots as a form
of art historical investigation, so I’m
an extremely pleased report that our plans
for today’s conference met with a really
wonderful response. We have, I’m sure you’ll agree
an extremely distinguished lineup of speakers drawn from
various sectors of the art world. We’re also pleased to
have attracted such a large and interesting
audience I have to say. Recognizing this, we try
to build in plenty of this time for discussion
in today’s proceedings. I’d urge you all, as
many of you as we can fit in, to get involved
in what we expect will be a highly
stimulating debate on the subject and that’s
very much the atmosphere that we would like to
create today a more discussion of openness
of conversation of questioning and so
it’d be great and as many of you could get
involved as possible. I think all of you will
now be aware partly because of the kit
that’s assembled in the back of this library, we’re also filming and recording
today’s proceedings. Tickets for today’s
conference sold out within just a few days
of being advertised. I thought it would be a good idea
to stream this event online, and this will also enable those watching on their
laptops or their PCs or taking a minute or two from
their work to submit questions to our speakers via Sarah Turner whose
moderating proceedings online. We should add an extra
dimension to our discussion I hope, so we have a really
exciting day in prospect. For those of you gathered here I can
also promise a nice lunch at 12:30 and a drinks reception
at 5:00 and for those of you watching from afar I hope that today’s talks
and conversations even when enjoyed on a virtual basis, provide plenty of nourishment
and stimulation in their own right. I’d like now to invite my colleague
Martin Postle to the to the podium. Martin who will be
chairing our first session this morning is the
deputy director of studies here at the center
and an internationally respected authority on 18th century British art published
prolifically in that area, but also as all
of you all know, he’s someone who was
famously possessed especially sensitive
and knowledgeable eye. All in all then, the perfect
person to get us started. Thanks very much indeed. [applause] Martin Postle: Well, good morning
everybody and a very warm welcome. It’s my great pleasure
to kick proceedings off this morning by introducing
the first speaker, Dr. Stephen Deuchar who is
director of the Art Fund. Stephen joined the Art Fund
about four years ago in January 2010, but before
that as you all know he was the founding director of Tate
Britain he joined in 1998 and stayed until December 2009
and trajectories that they take. I think coincided
quite closely I was also there for most of that period and it was a very exciting and challenging time
in the Tate’s history. Before working at the Tate,
Stephen was a curator and exhibitions director
at the National Maritime museum where
he was deeply involved in the transformation of the museum. He was educated in
Southampton, London and Yale. He has a strong interest
in 18th century art, but also increasingly
in contemporary art. Stephen’s going to speak for about
30, 35 minutes and I’ll allow us about 10 minutes for vigorous
questioning okay and that’ll take us to coffee, so Stephen and if
you’d like to come to the podium and subject is Connoisseurship Now,
Connoisseurship live, some thoughts. Dr. Stephen Deuchar:
Thank you Martin. Martin invited me to start
this day off by making some, as he put it, informal
and personal remarks on the subject of connoisseurship
or as I interpret this more concisely on the
issue of connoisseurship current status in the world
of art, by which I mean that very diverse set of people
across many constituencies which are actually very
far from making up any kind of a homogeneous group
or community at all. University academics,
school art teachers, art history students,
fine art students, artists, museum curators, museum educators, art critics,
art journalists, general art writers, TV dealers, auctioneers, collectors,
the list goes and I think I can spot
representatives of many of those constituencies
up here today. Although to make one very obvious point, many individuals
will of course belong to more than one of those
categories in so several at once. It’s certainly true that the
diversity of motivation here is so wide that there seems little
or no possibility of finding a single art worldview on anything
at all, least of all what it is about connoisseurship
that does or doesn’t matter. On the subject of the value of connoisseurship to
their own particular area, each constituency I think
actually probably doesn’t know best. It’s the groups that want to
preach to the others that cause the problems as I must admit I’m
rather hoping we may see today. There is certainly plenty
to disagree about. In fact I expect to see today quite
a lot of subjectivity dressed up as objectivity and I’ll try to set the
tone by doing exactly that myself. As I mentioned some of the
ways in which I’ve seen you too from my various
vantage points over the past 30 or so years, that in a
terrible progression from Young Turk to old fogey
which afflicts many of us. My own particular vantage
points have been in this order are history
undergraduate, arts history postgraduate, museum
curator, exhibitions organize, museum director,
art charity director. Not actually an especially broad
range in professional terms it has to be safe sheltered and
privileged life, but certainly broad enough to bring me into
frequent contact with pretty much all of the art world constituency
as I mentioned a moment ago. There’s an unashamed
advocate of the broad church I’ve generally enjoyed
the sometimes vehement diversity of views on the
key question of what it is in the end that makes
the work art valuable. A complex and contentious
issue that ultimately lies behind the subject
under discussion today. No doubt many of today’s
speakers I’ll have a go at defining connoisseurship,
the word clearly doesn’t have a simple
single meaning and his connotations are actually
almost limitless. For me it means firstly
factual knowledge about the work of art that might include above all who made it, when and where, for whom,
in what circumstances. It might also encompass
knowledge about comparative works,
either by the artist or other artist, and
of course it might incorporate matters of
provenance as well. It can also mean
categorizing and explaining the physical works of a work, the physical appearance
of the work of art in terms of its structure
technical style. Connoisseurship is also I think
understood widely to mean the extensible exercise of aesthetic
judgment enabling the declaration that something is good, bad or
indifferent in terms of artistic quality, a subscription to
the idea which for me I have to say as a slightly dubious
one, that such things have absolutely independent worth
whatever the era or geographical or cultural and thereby the placing
of the work of art somewhere into that hierarchy which used
unashamedly to be called taste. Now, it hardly needs to be
pointed out that connoisseurship whilst implying knowledge,
understanding, discernment of quality, and so on has
also picked up weighty associations with class and
with gender as Mark mentioned. For example, the habitual
visual caricature of the connoisseur in British
art for the 18th century to the present day involves
specific or implied references to wealth breathing
and of course maleness. We’re not talking
about O’Connor sirs, we’re talking about a connoisseur. In terms of the popular
perception in the late 20th century, such caricature
was famously helped along and possibly enshrined in
the sight and sound that Kenneth Clark, the BBC series
Civilization although I think we all know that that
should be seen actually in a much wider orbit
than the mere history of connoisseurship as I suspect
the forthcoming Tate Britain exhibition on Kenneth Clark
will succeed in doing. Not to mention the
proposed remake by the BBC which I gather Janet
Street Porter is now the lead contender to be
Kenneth’s class successor which I would certainly
support wholeheartedly. Now, coming as ideas
from being history undergraduate to an art
history, postgraduate. We’re talking about
1979 or 80 I think. This discipline, if it may be
so called, of connoisseurship was both impressive to me and
in truth slightly baffling. By comparison with history,
mainstream history of art seemed to me to be
both slightly scary all those self-confident
connoisseurs with evident these divine visual skills
pronouncing on works of art and also unexpectedly,
unambitious never looking very far beyond
the narrow focus to ask not just what an object
was, but why it really mattered and what it
told us about the world. My most pessimistic I wondered
whether what I saw as the connoisseurial obsession was
small details, small difference, rendered it any different
from stamp collecting or strain spotting or wine or
classic-car connoisseurship. Those curiously seductive and
comforting whirls of minutiae, in which whether something really
counts in the bigger scheme of things never really gets to
be asked because the enthusiasts are so absorbed in a kind of
orgy of their own expertise. Certainly my own choice of
research topic back then, 18th century British
sporting art came about. I need hardly say not through
any personal impulse of connoisseurial
attraction to the subject. Notwithstanding the
tremendous charms of George Stubbs, but because I was specifically interested in how art
of such generally low connoisseurial repute could have
played a meaningful part in the lives of the wealthy and socially elevated
people who originally commissioned and acquired it. It was also an
anti-connoisseurial starting point, now that I look
back on it and made the concurrent emergence
of the new art history for me a highly welcome and
an exciting phenomenon. I was unashamedly delighted by the upsets caused in
the world of British art history by the
likes of John Beryl and David Solkin in the first wave. The complacency of old
art historians in universities and most
curators in museums severely disrupted by a movement
rooted in the left which refused to consider
works of art devoid of their cultural and political
context and which you seem to me introduced
a wholly new level of intellectual rigor
to a subject that had become almost crippled
by self-satisfaction. It’s true that in the polarizing
clashes that took place between the art historians
of the new and the old variety in those years, and
remember we’re looking at a very confrontational era of
high fascism at this point. Connoisseurship was an habitual
target or some would say victim carrying and even further
developing associations with the politics of them
right in its shrill denial that works about could be
meaningfully understood beyond their aesthetic value
and with the associated lament that new art history was
not merely hard to spoil the fun and enjoyment of art
but even somehow to undermine and break down the societies
in which art flourished. There was certainly a
sense in that battle between new and old art
history or was another level between academics
and connoisseurs, that much more than
mere art was at stake. When in the mid-1980s I took
up my first proper job as a curator of paintings at the
National Maritime Museum of Greenwich, I think I saw
it as a kind of obligation or badge of honor that I
should try to introduce into the displays and exhibitions
program a way of treating art that suggested its importance
beyond rather than within the physical reality of the
works, what do they mean being much more interesting
to me than who are they by. Now, this rather central idea of prioritizing image over
object was of course a good deal less controversial at Greenwich where art
had been collected for generations as much
for its extensible informational value an illustration of that ship type, or this battle
commander, or stretch of coastline. Though I frequently did run
foul of those curators who felt possessively, it
seemed to me that maritime art should be somehow
protected from academics who wanted to read too much
into innocent images. I remember particularly a small
curatorial rebellion against the little thing I published about
a posthumous portrait of Nelson which I argued was a kind of a
form of recruitment propaganda for the Navy, which of course it was
but they didn’t accept that. At the Tate of course
which I observed at that stage from afar throughout the 1980s and 90s the temperature
was meanwhile very much higher. The famous Ferrari over
the Richard Wilson exhibition in 1982
led to a battening down of the hatchets
the user a maritime metaphor and the
determined effort to, “Keep the new art
history at bay,” which was pretty much
policy when I arrived there myself as director of the Tate Gallery of British
art project in 1998. It struck me then as now
interesting that the scars of a Ferrari nearly more
than 15 years earlier at that point, should
still have had such a profoundly constraining
effect on the exhibition and these ambitions of
the institution leading it anachronistically to
resist the phenomenon, the social history of
art, that had by that time elsewhere almost
become the orthodoxy. The largely connoisseur
based our history practiced by most curators up to
the late 1990’s was in all honesty spectacularly
far removed both from the kind of art history
by then being taught in all UK universities and
also the kind that was slowly filtering through
to the general public, through general art books
which were of course being written by recent
art history graduates. For an academic circles
narrow connoisseurship had become somewhat discredited than those university
departments that wholly resisted change were both
few and conspicuous. Meanwhile Tate exhibitions
and displays as was indeed the case with the
presentation of art in most UK museums, adhered
a little defiantly to older less academic more
connoisseurial approaches to art, most exhibitions
were monographic, celebratory and resistant
to the revelations of new academic scholarships in
which the object was not the endgame but the
starting point for inquiry. In the couple of years
leading up to the opening of the newly constituted Take
Britain which happened in two phases 2000
and 2001, and across the subsequent decade, I felt
my responsibility was in a way in an institution
where connoisseurship had shaped institutional culture,
to creating parallel stronger links with the
world and newer kinds of art history that had
become the norm and not the rebellious and subversive
agent of change so apparently feared by some
of the curators, and thus began a sequence of exhibitions
in which we invited university artists to
answer the historians who were emphatically not
principally connoisseurs by definition to contribute
to exhibitions, to write for catalogues,
to co-curate them often working at our side alongside
in-house colleague. Examples would be Andrew
Hemingway working with Sherman Norrischool, Michael Philips
and Marilyn Butler working with Blake and Stephen Ban
on Anglo-French romantic art right up to Kelvin Shah working
alongside Carol Van Dyke. There were plenty of
variants to that formula, artist Richard Deacon
and Philip Lindly working on Medieval
sculpture in 2001, Tim Heiman and Patrick Wright
on Spencer, Martin Myrone and Michael Rosenthal young an old versions and walking
new wave, Gainsborough and David Solkin and
Ian Wolfe and others, in turn, was 2009 big
crowd others may say. By 2009 the ideal really and
academic historians and artists to work popular Tate Britain shows had
become very far from usual most commonplace and the sense that I’d
felt on arrival of an institutions defending connosseurial values
against academic connesseuriship had really disappeared oddly but
certainly helped along with tangible importance by the phenomenon
take model where the thematic, the conceptual, the
across disciplinary, the demographic, some would say the populis, were becoming the
tenants of a powerful new rag. Yet in essence at one level at least this was more completely
compatible with connoisseurial traditions
of revering object rather than really
admiring the image. I don’t know how long these
connoisseurial values can be upheld actually in the
field of contemporary art. This is something that will
be discussed by others later today, but they
do seem to coexist very readily with the belief
that art today does lie far beyond aesthetic
considerations and norm. For example, the cultural
psychological terrain. Such ideas even to the wealthiest
almost socially ambitious collecting art classes
who for decades or so might have resisted such notions fiercely, are quite
standard, indeed in the field of contemporary art are
almost a new form of connoisseurship in themselves. Yet there is, of course, no steady inexorable progress,
no certain path in which one way of thinking about the importance of art
absolutely supersedes another, rather there are cycles changing fashion in
museum displays for the sake of thematic
or chronological structures tends to demonstrate. You might argue that the
thematic display is an inherently non-connoisseurial
way of exploring art in which the importance of
the individual concept is secondary to its contribution
to the understanding of the world about it and that
the chronological display resist the liberties of
interpretation, and promotes instead a more controlled
notion of the work of art first and foremost as a
self contained entity. What both approaches have
in common however is a commitment to stimulate
the museum visitor and the rising importance
of the visitor, the general consumer of art, that
frightening person with their own expectations and
rights and opinions may well be a greater challenge
to the primacy of connoisseurship in museums
as well as to its academic opposites than any
other signal phenomenon. In my museum past, I was indeed a
strong advocate of interpretation of adversely apparent curatorial
opinion of texts and labels. In a world where the
authority of the consumer rather than the provider
is so celebrated in which when a visitor
thinks of a work of art is considered
as important if not more so than what an
artist or curator thinks, I can see and I’m actually
quite comfortable with the idea that
this is unlikely to be a successful long
term prescription. This brings me neatly to my present
concerns as director of the Art Fund and their relationship to this
subject of connoisseurship now. I am not going to assume, for I have discovered on previous
occasions that this can be very dangerous, that everyone here knows exactly
what the Art Fund is. It’s the national art collections
fund, it was founded in 1903 with the principal aim of providing and
raising money to help museums buy works of art and is funded
principally and indeed as appointed principal from public subscription
and receives no government funding. Very little has changed
about this formula, in essence across the century
of our existence. Museums come to us telling
us what they want to acquire, asking us for a grant
towards it and sometimes assistance in fundraising for
it too as in the case of Van Dyke and our trustees
agree on other ways to help. In two fundamental ways, this
process is bound up with what one might call adherence to traditional
connoisseurial values. First the decision makers,
the trustees, the people who determine through this
process which works of art museums should acquire are
principally serving on exclusively art experts with advanced
connoisseurial skills. Second, the normal rule is that
before a grant is given the work in question must be brought in
the room and discussed at first hand by the decision makers, so
with metaphorical and sometimes actual white gloves and monocles
and glasses aport -aport is always metaphorical- the perceived
qualities of the object are debated and the conclusion reached-
I’m exaggerating obviously slightly for fun- but we have here
an essentially traditional process in which connoisseurial considerations have
always dominated. Quality and often undefined
is the watchword and the sense of
responsibility about where our work deserves
to be in a public collection is never
very far from the room. Interestingly and somewhat problematically, the
curatorial arguments put forth by the museum in support
of their applications are very often pitched at quite a different
level from the discussion and concerns of the
trustees themselves, younger curators, those whose art historical training has been based
less on connoisseurship than on broader cultural studies do not
always speak the same language as the trustee funders who determine
the outcome of their application, but their most basic curatorial
concerns may be wholly different. An object may not
be beautiful, rare, conventionally important, by a well-known artist and yet for a curator may be highly desired for the way it can be
deployed in the display or shed light on the thematic concern or match the needs of their
customers, the visiting public. It might even be said that
curators are developing new kinds of connoisseurial skills in
which what they know about the object is as it were
matched up front to the wider lessons it could impart,
rather than its afterthought. Acquisitions are made
with specific purposes in mind usually connected
to a public focused connoisseurial agenda
rather than on the more traditional and generalized
grounds of importance. However, I have been very
heartened to see that my trustees make the leap
from their own subjective standards about quality
and art to meet the newer thinking of the younger
curators very readily indeed. Connoisseurship mostly is not a
strangle hole or constriction any longer, but a vital reference
point and as I mentioned earlier in relation to Tate
modern when it comes to the realm of contemporary art, connoisseurship
is itself adapting fast. It’s great to my regret that because
I was deemed to have a conflict of interest, I was not allowed to
take part last year in my trustees discussion about
whether or not to give a grant to help Tate acquire Martin Creed work number
227 which I am sure you all know is the lights going on and off in 2000,
but by all accounts it was focused debate in which the claims of the
work of art -I can’t say object because of course in that instance there was none- were
forensically measured and a generals grant duly given and notwithstanding
the heat around the discussion. I think that the Art Fund
now answers that key question what it is
ultimately that matters or is valuable about
a work of art in a way that is noticeably
different from the connoisseurial tenets
of the past and its development in this respect
seems to be healthy some might say, pragmatic
in its response to new kinds of curatorial
ambition and assumption. We do so in parallel with a very
real concern, the curatorial skills in their wider sense are not valued
as highly as they used to be. The curatorial numbers
are declining fast, that museum cutbacks
through financial pressures are
disproportionately affecting curatorial strength, and
if we do nothing in many museums, and I’m
speaking here principally about non-national regional museums, curators will disappear, replaced by caretakers and visitor
staff services alone. What kind of skills, might we
ask, should a 21st-century museum curator have and how are we going
to ensure that they are acquired? With regard to the latter, the
answer partly lies with money, and I mentioned the Art Fund is doing its bit financially, in
supporting junior curatorial training programs of the
National Gallery and the V&A and in partnership with
regional museums through Jonathan Ruffer Curatorial Grants scheme, which is designed to support
curatorial research and travel, and through some new
strands of grant-giving, yet to be announced, whereby we will aim to award acquisition grants to selected
young curators, to enable them to build up skills in
acquisition-making in particular. At the Art Fund, as you might
expect, we believe that tomorrow’s curators should be as passionate and
knowledgeable about collecting, as yesterday’s curators evidently
were, even if some of today seem not to be, their ambitions are
blunted by economic constraints. This does not mean
that yesterday’s core curatorial skills, those that object connoisseurship, broadly
speaking, are on their own, the right to
blueprint for the future. I’m pleased to say
that, for example, in the National Gallery Art Fund scheme that I mentioned,
exhibition-making interpretation and specific attention to visitor expectations,
are as much part of the curriculum as building knowledge
in attribution, style, technique, and so on. As a strong connection too
with conservation, matching the developing academic
trend in which a profound focus on the physical structure of the
object is once again recognized as being compatible at least potentially
with adventurous interpretative scholarship. I wonder if the
landscape that I am now painting, or the garden
that I’m planting, I’m not sure with the best
metaphor, might be looking a little bit
too rosy, for I do seem to be describing
a world in which, the value, otherwise of
connoisseurship is now a matter of consensus, those unhappy disputes a memory, only
from a distant past. I do take quite an
optimistic line, it’s true for, I think
there is much uniting the art world’s various
factions in this area, and that’s something
as I see as positive. Even though I can’t promise
it will necessarily emerge inversely or very quickly
in today’s discussions. Equally, there’s no point in
ignoring where tensions and sharp differences still lie on how much
connoisseurship now matters. For those in the art
trade, connoisseurship obviously, does matter a great deal. Attribution, rediscovery
of lost masterpieces and so on, are clearly
the paths to prosperity. Unlike curators and
academics, art dealers aren’t all in this for
the public service. Of course, they tend to be good
connoisseurs because their livelihood vitally depends on
those particular kinds of skills. Skills of the eye, especially. Meanwhile, they tend to have
great respect and usually, good relationships with the more
traditional kinds of museum curator. Especially those whose principal
art historical training, pre-dated or side-stepped the
academic progress and change in discipline
from the late 1970s. They often don’t have
very much time for progressive contemporary
academics whose intellectual concerns
are, obviously more ambitious than establishing
authorship or value. You do sometimes, come across the
spectacle of an art dealer baffled, declaring that modern
academic history is just jargon-laden nonsense. Academics, meanwhile, are
engaged in a certain amount of in-fighting in this area,
to keep them busy too. There are still essentially,
connoisseurial art historians at large in
university departments. Some of them using the material
culture smokescreen, I think to play an old trade
in the guise of a new one. Of course, there are still many
traditional curators in museums for who, today’s academic art
history is frankly petrifying. Occasionally, they
re-assert old values defiantly and from time
to time, you’ll see an exhibition, curated with
techniques and approaches that pre-date the
emergence of history as a serious academic discipline,
offering the public a self-referential
connoisseurial rhetoric, others in danger
ultimately of looking self-indulgent, rather
than generously educative. To end, and to make
sure that I annoy everyone in the room
except just a few that I’ve managed so far,
I want to offer some very patronizing
advice on the subject of connoisseurship to
three of the principal constituencies I mentioned in the beginning and I’ve
just picked up again on the trade, the
academy and museums. My unsolicited advice centers on the
desirability generally, of them communicating more consistently
and generously with each other. To those in the art
trade, I would say you will ultimately benefit greatly from continuing to help and support
museum curators from time to time. I say, continuing
because although I may have implied a few moments ago that the public-spirited dealer
is a dying species, I actually know that
not to be the case. I would say to them, “Please do keep
on doing those practical favors, giving special
opportunities or special discounts, offering free advice. Generally helping to put
your connoisseurial skills, which you
understandably usually concentrate on turning
into financial gain for your own businesses,
to the public good. You will thereby be on the side of
the angels, rewarded in heaven.” It may also give you the right
to pontificate on the subject of connoisseurship in
public service, which otherwise, you honestly don’t have. You should also join the Art Fund- [laughter] Stephen: – which puts
many millions of pounds a year, raised as I
said earlier, for the individual members of
the public, directly into your trade but receives
nothing in return. I won’t embarrass some of
those here by asking who of you are Art Fund members,
but I fear, very few. To return to my principal harmony,
as well as doing more to help museums, I would also urge you
to listen and learn from today’s new breed of curators and
university academics rather than fearing or scorning them as you
may be sometimes tempted to do. For they’re more likely to be
more expert on the subject of what it is that actually
matters about a work of art, in terms of how it
relates to the historical narrative or the most recent
state of scholarship? Remember that art has financial
value in the end, only because it’s understood by
buyers to have cultural value. Museums and universities are
aware, cultural value is defined, not in your showrooms,
you need these guys. To academics, I would say, embrace
of course the underpinning of connoisseurship to art history and
where academic adventurousness can be combined with the practice of
those more traditional skills as perhaps we’ll hear later today,
that they are sometimes being done. That’s good and exciting. The days when
connoisseurship was widely despised by academics as being an agonistic reactionary
and nothing to do with intellectual
endeavor at all. Those days are past,
or more or less so. There was once a dull
cliche put about by those who felt most under threat from the new art history, that the
object had fallen out of fashion. Most students now, I
think are actually highly engaged with the object. Of course, they’re not tolerant of the vastitudes of the
old snobbishness that used to accompany old object
knowledge and they’re more inclined to see the connections
between an object from the past and the culture of the present, but
that is very much to be welcomed. As for what those in the
academics fear might do in relation to museums, I would
of course, continue to advocate that you should
consider how museums might be a great forum for exploring
your own ideas, both in active relation to
individual works of art and for translating them into a
context where they might have meaning and currency
beyond your normal peer group and indeed into the
realm of the broad public. If nothing else, your paymasters
would be very pleased about that. There’s no reason that the old
divides deriving from that 1980s world of two art histories should
become anything other than nowadays than a mutually beneficial
partnership of two disciplines that nonetheless remain firmly and
healthily distinct from one another. What would I say about
connoisseurship to the final group, the one that I probably know
best, the museum curators? Nurturing and deepening dialogue
and exchange with both university art history and the art trade
is clearly the priority here. However, there are still some
pockets of the museum world, quite baggy pockets actually,
that as I mentioned, are resistant to both, there are
still curators who, armed with great connoisseurial
skills, try to pretend that art history is still pretty much the
same as it was a generation ago, who think that all
you need is a good eye and a pile of factual data
about an artist or subject or group of works and you can
make a meaningful exhibition. As I’ve described, I tried
in my time in museums, to ensure that all exhibitions
should incorporate new ideas in scholarship,
even in instances where other curators weren’t
that keen to do so. That sometimes brought a bit
of tension into proceedings but I like to think that
was a good thing, helping to bring about fresh views
and understanding of sometimes, were so many
familiar subjects and artists. I happen to think it’s just
not worth making sure, is that I haven’t got
something adventurous to say. I continue to think that
most curators would benefit from spending a
bit more time exposing themselves to what’s going
on in the academic history of art and other disciplines
at any given time. If some curators are in
truth, frightened of academics, just as many
fear the art trade. One of the side effects of the
decline in curatorial numbers and acquisition budgets in the
UK is that today’s curators spend a lot less of their
time and their working days thinking about potential
acquisitions and talking to dealers. There are even some very experienced
curators in major museums who have very little to do
with the art trade at all. An unthinkable idea
a few years back. Dealers are often the
best connoisseurs and their knowledge about
the objects as well as the market is a huge
resource ready with their kind collaboration
to be tapped. Finally, I think it
hardly needs saying that most serious art
history would be impossible without the basic outputs of connoisseurship
from which to draw. Who is a work of art buying? When, how and where it was it made? What is it stylistic
context and so on. Nor is it honestly contentious. I think to say that knowledge
of these things alone is not a form of significant cultural
capital in itself anymore than in essence is knowing
one train stamp, bottle of wine or classic car, as I
mentioned earlier from another. The cultural value of art and thus
as it happens, broadly speaking, the financial value too emerges
from moving on from the starting point of connoisseurship to
understanding why and how art has interacted with history and ideology
and the progress of society. That of course is the point and
purpose of proper art history. Connoisseurship and its association
with notions of taste. As Grayson Perry borrowing
from Freud, put it, the vanity of small differences do still
underpin the art world and do fundamentally inform
the thinking of all those non homogenous art work constituencies
with which I began. Connoisseurship is
not a marginalized or dying art but a powerful force. We should happily
recognize it’s strength and be completely honest
about its limitations. Thank you. [applause] Martin P: Well, thank
you very much indeed, Stephen, for that hugely impersonal and objective view of the
role of connoisseurship, especially at the Tate
and the Art Fund. If you can do or [crosstalk]. Certainly, I think
most of us for better or worst we’ll recognize
ourselves in some part of Steven’s talks,
especially those of us who’ve maybe been around
for for some time. I myself was, was educated in
the late 1970s’ and I remember the huge impact that the so
called new art history had. It was certainly going back a
jolt when some ways it was a welcomed jolt and sometimes
it was very uncomfortable ride. I particularly remember some of you
were there, the Reynolds conference at the Royal Academy in 1986,
which got very vigorous debate. Well, I hope we have a lot of
vigorous debate today, but perhaps in a more friendly
environment and Sarah is here. I don’t know whether you’ve
had any questions yet Sarah? Have you- Sarah: No questions yet. I will [crosstalk] Martin P: She’ll be keeping
us informed of anybody who’s tweeting or getting
in touch with us. I think since we’re all here in the
room, I just like to throw it open. We’ve got a good 10
minutes or so plus for questions, so if anybody
would like to– Sarah: Could we ask everyone
to speak into the mic. Martin P: There’s a mic
here at the front. If you’d like to ask a question
or make an observation, particularly with regard
to obviously what Steven’s just been talking
about, then here we are and maybe if you could
identify yourself as well. That’d be very useful. Penny Wilson: I’m Penny Wilson just
somebody who is deeply interested. It strikes me that connoisseurship
for old art objects is very much easy because you
see where it is leading to. With contemporary art,
you’ve only got 50% of that. You understand the influences
that have caused it to be made, but there is nothing
yet to go forward into. Therefore the way I
see it, a dealer is interested in promoting
that artist’s work, but there is
no connoisseurship that he could offer
as to where might go. I don’t know what anybody
else thinks about that? Stephen: Yes, it’s
about this question of the subjectivity I think of
connoisseurship in a way. Objectivity, I suppose you could
say more easily comes with time and so we are almost
certain in our categorization and commentary on works of art
that have been around for a long time and around which a
huge context has developed. If you walk into an
artist studio and see a work of art freshly
completed, it’s very difficult to
initially to say anything particularly intelligent about it. The longer you spend with it
and the longer you see it in the world, the more sophisticated
your analysis becomes. I think that’s a truth
that we all struggle with, particularly when museums that contained contemporary
art alongside in their collections alongside
historic art, are going to treat
contemporary art exactly the same way, and are
willing to accord the objects exactly
the same attention and analysis which isn’t
always appropriate. Penny: Can I continue with that
being a member of the NACF (Art Fund) [laughs] Stephen: Excellent. Penny: Can I just ask you how your
trustees take that into account? Because obviously anybody
who has collected art in the past– well the trouble
now is there is that future value that it might
have in the past, patrons were rich enough to be able to say, “I like that. I like that.
I like that.” Without considering where
the value would go. That must have some bearing now on
what your trustees are considering. Stephen: Well, they do. They agonize over all
their decisions, but I think it’s probably fair to say that they agonize most over the
decisions around contemporary art. I mentioned the debate around
the lights going on and off as the most challenging decision
they probably had to make. I think one should all
accept that collecting in the contemporary arena is
a very risky business. Museums feel it keenly,
we as a funder feel it, but you have to do it. You have to accept that there may be
failures along with the successes. Of course you have to try
and if it’s possible to do so, set yourself apart from
contemporary orthodoxy. As we all know, the
history of collecting is absolutely littered with
examples of works of art that required and thought
to be [?] Whistler, Malaise, [?] the list
is absolutely endless. They engage with contemporary
collecting with caution and concern, but they
take it very seriously. All of the trustee
discussions around contemporary art are
incredibly focused. I would like to reassure my
members are responsible. Thank you. Martin P: Thank you. Any other questions? Emmanuel: Hi, I’m Emmanuel [?]
from the University of York. I was struck by your
comments about harmony and the fact that today’s
in the art historical world, lots of younger
curators as well as art historians actually
are quite afraid to put forward new proposals,
new interpretations as well as new attributions because they don’t want to
necessarily eliminate museums as well as
professors and scholars. I find it like quite a
devastating impact. The economic uncertainty
of the market and the arts historical world has some psychological
effects and curves in 2004 of younger connoisseurs. If we’re putting forward something that may be perceived
as a risky move. I wonder whether you got
any thoughts about this? Stephen: Yes, one
would love to think that any person with
a great idea will be listened to regardless of their age or status along the
paths of their career. I think certainly in terms of the
art trade, I think anyone who has a great idea and then makes a clever
spot, is going to be welcomed. Their opinions are going to
be taken very seriously. I think it’s certainly
true in museum exhibition making
that there are some brilliant younger scholars coming up
fast who in the past I think have been overlooked by some of the big institutions because
they didn’t appear to have the gravitas and sense of judgment in order to
make a great show. I think increasingly
these projects are in museums are the result
of collaborations. I think it is often
quite possible for emerging scholars
to find a platform. I’m probably not close
enough anymore to the academic end to know
whether smart students with great ideas are pompously
put down by their professors or whether
their ideas are welcome. Ask the person to your right. [laughter] Martin P: We have a question there. I think Johnny Yarker. Johnny: Hi, Johnny
Yarker from [?] limited. You said a couple of times
rather casually a good eye. as though something innate. Something that you’re either
born with or you’re not. The reality is– if I can get
everyone here, who would self professed to have an eye
or not, it takes a hell of a training and because that
training has migrated away from the universities, and to a
large degree from museums. It’s a case of auto didacticism
and that’s part of the problem that some of the
responsibility has been seeded way. I wondered if you could
comment on that. Stephen: Yes, I didn’t really
know more to say on the subject. I used the phrase the eye somewhat ironically I suppose
because I think it is in itself quite a casual way of describing what is a
very complex skill. A skill that isn’t actually
all quite as objective as notion of site looking through
an eye might suggest. There is a lot of
subjectivity there all notions of taste and
so on which intervene. I do find it a matter of regret as I hope I’ve hinted that
the vital skills of connoisseurship are confined so squarely on the trade
end of the spectrum. In some of the smaller
museums, and I’m certainly not talking
about the larger ones where the breadth of curatorial
skill tends to be so extraordinary. I do think it’s a
matter of regret that those skills aren’t
better spread out. I hope we’re here for
others later today about how university
education and how about the practice of art
history addresses this question of how the
eye becomes educated. Sorry, that slightly inadequate
answer to a very important question. Annie: Thank you. I just want to say something
following up from Johnny, but also something as well Stephen, you
mentioned quoting Grayson Perry- Stephen: Sorry, can you
just say who you are. Annie: Am I not
speaking loudly enough? Stephen: It’s just you need to say who you are. Annie: Sorry I didn’t say my name? My name is Annie [?] and
apologize for mentioning a Constable issue,
but of course we all need to bring our
personal examples into the debate to hopefully
make a contribution. Stephen had mentioned
a quote of Grayson Perry about the vanity
of small differences. I would argue that this isn’t
necessarily just a vanity. Of course it could be if
one’s obsessing about, I don’t know, tiny stroke
in the lower left hand corner of one painting and
going on about this for 25 minutes and it makes
no difference whatsoever. In the constable world, Leslie
Paris, who of course was educated and developed his eyes, so to
speak, through experiences Johnny mentioned and at the Tate ended up
with the inflaming Williams defining an entire body of work that actually
wasn’t by Constable at all. This was all based on very
small differences indeed. The work of course was by
his son Lionel constable. They looked at one
stage very similar. We now know that deeply distinct. Of course, nobody
would argue that that distinction doesn’t also
have huge cultural value because we can’t simply
assess what Constables about if we don’t know
what the work is. I just wondered what you thought,
therefore, about the significance of these small differences because
they can actually have huge impact on an artist work which could have
potential interest in terms of further academic debate as well if
one’s assessing their own pictures. Stephen: I’m a complete advocate and
supporter of the idea of the small difference in the work of art and the basic output of
connoisseurship, as I said, knowing where a work is by one artist by another is
fundamental to any additional or is usually fundamental
to any additional line of inquiry. I fully support that. I cited Grayson Perry’s
I think rather clever phrase, the vanity of
small differences not in relation to connoisseurship
but in relation to taste in particular
the idea of taste. It is true that it seems
to me a clever way of describing the difference
between something that society might judge us being in good
taste and bad tastes can often be differentiated by
the most minute detail. It is usually the smallness
of the difference that lies behind the categorization. Annie: Any comments I’d make on that
because it’s now 10:30 time for a coffee is that perhaps later
on the debate will take us into the territory of the perhaps quite
subtle distinction, which of course we’re trying to make today between
connoisseurship and attribution. I think as you mentioned there, that
they really are not the same thing because connoisseurship
has its laden baggage of tastes that attribution. Hopefully we all agree is
indeed essential because it is the fundamental science
of working out whether something’s right or wrong. Stephen: Yes, connoisseurship
for me as a– sorry attribution is a subset
of connoisseurship. Annie: Distinct from
it nevertheless. Martin P: Thank you. Do we have, I think we have time for another question if
somebody liked to. I think this question of
taste is interesting. Just the other day I was shown
a very large drawing by an artist that I don’t really have
very much time for John Bratby. It was very interesting. Set me to think about the
fact that when you’ve got an artist who is perhaps
I was thinking is just as important to be able
to identify what I regard as a good Bratby, even if
I don’t think much of it. Also with an artist like
Bratby, unlike Constable whatever one’s view, one
can’t ignore the fact or admit the fact that he is
actually rather important in terms of the cultural
period in which he lived. It’s interesting how these things
are not mutually exclusive. Whether you appreciate an
artist or a work of art or whether you want to put
it in a social context. It seems to me it’s inevitable
that you have to do both. I think certainly
that’s one of the good things that’s come about
in the last 40 years. These people are a lot more
easy in moving around between these two and mentioned
the new connoisseurship. That people can take a very
close interest in an object or a set of objects without
feeling that they’re myopic, but also feeling
much more comfortable about talking about them and
giving them a context. Like I think there is lots of
being encouraged about in that. Well, what do you think? It’s 10:30 coffee’s already and we
might as well stick to schedule. Thank you so much, Stephen. Thank you for setting us off. Very thoughtful and personal
and subjective track. That’s great. We’ve got half an hour then we’ll
be back here at 11 O’clock and we hope those of you who
are not with us in the room will join us then.
Thank you.

Reynold King

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