On Connoisseurship

2 09 2011

Connoisseur.  The word itself reeks of snobbery. It brings to mind men in sport coats with leather elbow patches wearing ascots while sitting in overstuffed leather chairs smoking pipes and holding snifters of 100 year-old scotch.  Connoisseurs are experts, people who enjoy, appreciate, or critique something based on knowledge of details and subtleties.  Connoisseurs know why 100 year-old scotch is superior to others, what separates a good work of art from a bad one, and the difference between a masterwork by Tennyson and the vulgar work of a slam poet.

The Ladies Man knows a lot about wine... you might call him a "Wine-Know."

The difference between a connoisseur and a layperson is, supposedly, one of education and taste.  In theory, one must be taught to appreciate the subtleties of fine scotch—one must know the details of the process of production, how to detect the smoky bouquet of flavors provided by the aging process and the burnt layer inside the oak barrels, the consistency of the fluid against the roof of the mouth, blah, blah, blah.  What is required to become a scotch connoisseur is the ability to speak eloquently to justify his opinion, and, above all, access to the high-end scotch he is justifying his opinion about.  Why is it expensive?  Because it’s good.  Why is it good?  Because it’s expensive.  It’s exclusive.  Not everyone has access to it, therefore it is rare, therefore it is something to be coveted, praised, and held in high regard.  Connoisseurs can afford it, so they only drink “good” beer and “good” whiskey.

The rest of us, in the words of poet Kristen Smith, know in our heart of hearts that “no beer or whiskey is ever bad!”  Whiskey, beer, steak, art, poetry—the common attitude of laypeople is that they like what they like.  To each his own, in the case of matters of opinion, on what he might prefer.  This is, at the heart, a pluralist attitude.  What is good to one person may not be good to another, but neither opinion has any more cultural weight.  I like the Beatles.  A former student professes to hate the Beatles, but likes Jazz.  I am not going to convince him that the Beatles hold a higher cultural place than Jazz, just as he isn’t going to convince me of the reverse.  So we just leave each other to our own opinions and move on with our day.  What each of us prefers is dependent on our own personal tastes.  A connoisseur might see this statement and remark, “There’s no accounting for taste.”

While populists might not want to acknowledge it, the statement is true.  There is no accounting for personal taste—it isn’t quantified, justified, or legitimized.  Those are all key components provided by connoisseurs and institutions to answer questions of taste with definitive categorizations.  I could argue until I’m blue in the face that Rolling Rock is just as good as Samuel Adams Boston Lager, but the continued awards won by the latter prove that it holds a higher place in American beer culture.  It is the institutions of legitimation of art that arrange the strata of artistic output—the museums, galleries, and auction houses identify, define, and quantify what art is good and how much it is worth.  In this case, it is the role of the critic, acting as publicized connoisseur, to educate the wider public on how these works fit in to the overall picture of quality that has been painted by these institutions.  Much like the Samuel Adams TV ads in which the CEO and brewers tell you how the beer is made and that you should appreciate it, the role of the critic in art is that of marketing.

Don't drink the beer to see if it's good! Shove your nose in hops! That's how you know it's good!

Clement Greenberg exemplifies this role in regards to Abstract Expressionism.  As America’s “art critic laureate,” he was able to not only see for himself the qualities that made the work of Pollock and de Kooning  “good” art; he was able to write the justification of why convincingly enough that, in the end, the greater American public agreed with him.  They acknowledged the primacy of abstraction in painting and the position of the galleries, auction houses, and museums was now the accepted truth in regard to quality in art.

However, Greenberg’s formalist criticism and attachment to a universal idea of beauty in art, regardless of historical period, led him to be the model for the caricature of the out-of-touch, snobby art critic.  He wanted no knowledge of the person or process of making in a work (or so he claimed), and would not look at a work until he was viewing it all at once—as if expecting it to overwhelm him with its greatness, if it indeed possessed it.  He would stand with his back to a work and wheel around to view it, or cover his eyes until he was ready to take it in, or simply have the lights off in the room so he couldn’t see it until they were turned on and, like a flash, the painting overtook him.

To see this in action, view a scene from the film Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock?  The documentary follows the path of a painting discovered in a second-hand store by a truck driver that may or may not be by Jackson Pollock.  To help to solve the dispute, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas Hoving, is called in.  The painting is installed in a room, and Hoving walks in, covering his eyes.  He sits in a chair directly in front of the painting and looks at the floor for a few seconds before abruptly raising his head, eyes wide open, in order to have the presence or absence of Pollock-ness hit him square in the face.

This is Thomas Hoving.

From his actions to his dress to his manner of speech, Hoving personifies the stereotype of the connoisseur.  The film ultimately brands the art establishment as snobs and hypocrites—using Hoving’s and other’s refusal to acknowledge the painting based on lack of provenance pitted against a CSI-like forensics investigation that seems to place the painting in Pollock’s Long Island workshop itself.

But, to dismiss connoisseurship in favor of pluralism is problematic.  Whether it is based on marketing, public relations, or personal involvement, people have opinions and a collective group will ultimately pass judgment on a given cultural product one way or another.  Groups that are more invested will be more passionate in their arguments, groups with more education and skill in persuasion will be more convincing, and groups with access to funds or institutions of legitimation will ultimately make their opinions into acknowledged classifications.  Legitimation comes with the acquiescence of the greater public.

Inevitably, in discussions on connoisseurship and legitimation, an artist will eventually argue that he or she makes work for him- or herself, not for any general public or for anyone else at all.  This is a lie.  A work of visual art is made to be seen—to be seen by someone other than the artist.  If it were not, the artist could just think of the image, never execute it, and be happy with it.  A work of poetry or prose is written to be read or performed to be heard.  All art, from writing to painting to film to music, is, at its heart, communication, and communication must take place between at least two people.  This is true of traditional artworks focused on communicating beauty, and equally true of artworks based on sharing experience.  Once the work in question is in the public sphere, the general impulse is to evaluate it.  Enter the experts; enter the judgments; enter the machinery of legitimation.

The second a work is on display, the process of judgement begins.

Still, a painter or poet may argue that they don’t ever show their work to anyone, that they write it and leave it in a notebook, or they paint it and put it in a closet.  Surely, this kind of masturbatory production of art occurs.  However, these artists then make the argument that, because they don’t exhibit to any public, their art shouldn’t be judged as “bad.”  I suppose that is valid.  I can’t say an artwork is bad if I haven’t seen it.  However, it is inconsequential.  It has no place in the greater cultural discourse that is art.  Masturbating doesn’t mean you’re good or bad in the realm of sex, it means you aren’t a part of sex.  Making work only “for yourself” doesn’t make it bad art, because it isn’t even involved in the rest of art.

Connoisseurship is ubiquitous, and it happens even in areas of cultural production deemed “low” by experts of high standing.  Slam Poetry is a niche art form, widely dismissed by literary poets as too easy, too steeped in cliché and too obvious to be considered high art.  Even so, there is connoisseurship within slam itself—audience members who go to as many shows as possible and have opinions on one poet over another or even rank poems by a single poet.  A certain type of “hostage poem” (one that uses topics that stir universal emotions; topics such as rape or cancer) is generally panned by poets, but often scores well among audiences.  The structure of slam itself is geared toward qualitative evaluation:  there are scores, there is a winner.  Even for an artist outside of the kind of art accepted by so-called experts, to dismiss evaluation doesn’t work.  Within every kind of production—artistic, cultural, or otherwise—there are experts, there is evaluation.

From art to poetry to metal, any cultural product has its share of connoisseurs.

A connoisseur can be Thomas Hoving, all houndstooth jacket and condescending speech.  A connoisseur can also be an expert in street art, or carpentry, or Norwegian cooking.  We see critical writing and opinion on everything from video games to symphonies.  Our cultural output seems to be built to be evaluated, and we look to experts to help us classify what is and isn’t worth out time.

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