August 06, 2010

Who hijacked Himalayan art? Or any art, for that matter?

himalayan art resources, jeff watt, richard feigen, laurence kantner, metropolitan museum of art

Himalayan Art Resources (HAR) is the most comprehensive collection of Himalayan art available, much of it Buddhist. For years now, Jeff Watt, HAR's director, has been exhorting us to understand and critique Himalayan art on its own merit—much as we might consider, say, a Fra Angelico—and rescue it from the theory-laden university art history departments. For support, Jeff refers us to to an article in yesterday's New York Times, in which Laurence Kantner, an expert in early Italian painting and former curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has this to say:

"Art history has been hijacked by other disciplines,” said Mr. Kanter, who teaches a connoisseurship seminar to Yale graduate students. “Original works of art have been forgotten. They’re being used as data, without any sense of whether they’re good, bad or indifferent.”

Katner has organized an exhibition of some 60 paintings from the collection of prominent collector Richard Feigen, who, on the power of his own eye for quality, once bought a painting thought to be the work of a "minor Italian painter" that turned out to be a Fra Angelico. The show Katner organized for the Yale University Art Gallery, is "part of a campaign to bring old-fashioned connoisseurship back into the academy, which [Kantner and Feigen] consider to be a thicket overgrown with abstruse theories." According to Feigen, himself the consummate connoisseur, "There isn’t a single art history department in the world that I consider first-class.”

Jeff Watt probably agrees. He has this to say, referring to the Times article:

[W]e also agree that in the field of Himalayan and Tibetan art studies, the art has been hijacked by other academic disciplines such as Religious Studies (and the study of iconography), Anthropology and Ethnography. The art itself has become relegated to being mere data and props for the discussion of ideas and theories. As the NYT article says, "data versus connoisseurship". This article is a wake up call, timely and refreshing.

Of course, he has a lot more to say, too, so have a look.

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James Shaheen's picture

Well said. In case you didn't take a look at HAR, here's what Jeff Watt says regarding use of electronic media. While not ideal, it's a start:

"Have you ever thought to yourself about how some Himalayan style paintings look better than others, that some sculpture are better formed, or more naturalistic? The Himalayan Art Resources Team (HAR) have been working very hard over these many years to exhibit as much art as possible, as many collections as possible, institutional and private. We also believe very strongly in accurate iconographic identifications, tradition and lineage affiliations, and use of original textual sources in cataloguing. Also, recognizing a need in the past few years, many new pages have been added to the HAR site which deal with connoisseurship and the actual looking at art (preferrably real art rather than just an image on a screen, but an image on a screen is at least a start and available to all). See the Masterworks Pages on HAR: Chakrasamvara Masterworks, Panjarnata Mahakala Masterworks, Karmapa Masterworks, etc."

Eric Mendlow's picture

Aesthetic training has been on the wane for decades as we less and less are trained to look and rather substitute or replace electronic media and imagery for the more ardous and patient process of training the eye in the subtleties and nuances of visual learning, which require a far more involved engagement than the quick referencing of data that the digital age engenders.
As this becomes more prevalent, the time and effort required for connoissseurship becomes less reelvant or even denigrated in the eyes of the emerging theory laden academia.