Tag Archives: art

First-world problems and the common or garden connoisseur

Great piece by J Peder Zane in The New York Times. Wish I’d thought of it:

In Pursuit of Taste, en Masse

AMERICANS didn’t always ask so many questions or expect so much in their quest for enjoyment. It was enough for them simply to savor a good cigar, a nice bottle of wine or a tasty morsel of cheese.

Not anymore. Driven by a relentless quest for “the best,” we increasingly see every item we place in our grocery basket or Internet shopping cart as a reflection of our discrimination and taste. We are not consumers. We have a higher calling. We are connoisseurs.

Connoisseurship has never been more popular. Long confined to the serious appreciation of high art and classical music, it is now applied to an endless cascade of pursuits. Leading publications, including The New York Times, routinely discuss the connoisseurship of coffee, cupcakes and craft beers; of cars, watches, fountain pens, lunchboxes, stereo systems and computers; of tacos, pizza, pickles, chocolate, mayonnaise, cutlery and light (yes, light, which is not to be confused with the specialized connoisseurship of lighting). And the Grateful Dead, of course.

This democratization of connoisseurship is somewhat surprising since as recently as the social upheavals of the 1960s and ’70s connoisseurship was a “dirty word” — considered “elitist, artificial, subjective and mostly imaginary,” said Laurence B. Kanter, chief curator of the Yale University Art Gallery. Today, it is a vital expression of how many of us we want to see, and distinguish, ourselves.

As its wide embrace opens a window onto the culture and psychology of contemporary America, it raises an intriguing question: If almost anything can be an object of connoisseurship — and if, by implication, almost anyone can be a connoisseur — does the concept still suggest the fine and rare qualities that make it so appealing?

There were probably Neanderthals who tried to distinguish themselves through their exquisite taste in cave drawings. But the word connoisseur was not coined until the 18th century — in France, of course, as a symbol of the Enlightenment’s increasingly scientific approach to knowledge.

At a time when precious little was known about the provenance of many works of art, early connoisseurs developed evaluative tools — for example, identifying an artist’s typical subject matter, use of color and use of light — to authenticate works by revered masters and to debunk pretenders to the pedestal.

“Works of art do not carry a guarantee,” said Dr. Kanter. “It has always been the job of the connoisseur to question, investigate, refine the received wisdom of earlier generations.”

As the aristocracy declined and the bourgeoisie enjoyed new wealth, especially after the Napoleonic upheavals, the number of people who could afford art expanded, as did the types of art they were interested in. Connoisseurship grew in response to the need for authoritative guidance in a changing world. In the 19th century, connoisseurs helped reassess the works of forgotten artists, like Giotto, Fra Angelico and Botticelli, who are now considered canonical. They studied and appraised ignored forms like German woodcuts, French porcelain and English statuary.

Contemporary efforts to apply connoisseurship to a host of far-flung fields are consistent with this history. “Our definition of quality continues to expand and mature,” Dr. Kanter said, “so it makes sense that we can talk now about connoisseurs not just of art but also of rap music, comic books and Scotch. Connoisseurship is not about objects; it’s a process of thinking about and making distinctions among things.”

True connoisseurs — and this is what makes the label so appealing — do not merely possess knowledge, like scholars. They possess a sixth sense called taste. They are renowned for the unerring judgment of their discerning eye. They are celebrated because of their rare talent — their gift — for identifying and appreciating subtle, often hidden, qualities.

Despite its expanded applications, connoisseurship still revolves around art, if we define art broadly as things that are more than the sum of their parts because they offer the possibility of transcendence. We do not speak of connoisseurs of nature (which can transport us) or diapers (which are simply useful). But no one blinks when we apply the term to wine, food or literary forms like comic books, because these are believed to offer deeper experiences to those who can gain access to them. Generally speaking, almost anyone can become an expert, but connoisseurship means we’re special.

If connoisseurship is a way of thinking, its rising popularity reflects the fact that people have so many more things to think about. ` Robert H. Frank, a professor of economics at Cornell whose books include “Luxury Fever: Why Money Fails to Satisfy in an Era of Excess,” noted that the British economist John Maynard Keynes worried during the 1920s and ’30s that rising productivity would lead people to work less as it became easier to satisfy their basic needs.

“It’s funny,” Dr. Frank said, “that someone as smart as he was didn’t realize that we would invent a million new things to spend our money on and create higher and higher standards of quality for those products that would cost more and more.”

Hence the $5 cup of coffee and the $8 pickle.

In the dark ages before arugula, most supermarkets seemed to carry only one type of lettuce, iceberg, and apples were either green or red. In 1945, the average grocer carried about 5,000 products; today, that number is more than 40,000, according to Paul B. Ellickson, a professor of economics and marketing at the University of Rochester.

In addition, the Internet has made millions of other options just a mouse click away. Easy access to higher-quality products opens new avenues of connoisseurship — gorau glas cheese is more interesting, more provocative, than Velveeta. But it also presents us with a mind-numbing series of choices. In this context, connoisseurship is a coping strategy. When we say we want “the best,” we winnow our options, focusing our attention on a small sample of highly regarded items.

Put another way, rising connoisseurship is a response to life in an age of information shaped by consumerism. As ideas increasingly become the coin of the realm, people distinguish themselves by what they know. An important way to demonstrate this is through what they buy.

It is a form of conspicuous consumption that puts less emphasis on an item’s price tag — craft beers aren’t that expensive — than on its perceived cachet. In hoisting a Tripel brewed by Belgian monks, the drinker is telling the world: I know which ale to quaff. As, in all fairness, he enjoys a very tasty beverage.

Ironically, many items celebrated as examples of connoisseurship — handcrafted, small-batch, artisanal products — are themselves a reaction against the mass production trends of the global consumer society that shapes us. Just as art connoisseurs authenticate paintings, others seek wines and cheese and cupcakes that seem mystically authentic.

“A lot of what gets called connoisseurship is really just snobbery,” said Thomas Frank, who has dissected modern consumer culture in books like “Commodify Your Dissent,” which he edited with Matt Weiland, and “The Conquest of Cool.” “It’s not about the search for quality, but buying things that make you feel good about yourself. It’s about standing apart from the crowd, demonstrating knowledge, hipness.”

The rub is that, as access to knowledge through a Google search has become synonymous with possessing knowledge, fewer and fewer people seem to have the inclination or patience to become true connoisseurs. How many people, after all, have the time to make oodles of money and master the worlds of craft beer, cheese, wines and everything else people in the know must know?

In response, most people outsource connoisseurship, turning to actual connoisseurs for guidance. “Many people want the patina of connoisseurship on the cheap,” said Barry Schwartz, a professor of social theory and social action at Swarthmore College. “So they contract out the decision-making process. My guess is that a tiny fraction of people who are true connoisseurs of wine — and there are some — don’t make enough money to buy a $500 bottle of wine.”

As Steven Jenkins, an expert on cheese and other products at Fairway Market in New York, recently told a reporter for The New York Times: “The customer has no idea what he or she wants. The customer is dying to be told what they want.”

People have always relied on connoisseurs for guidance. What is different today is the idea — suggested by journalists and marketers intent on flattering their customers — that people can become paragons of taste simply by taking someone else’s advice.

Dr. Schwartz said this could be a wise strategy. Consumers may not get the pleasures of deep knowledge, but they also avoid the angst. “You get the benefits of discernment without paying the psychological price” of having to make difficult choices and distinctions, he said. “You’re happy because you’ve been told what to get and don’t know any better.”

This psychological dimension is essential to understanding connoisseurship, said Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University whose books include “Predictably Irrational.” While recognizing that a small handful of people are true connoisseurs, he said his experiments with people interested in wine revealed a startling lack of discernment.

In one experiment, Dr. Ariely asked people to taste and write descriptions of four wines. He waited 10 minutes and then gave them a blind taste test, asking them to match the wines to their descriptions. For the most part, they couldn’t.

In another experiment, he used food coloring to make white wine appear red. The participants, he said, “rated it highly in terms of tannins, complexity” and other general characteristics of red wine.

Dr. Ariely’s work dovetails with other experiments that have found, for instance, that many people cannot tell the difference between foie gras and dog food in blind taste tests.

Even connoisseurs have a hard time getting it right. Echoing a famous blind taste test of wines from California and France in 1976, known as the Judgment of Paris, nine wine experts gathered at Princeton University in 2012 to compare revered wines from France with wines from New Jersey that cost, on average, about 5 percent as much. Not only did the experts give vastly different scores for many of the wines, but they rated the Garden State wines on a par with their costly French counterparts.

Dr. Ariely said these results did not necessarily debunk the notion of connoisseurship. “Whether we can actually tell the difference between cheap and expensive wine may be less important than whether we think that we can,” he said. “We might actually experience more pleasure when drinking an expensive wine, enjoy it more, because we’re slowing down, savoring it, paying more attention to its qualities.”

Which, as it turns out, is a hallmark of connoisseurship.

The rolled up bank note does have OTHER uses, you know…

French photographer & origami wizard Philippe Pétremant is the creative individual behind these rolled up bank notes that create a collage of some of the most recognized political figures in modern times. Using bank notes from around the world, he’s twisted, contorted & folded them together adding in a paper clip to keep them in place. The end result is a series of amusing portraits title Les Sept Mercenaires, that are as unique as they are ingenious.

Although playful and subversive, we think Pétremant‘s true gift is being able to blur the lines between what is credible and what clearly isn’t….

(Via)

Image

Holbein’s Henry VIII

Holbein_henry8_full_length

 

Want to see the (hover) future?

By Alex Goddard.

To Catch a Sound – the skate park’s scraping and grinding

Meet Max Landis, philanthropic master art forger (very sweet short documentary)

The great swindle. Roger Scruton on how fake ideas and fake emotions have elbowed out truth and beauty

Roger Scruton is a writer, philosopher and public commentator. His most recent book is Our Church: A Personal History of the Church of England (2012). Hat tip to Funsh, article comes via: AEON MAGAZINE

A tiger shark, encased in formaldehyde solution, by artist Damien Hirst

A high culture is the self-consciousness of a society. It contains the works of art, literature, scholarship and philosophy that establish a shared frame of reference among educated people. High culture is a precarious achievement, and endures only if it is underpinned by a sense of tradition, and by a broad endorsement of the surrounding social norms. When those things evaporate, as inevitably happens, high culture is superseded by a culture of fakes.

Faking depends on a measure of complicity between the perpetrator and the victim, who together conspire to believe what they don’t believe and to feel what they are incapable of feeling. There are fake beliefs, fake opinions, fake kinds of expertise. There is also fake emotion, which comes about when people debase the forms and the language in which true feeling can take root, so that they are no longer fully aware of the difference between the true and the false. Kitsch is one very important example of this. The kitsch work of art is not a response to the real world, but a fabrication designed to replace it. Yet both producer and consumer conspire to persuade each other that what they feel in and through the kitsch work of art is something deep, important and real.

Anyone can lie. One need only have the requisite intention — in other words, to say something with the intention to deceive. Faking, by contrast, is an achievement. To fake things you have to take people in, yourself included. In an important sense, therefore, faking is not something that can be intended, even though it comes about through intentional actions. The liar can pretend to be shocked when his lies are exposed, but his pretence is merely a continuation of his lying strategy. The fake really is shocked when he is exposed, since he had created around himself a community of trust, of which he himself was a member. Understanding this phenomenon is, it seems to me, integral to understanding how a high culture works, and how it can become corrupted.

We are interested in high culture because we are interested in the life of the mind, and we entrust the life of the mind to institutions because it is a social benefit. Even if only a few people are capable of living this life to the full, we all benefit from its results, in the form of knowledge, technology, legal and political understanding, and the works of art, literature and music that evoke the human condition and also reconcile us to it. Aristotle went further, identifying contemplation (theoria) as the highest goal of mankind, and leisure (schole) as the means to it. Only in contemplation, he suggested, are our rational needs and desires properly fulfilled. Kantians might prefer to say that in the life of the mind we reach through the world of means to the kingdom of ends. We leave behind the routines of instrumental reasoning and enter a world in which ideas, artefacts and expressions exist for their own sake, as objects of intrinsic value. We are then granted the true homecoming of the spirit. Such seems to be implied by Friedrich Schiller, in his Letters Upon the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794). Similar views underlie the German romantic view of Bildung: self-cultivation as the goal of education and the foundation of the university curriculum.

The life of the mind has its intrinsic methods and rewards. It is concerned with the true, the beautiful and the good, which between them define the scope of reasoning and the goals of serious enquiry. But each of those goals can be faked, and one of the most interesting developments in our educational and cultural institutions over the past half century is the extent to which fake culture and fake scholarship have driven out the true varieties. It is important to ask why.

The most important way of clearing intellectual space for fake scholarship and culture is to marginalise the concept of truth. This looks difficult at first. After all, every utterance, every discussion, seems to be aimed at truth by its very nature. How can knowledge come to us, if we are indifferent to the truth of what we read? But this is too simple. There is a way of debating that disregards the truth of another’s words, since it is concerned to diagnose them, to discover ‘where they are coming from’, and to reveal the emotional, moral and political attitudes that underlie a given choice of words. The habit of ‘going behind’ your opponent’s words stems from Karl Marx’s theory of ideology, which tells us that, in bourgeois conditions, concepts, habits of thought and ways of seeing the world are adopted because of their socio-economic function, not their truth. The idea of justice, for instance, which sees the world in terms of rights and responsibilities and assigns ownership and obligations across society, was dismissed by early Marxists as a piece of bourgeois ‘ideology’. The ideological purpose of the concept is to validate ‘bourgeois relations of production’ which, from another perspective, can be seen to violate the very requirements that the concept of justice lays down. Therefore, the concept of justice is in conflict with itself, and serves merely to mask a social reality that has to be understood in other terms — in terms of the powers to which people are subject, rather than the rights that they claim.

The Marxist theory of ideology is extremely contentious, not least because it is tied to socio-economic hypotheses that are no longer believable. However, it survives in the work of Michel Foucault, and other intellectuals, notably in The Order of Things (1966) and in his witty essays on the origins of the prison and the mad-house. These are exuberant exercises in rhetoric, full of paradoxes and historical fabrications, sweeping the reader along with a kind of facetious indifference to the standards of rational argument. Instead of argument, Foucault sees ‘discourse’; in the place of truth he sees power. In Foucault’s view, all discourse gains acceptance by expressing, fortifying and concealing the power of those who maintain it; and those who, from time to time, perceive this fact are invariably imprisoned as criminals or locked away as mad — a fate that Foucault himself unaccountably avoided.

Foucault’s approach reduces culture to a power-game, and scholarship to a kind of refereeing in the endless ‘struggle’ between oppressed and oppressing groups. The shift of emphasis from the content of an utterance to the power that speaks through it leads to a new kind of scholarship, which by-passes entirely questions of truth and rationality, and can even reject those questions as themselves ideological.

The pragmatism of the late American philosopher Richard Rorty is of similar effect. It expressly set itself against the idea of objective truth, giving a variety of arguments for thinking that truth is a negotiable thing, that what matters in the end is which side you are on. If a doctrine is useful in the struggle that liberates your group, then you are entitled to dismiss the alternatives.

Whatever you think of Foucault and Rorty, there is no doubt that they were intelligent writers and genuine scholars with a distinctive vision of reality. They opened the way to fakes but were not fakes themselves. Matters are quite otherwise with many of their contemporaries. Consider the following sentence:

This is not just its situation ‘in principle’ (the one it occupies in the hierarchy of instances in relation to the determinant instance: in society, the economy) nor just its situation ‘in fact’ (whether, in the phase under consideration, it is dominant or subordinate) but the relation of this situation in fact to this situation in principle, that is, the very relation which makes of this situation in fact a ‘variation’ of the — ‘invariant’ — structure, in dominance, of the totality.

Or this:

… it is the connexion between signifier and signifier that permits the elision in which the signifier installs the lack-of-being in the object relation using the value of ‘reference back’ possessed by signification in order to invest it with the desire aimed at the very lack it supports.

Those sentences are from the French philosopher Louis Althusser and the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan respectively. These authors emerged from the revolutionary ferment of Paris in 1968 to achieve an astonishing reputation, not least in America, where between them they run up more references in the academic literature than Kant and Goethe combined. Yet it is surely clear that these sentences are nonsense. Their claims to scholarship and erudite knowledge intimidate the critic and maintain fortified defences against critical assault. They illustrate a peculiar kind of academic Newspeak: each sentence is curled round like an in-growing toe-nail, hard, ugly, and pointing only to itself.

The fake intellectual invites you to conspire in his own self-deception, to join in creating a fantasy world. He is the teacher of genius, you the brilliant pupil. Faking is a social activity in which people act together to draw a veil over unwanted realities and encourage each other in the exercise of their illusory powers. The arrival of fake thought and fake scholarship in our universities should not therefore be attributed to any explicit desire to deceive. It has come about through the complicit opening of territory to the propagation of nonsense. Nonsense of this kind is a bid to be accepted. It asks for the response: by God, you are right, it is like that. And if you have earned your academic career by learning to push around the nonsensical mantras of the impostors, combining them in the impenetrable syntax that hoodwinks the person who composes it as much as the person who reads it, no doubt you will react indignantly to everything I have said so far and cease to read further.

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