Recently, there’s been a legal and art historical controversy over the authentication of paintings by members of the New York School. That group of artists, also known as Abstract Expressionists, included Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Robert Motherwell, among other well-known figures. They emerged in New York in the late 1940s, and constituted the first internationally influential US art movement.
In the case at hand, the Dedalus Foundation, founded by Motherwell before his death to protect his legacy, authenticated a number of paintings purported to be by him, which dealers then sold. Later, Dedalus officials became skeptical about the works and withdrew their endorsement, in effect labeling the works forgeries. In the spirit of full disclosure, one of the dealers is a friend of mine, so I was more sensitive than I might have been to the very difficult position they were put in. Neither forensic testing nor the lawsuits that ensued actually resolved the question of the works’ origin. If it is this difficult to authenticate art created within the living memory of many of those involved, imagine what happens as we move further back in history!
This situation got me thinking about the value and limits of connoisseurship. The term “connoisseur” raises hackles in many parts of the art world because it carries with it the notion of inborn “taste,” something instinctive and unmeasurable, yet superior; the elitist connotations are obvious. If we define connoisseurship as an ability honed through years of deep study and careful observation, it becomes more palatable, even admirable. Problems arise, though, when connoisseurship is wrapped up in the ego of the connoisseur. If there is a need to be the leading authority on a particular artist’s work, and to retain that informal title, it can undermine serious analysis. In many instances, questions about a work’s authenticity or attribution (who painted it) remain in flux, whether the art is modern or very old. (Not long ago, I wrote about a Renaissance painting in the museum’s collection that was hidden under a 19th-century fake; the attribution of the older work remains in question. Eventually, further research and/or improved scientific methods of study may deliver an answer, but in the meantime neither refined taste nor a highly educated eye is going to settle the matter.)
Personally, I have mixed feelings about connoisseurship. I dislike the term’s snobbish associations. But because museums offer unique opportunities to engage with physical objects—it is our primary reason for being—they are a natural venue for the development of connoisseurship, in the staff and in audience members who want to explore art history. There can be enormous intellectual and sensory rewards to the intense study and observation of art, and I love that aspect of our work.
Then there’s the question of our increasingly DIY culture: With the ascent of the internet and social media, which has made a lot of information accessible, people increasingly seem to expect (and want) to intuit their way through learning. The new mode, which pretty much strips connoisseurship of its power, is more democratic, and if you learn things impelled by your own curiosity, they may have more significance for you. Yet, while the easy availability of information and the situation with the Motherwells underscore the limits of connoisseurship, I wouldn’t throw it out all together. This is an age of entrepreneurship, but how many of us are really independent entrepreneurs, in business or in learning? Most of us benefit from an existing structure, even as we build on it. Without a base of established knowledge, how deeply will most people go into any subject? At its best, the museum provides that foundation, acting as a guide, opening the doors to individual exploration and discovery.
Until next month,