A great deal of “art talk” doesn’t have anything to do with art appreciation at all, and this is as true when the speakers are art dealers and museum curators as it is when they are critics. This brand of talk is “connoisseurship.” Connoisseurship is the attribute common to collectors of all kinds—collectors of baseball cards, pressed glass, Barbie dolls, coins, stamps, orange-crate labels, Hummel figurines, vintage cars, old dental equipment . . . whatever. It is knowledge of all the minutiae that separates one item from another in the world of collection. Is it genuine? Who made it? Where was it made? When was it made? How is it distinguished from similar works? How does it fit into the history of the development of these things? How does it differ from other things this person or company made? And most important, what does it sell for? It is a kind of scholarship related to sensible signs.
If one is looking at an object of intrinsic value, connoisseurship is useful, and in fact, it establishes the market value of the object. It doesn’t, however, have much to do with the intrinsic value itself. Suppose that we suddenly discover that the Pietà was not sculpted by Michelangelo but by one of the workmen in his studio. Does it become less beautiful, less moving, less great as a work of art?
The confusion of connoisseurship with appreciation substitutes the peripheral for the central. Barbie dolls represent one extreme. These dreadful things were never of much value. Hard, plastic bimbos without a history, stiff and awkward, they are a marketing triumph, testimony to the power of advertising directed at children, but it is hard to see how they could be regarded as a substitute for a nice Teddy Bear. Despite this, one can imagine overhearing a collector who has found an early Barbie in good condition. “Oh, isn’t it beautiful!” Here, “beautiful” is just code that tells us that all the fingers and toes are present, together with most of the hair.
“Beauty,” however, is one of the words appropriate to appreciation, and appreciation emerges from our personal and cultural backgrounds. The Pieta was sculpted in marble by a man using a mallet and chisels. Barbie was molded in plastic by machines on an assembly line. This wouldn’t mean much except that the sculpted figure is so wonderfully lifelike (as the doll is not). It is marvelous that someone could do such fine work with those materials. But by itself, this is not the kind of value we are looking for, since one could say the same thing about the Lord’s Prayer engraved on the head of a pin, a trivial, though uncommon, exercise of skill.
We must look further. Let us suppose that someone unfamiliar with the Christian myth saw the statue for the first time. This person would see a woman grieving over the death of a man, her son to judge from the way she is holding him. There is room here for a human response. If the viewer is a Christian and knows that the statue shows Mary and Jesus, that human response has another layer added to it, becomes deeper. (Or perhaps shallower, if it draws only upon clichéd reactions and becomes stereotypical.)
Every such image would not produce these same responses. Imagine a clumsily made statue with the same subject, the work of a primitive or folk artist, perhaps. The expressions on the faces wouldn’t reveal the same pathos, or make us feel the same emotion. The arrangement of the figures might lack grace and serenity. The surface textures might seem crude and irrelevant. The proportions might be bad. Yet the critic might be enraptured by his connoisseurship: “ . . . done by a folk artist in 1810, carved in a native wood common to the area, shows some primitive motifs in the carving, one of the few existing examples of the . . . etc. etc.”
The mere fact of the subject matter—death, grieving, maternity—does not produce the emotion in the well-made image. Such abstractions have no real power to move (as the lack of force of the words “death” and “grieving” on this page shows). But it is worth noting that a photograph of a mother and child taken in a theater of war can affect us powerfully, and the representativeness of the image is the ultimate source of this power. For the photograph to have this effect, however, it must be composed in such a way as to make us feel the emotion of the solitary figures: the exposure must create light and shadow that contribute to the effect, and the positions of the mother and child must be related in a meaningful way. These are the attributes of art. In one sense, the sculpture can have even more power than the photograph, for every part of it is created to express the emotions that the sculptor feels for her subject, her sense of what the sculpture is about, what she wants viewers to feel. This emotional connection rooted in human understanding is where the intrinsic value lies, and all the connoisseurship in the world is mere accountancy beside it.
Unfortunately, connoisseurship and appreciation are not always clearly separated, and the former often usurps the place of the latter. This is understandable because one can talk clearly and precisely when dealing with dates, places, and persons, whereas we are on the shaky footing of our own sensibilities when we try to express our appreciation. One remedy for the confusion is to have clear names for the kinds of art talk, and to use them pointedly.
The saying, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like,” is often held up to ridicule as an example of Philistinism, but appreciation is the proper starting point for any valuation of art.