Matthew Lincoln, PhD Cultural Heritage Data & Info Architecture

Privilege and Connoisseurship

A recent piece in The Guardian quotes extensively from Brian Allen, a former director of the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, who frets that academic art history’s focus on the social history of art is causing a connoisseurship crisis:

He now fears that other subject areas “will fall into obscurity”. “If you look at the number of doctoral theses being produced in pre-20th-century art, it’s diminishing very rapidly. People are opting to do what you might call easier subject areas. If you’re writing about contemporary art, you don’t really need a body of knowledge to the same extent.”

Critics might be quick to point out that this is hardly a new debate; after all, even the article notes that “new art history” and its focus on the social impact of artwork has been around since the 1980s. These issues have been aired quite a bit since then, including in a 1999 Clark symposium on “The Two Art Histories”1 That said, the issue certainly has staying power: Ithaka S+R’s 2014 report on art historical research practices (PDF) echoes interviewees’ concern that too much graduate training focuses on theory at the expense of basic research skills. Ask any recent graduate of a U.S.-based art history PhD program, and they’ll also confirm that U.S. museums seem to prefer European-educated scholars for those coveted curatorial posts.

So I’m not here to dismiss Allen’s complaints out-of-hand. It is true that a catalogue raisonné PhD is very hard to do… but the academic difficulty is not why new art historians would avoid it. This interview glosses over structural reasons that make connoisseurship unattractive:

It’s the money, stupid.

To become an expert on differentiating one artist’s hand from their workshop or family members, you must see as many works as possible in person. This is phenomenally expensive. You simply cannot do that kind of research unless you are independently rich (or have an interested patron) and have enough social connections to get into private collections. What’s more, you’ll not get a PhD by becoming an expert on an artist whose oeuvre has already been well-defined. New knowledge is, as for every other discipline, the name of the game. But the gilded age of art history in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries has plucked a great deal of that low-hanging fruit. Therefore, new connoisseurs are invited to cast themselves headlong into increasingly obscure oeuvres, compounding their already-dim prospects of ever getting hired.

These structural issues restrict the connoisseurial research Allen favors to only a select few privileged or lucky graduate students — precisely the kind of academic environment we would like to avoid as we try to argue for art history’s relevance. It’s precisely for these reasons that you’ll often hear at conferences: “I’d love to see that research! I just don’t want to be the one to do it [because who has that kind of cash?!]”

That’s not to say art historians don’t need connoisseurship. We need the data of core attributions to do larger synthetic work (like my dissertation on printmaking networks.) Likewise, connoisseurship needs grounding in social history. The Rembrandt Research Project fiasco may well have been avoided had its connoisseurial dream team gone in to the project open to basing their judgements on an understanding of the complexities of early modern studio practices, rather than importing the anachronistic idea that a painting could either be by Rembrandt or not, with no grey area. I would love to see Allen and ArtWatch UK offer funding, even apprenticeships tied to eventual curatorial positions, for the kind of research they would like to see. Barring that, they will simply enforce the notion that art history is a field for the rich: not because only wealthy dilettantes can afford to get a degree with poor job prospects, but because only the well-vested could ever afford to do the work that the field wants, but does not want to pay for.

  1. Haxthausen, Charles W., ed. The Two Art Histories: The Museum and the University. Clark Studies in the Visual Arts. Williamstown: Clark Art Institute, 2002. 

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Lincoln, Matthew D. "Privilege and Connoisseurship." Matthew Lincoln, PhD (blog), 16 Nov 2015,

Tagged in: Art History