Richard Neer: “Connoisseurship and the Stakes of Style”

The Getty kouros. Greek statue of the sixth century b.c.e., or modern forgery. J. Paul Getty Museum.

“Connoisseurship and the Stakes of Style,” an essay by Richard Neer (Art History, University of Chicago) is not new — it was published in 2005 in Critical Inquiry — but in case I’m not the only one who overlooked it when it first came out, I wanted to recommend it here, since I think it will be of particular interest to readers of this blog. It’s primary topic is connoisseurship, but it explores the underlying existential “stakes” of the truly fierce art historical debates about connoisseurship by drawing deeply on the works of Wittgenstein and Cavell. I think the way Neer engages with both OLP thinkers will intrigue, and excite, many of you.

Thanks to my friend, Rob Chodat, for recommending this essay to me.

To access Neer’s essay, please click here.

To give you a sense of what the article is like, here are its first two paragraphs, and below that, a PDF excerpt from Neer’s extended discussion of Wittgenstein (Cavell features elsewhere in the piece):

A distinctive feature of both art history and archaeology is a commitment to the evidence of style: that is, to connoisseurship, defined as the attribution of artifacts to particular hands, or times, or places. Critics of both disciplines often dismiss this practice out of hand, labeling it a mere discursive conceit or, worse, a reactionary fetishization of origins. Indeed, it is difficult to overstate the ill repute in which connoisseurship now stands among all but the most hidebound archaeologists and art historians; it has been the defining scapegoat of both disciplines for the last twenty years and more. Old‐guard connoisseurs usually respond with more indignation than argument, and the grating mandarinism of their pronouncements does not help matters. In this debate (such as it is) the one side declares connoisseurship to be the idol of reaction, and the other enthusiastically (appallingly) agrees.

One result of this situation has been a relative neglect of stylistics in recent historiographic work. Disciplinary heroes like Erwin Panofsky, Aloïs Riegl, and Aby Warburg are far better known today than the nineteenth‐century connoisseur Giovanni Morelli; yet the latter has had arguably the greater influence on the day‐to‐day practice of scholarship. More importantly, however, the combination of polemic and neglect has obscured the considerable theoretical interest of connoisseurship. The commitment to style is in fact exemplary of what might be called a worldly formalism—one that takes seriously what Paul de Man termed “the prosaic materiality of the letter.” To be sure, this commitment is routinely disavowed, a fact that, as will become clear, is both inevitable and symptomatic. But it is time to look again at this linchpin of art‐historical and archaeological method. What is involved (what is at stake?) in the attribution of an artifact to a particular hand, or place, or time? The present essay is designed to defend the study of style in general, and of connoisseurship in particular, from its friends as well as its enemies. At issue are not the criteria invoked to justify any particular attribution, but the criteria invoked to justify the application of any standards of evidence whatsoever to an attribution. It is about attribution as such.

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