Cultivate Your Connoisseurship
Sometime in the late ‘90s an art collector named Richard L. Feigen came across a painting at a Sotheby’s auction that he really loved. Feigen is an avid art collector and, by his estimation, the painting dated somewhere around 1430. He bought the painting for around $20,000 and brought it back to the States. A year or so later he’s chatting with his friend who curates at the Met (Feigen is a serious collector), shows him a photo of the painting he bought in London, and the curator flips out. Long story short, it turns out that this painting is from the late 1420s (good eye, Feigen) and is by none other than Fra Angelico, who, incidentally, was regarded as such an incredible painter that the Catholic Church beatified him (that’s one step short of sainthood).In other words, Feigen had himself a $5 million dollar painting. [1. This story and a discussion of art connoisseurship ran in the NY Times this weekend here.
I would dare say there is one reason that Feigen bought that painting—his connoisseurship. Feigen, who is working on reviving a classic art history education based on actually studying objects rather than talking theory, would likely say the same thing.Before we get more into connoisseurship, I want to point out something incredibly important that was not mentioned in the NY Times article about this story: Feigen bought the painting at Sotheby’s. This is not one of those “I was over at my buddy’s garage sale and look what I turned up with” stories. He was at Sotheby’s, one of the largest and most trusted art auction houses in the world. One would expect to walk into a Sotheby’s sale and be offered complete and reliable info about everything up for sale.Sotheby’s didn’t recognize that this was as $5 million dollar painting.The connoisseur had an inkling.———————A few years ago I sat in on the final review at a 2nd year graduate architecture course at Columbia University’s GSAPP [2. Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation]. Without getting into it (or throwing anyone under the bus), let’s just say that the assigned project on which the students were working was a little unorthodox and entirely theoretical (e.g. they weren’t required to consider, you know, gravity). Basically, these projects were very weird. [3. This is not an indictment of weird. Also, when I tell you these projects were out there, I’m not kidding around.]As is normal in these courses, some very famous architects were brought in to review the students’ work and comment on it. This particular panel included the American architect Peter Eisenman who is, in a word, brilliant. Eisenman is generally associated with the Deconstructionist movement in architecture, the hallmarks of which you see in buildings like Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and Disney Concert Hall. His work is in MOMA. This is all to say that Eisenman, when it comes to architecture, is no straight edge. [4. That’s an architecture joke. He’s no Straight Edge. Deconstructionist.] He’s completely comfortable with weird.Having watched one student wrestle with the project throughout the semester, I thought I knew what we were in for. GSAPP reviews are notoriously brutal; students often use words like “carnage” and “ripped him to shreds” when talking about them.This time it was different.Students presented their work in pairs; the first slides went up and the reaction from the panel was almost instantaneous—and it was directed at the professor. [5. These are not direct quotes. Pete, if you’re reading this, feel free to weigh in in the comments.] “What are we looking at here? What exactly are we hoping to assess? What, again, was the assignment?” The professor struggled to answer. Two more students presented their work and the review was halted again. Eisenman again addressed the professor: “What are they trying to achieve? Are there any benchmarks? I don’t know how to make these stronger if I don’t know where we’re going with them.” This critique of the process itself continued throughout the review.Eisenman’s point was simple: how can you ask me to assess the quality of something that I’ve never seen before? How can I give a student effective feedback if I don’t know what he was trying to do and I don’t know what I want him him to do?In short, he didn’t know what the hell he was looking at.He was not yet a connoisseur of the work.It wasn’t until all of the students had presented, until the panel had seen the strongest and weakest examples of the project, that Eisenman was really able to begin talking about the work itself.————————The word connoisseur comes directly from French; connaitre means “to know.” While we often reserve the word to describe people who are connoisseurs of art, wine, or other rarefied items, we should really be striving for connoisseurship across the board. Some connoisseurship, like Feigen’s, takes a lifetime to develop. Other types can be developed on the fly; Peter Eisenman did it in a classroom in a matter of hours.At the end of the day, it’s your connoisseurship that allows you to do everything from choose a good piece of fish at the market to recognize the art in a Jackson Pollack painting. It keeps you from spending too much on mediocre wine and lets you know when to splurge on a handmade sweater.Your connoisseurship is why you know where to find the best french fry in town and how you see the finesse in a great football play. It’s how you sniff out an insidious idea or learn to love the work of a new author. It’s the reason you’ll pay the appropriate price for your house or select a college for your child.It’s the basis on which you walk away from a bad business deal or make a great friend.Your connoisseurship is at the core of each moment of quality in your life. Cultivate it.Tweet---------------------