Is there a crisis in connoisseurship? That seems to be the conclusion of Ben Street, whose recent article on this site on the decline of close looking among art historians implied a growing disconnect between those of us who research and write about art, and the objects about which we write. According to Street, theoretical interpretation is obfuscating simple truths and imaginative responses to art.
I suspect that this view depends on a stereotype of the art historian as a jargon-spouting Foucault fan in chunky glasses, confining themselves to the safety of the academy and the abstraction of theory. No doubt there are some who fit this stereotype, but anecdotal observation leads me to believe that researchers of all types are, in fact, incredibly keen to get close to the objects they study. More pertinently, however, Street has left out one significant group of art historians whose job is precisely to look closely: curators.
Make no mistake, curators are art historians, as much as any university lecturer. Many of us come from backgrounds in academia, or shuttle between the two spheres. We may spend some of our time rooting around in dusty storage areas, or plucking obstreperous children off statues, but we are researchers as well; and we use our caretaker role to examine objects, consider their context, and interpret them for a curious public. Some of us even wear chunky glasses while doing so.
Not only is it an enormous privilege to have constant access to a museum or gallery collection; it also engenders a culture of looking. The experience of viewing objects in storage, particularly, exploring every surface detail, can be a magical one. The art of cataloguing, also, is one in which museum-based art historians excel; using their ability to look closely at a collection and present it for the benefit of other researchers without theoretical intrusion. That work then provides a reference point for those whose work is more theoretical or contextual – not as a replacement for looking at objects, but as a guide, augmenting the act of looking with useful information.
After all, one of the joys of scholarship is to build upon the work of predecessors and peers. It would be terrible to become jaded around art, of course, but arguably we’re not in danger of losing our collective sense of wonderment. Let us always look closely, and as objectively as we can – but don’t stop there. Looking is only the first step to understanding.
In defence of the curator (Tom Jeffreys)