It’s Personal

This Art Newspaper story on the gender imbalance in TEFAF’s upper ranks reminded me that our experiences of art are always deeply personal and subjective. For me, questions of gender balance and representation are not questions of identity politics. Rather, they are entwined with my own personal desire to encounter a breadth of subjectivities in writing and scholarship–and through that, come to know, and contemplate, a range of possible experiences, thoughts, and judgments quite unlike my own.

Today, we take it mostly for granted that everyone has the faculties–and therefore the right–to pass judgment on art. It was not always a given that everyone had the faculties to judge art.

Connoisseurship developed, over the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, into a rarefied pursuit, open only to experts. Bernard Berenson represents the ur-connoisseur. Berenson came as close as a human possibly could to the platonic ideal of the connoisseur. But it was his assistant and protegé, Kenneth Clark, who bridged the gap between the compressed world of the expert and a broader, more workaday world, introducing the mysteries of his discipline to a general audience. Clark’s 1969 BBC series “Civilization: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark” attracted millions of viewers on both sides of the Atlantic. In his review of James Stourton’s biography of Clark, Richard Dorment noted that today, Clark’s BBC series “is largely forgotten.”

Dorment argues that Clark was forgotten because his approach was eclipsed by the rise of “theory-based art history.” Perhaps. Or perhaps it is because we no longer live in a time where we require men “in tweed suits with bad teeth and an upper-crust accent” to explain art to us. Entry into art history no longer requires some combination of wealth, connections, and personal charm (Berenson had two of the three, and Clark had it all). At least, I like to think this is true. And this shift has also changed the tenor of the scholarship.

Several years ago, thanks to some generous friends, I had a chance to visit I Tatti, Berenson’s villa in the hills above Florence. There, I came face to face with his personal collection of art and objects–his books, his paintings, his sculptures. It was eccentric, eclectic, and the experience of viewing them was strangely–and somewhat disturbingly–intimate, in part because I had read Rachel Cohen’s biography a few months before. It also recalled another Florentine villa that I had visited a few years earlier, La Pietra, which still housed the art collection that belonged to Arthur Acton, a British art dealer who had been one of Berenson’s friends and who was “sometimes confused, even by Florentines, with Bernard Berenson.” These were intensely private worlds, held together by their own logic. Their magic–and their charm–derived from the fact that they could only ever truly belong to one person–their creator.

An abbreviated version of this piece appeared on the JHI Blog.

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