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Comment Features

Editor’s Letter: Connoisseurship now

2 June 2014

May saw the launch of Art Detective, the latest notable initiative from the Public Catalogue Foundation (PCF). This is a digital network that has been built to encourage identification of the tens of thousands of publicly owned paintings in the United Kingdom with unknown authors or uncertain attributions, or about which other information is lacking. Moderated by specialists and freely accessible online, it is a smart extension of what the PCF has already achieved by photographing and digitising every oil painting in public art collections in the country: now that those archived images are so readily available, the next step is to pool knowledge and stimulate interpretation of both individual works and collections. Art Detective looks like another serious venture, carried off with minimal pretension and a progressive confidence in public curiosity and participation.

The project acknowledges the dwindling of traditional specialist, object-oriented knowledge in our museums and galleries. With hindsight, that general trend seems to have been somewhat inevitable, as art historians schooled in the context-heavy ‘New Art History’ of the 1980s and ’90s have taken up senior museum posts and responsibilities. These curators have instigated many challenging, perceptive exhibitions and rehangs, but sometimes at the expense of thinking about the particular qualities of objects themselves, of their making and marring, and of their stylistic achievements and idiosyncrasies.

But Art Detective is far less a lament than a call to action, more a product of a rejuvenated interest in connoisseurship than a parlour game to be played over its tombstone. We are in the midst of an explosion of what might – at risk of sounding oxymoronic – be termed popular connoisseurship: the fascination with attribution that has been stimulated by television series such as the BBC’s Fake or Fortune?, as well as by a number of well-publicised rediscoveries of artworks. The challenge now is to engage that attention in more nuanced narratives, and values that are other than financial.

Connoisseurship and its uses are back on the professional agenda, too. ‘The Educated Eye? Connoisseurship Now’, a recent conference at the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, London, brought together speakers from museums, academia, and the art trade to debate the meaning and uses of connoisseurship today. (Helpfully, the full proceedings are available online, which is where I’ve been watching them.)

Among the speakers there was a sense, if perhaps not a consensus, that while connoisseurship could no longer be seen as an end in itself, then the time had come for it to be reconsidered as a crucial means to a range of constructive ends. Art Fund director Stephen Deuchar made a number of pointed requests to some of its different constituents: to the art trade, for whom the evidence of the eye grounded on rich cumulative knowledge remains so vital, an appeal not to turn away from museums and academic art history; to museums, to make breathing-space for object-based training; to art historians, to work object analysis into wider interpretative strategies.

This last suggestion, and a similar strain in Liz Prettejohn’s keynote lecture on ‘New Connoisseurship’, call to mind what the so-called ‘New Formalism’ has done for literary studies, historicising and contextualising traditional knowledge, such as systems of prosody, to return what was feared obsolete to the cutting-edge. A revenant connoisseurship, practiced in the environs of, say, cultural history or ideological critique, looks a broad, promising avenue for art history to explore.

While on the subject of the PCF, it is worth drawing attention to another recent announcement. The organisation has partnered with the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association (PMSA) to work on ‘Your Sculpture’, planned as a complete digital catalogue of public sculpture in the UK, both outdoors and in collections. The digitisation is expected to take about four years, and looks set to be a monumental achievement in its own right.

Related Articles

The Art of Digital: Your Paintings, Art Detective and the PCF (Andrew Ellis)

‘The Educated Eye? Connoisseurship Now’ at the Paul Mellon Centre (Katy Barrett)

Curators, connoisseurship and the art of looking (Danielle Thom)

Look closer: what art historians can learn from museum education (Ben Street)