Vignettes of connoisseurship 

                                                                                                                                         by Jorge D. Goldfarb



                          Fair to say that, to appreciate landscapes, connoisseurship in them is a necessary requirement. I present below various points of view on the subject so that the reader may form his own opinion about what it may entail to be a landscape connoisseur.  

Andy Hamilton wrote once a quite insightful Essay titled Criticism, Connoisseurship and Appreciation [1]

  "In the discussion of criticism in the arts, and indeed of aesthetics in general, the following concepts seem to go together: appreciation, beauty, connoisseurship, evaluation, taste, quality. They are contrasted with: interpretation, meaning, theory truth, understanding. I believe that the opposition between these two sets of concepts must be overcome…"

    I also happen to believe that said opposition must be overcome,  particularly for the case of the appreciation of landscapes. To argue the point I'll take the liberty of considering Hamilton's remarks out of their context of Aesthetics and artistic criticism and to set them within the field of landscape criticism[2]. The appreciation of landscapes is not necessarily limited to their aesthetic aspects; admittedly, landscapes are commonly appreciated for their beauty, but they may also be appreciated for other values or qualities that they may manifest. Such is the case when they are considered as manifestations of culture (as in the so-called 'cultural landscapes) or as manifestations of peculiar geological processes, ecological systems, archaeological reconstructions, etc. (the word manifestation is taken up in its meaning "outward or perceptible indication" or: "an object that clearly shows or embodies something abstract or theoretical").

     When Hamilton's observations are considered outside their context of aesthetics, "beauty" and "taste" may be taken out of the first set thus  leaving appreciation still going together with connoisseurship and quality.  Appreciation may be thought  as "getting the value out of something" [3].   This obviously requires a certain understanding of that something,  an understanding which often entails an interpretation of the perceived;

through a chosen interpretation of a landscape. we attribute to it particular meanings.

      As a case in point: even a cursory look to the publication of the Unesco's World Heritage (see History and Terminology and Categories and sub-categories) reveals that for a person to be able to discern and discriminate in landscapes for their outstanding cultural qualities, connoisseurship is the required faculty. 

       That said, connoisseurship carries with it a doubtful reputation which arises from an association in the public's mind with pedantry, elitism, paternalism, snobbism and others of the like. Some of these attacks are addressed by Arler in the vignette below through the notion of "the true connoisseur". Others, by Hamilton himself in the following excerpts (pp55):

   "My claim is that, in critical judgement, anyone who puts a serious effort into arriving to an opinion, has the right to be taken seriously, yet the judgments of those that with practice and experience in appreciation and criticism carry special weight."

    "Appreciative criticism, in the interpretation offered here, is unformalized and involves Humean conditions of experience and practice. It offers a middle way between elitism, which claims than a comprehending response to the arts requires learning an exclusive critical language and a deflationary populism which regards all opinions as having equal validity and value. Three processes must be distinguished:


   "Appreciation may involve the knowledge that something is aesthetically valuable without being able to articulate why. Conversely, those who are able to articulate the reasons for a critical judgment may be no better at appreciating art works than those who do not. Appreciative criticism leaves in balance two competing alternatives.

A democratic perspective emphasizes that criticism is concerned with helping us to see a work in a new and stimulating light; the perspective of expertise warns us that  that light might be wrong and based on a misunderstanding. Central to appreciative criticism is the process of educating or developing an aesthetic sensibility; a process whose very possibility,  populism denies"


[1] Hamilton Andy, Criticism, Connoisseurship and Appreciation, in Adlam C. an Simpson J. (eds): Critical Exchange: Art Criticism of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries in Russia and Western Europe, Lang International Academic Publishers, Bern, Switz., (2009) 

[2] Goldfarb, J. D. (2012). On Landscape Criticism and Literary Criticism. Landscapes: the Journal of the International Centre for Landscape and Language, 5(1),1-18

[3] Feagin, S.L., Reading with Feeling, The Aesthetics of Appreciation, Cornell Univ. Press, Ithaca,(1996)  


Quite a lot has been written about connoisseurship in the context of works of art, but what about the role of connoisseurship in the appreciation of landscapes?

   One of the few thinkers that has tackled this point head on is Finn Arler, from Århus UniversityIn an article  titled Aspects of Nature or Landscape Quality [1], he poses himself the alternative question--

 "how do  weigh the relative  importance of the identified qualities? After considering various alternatives,  he decides that the right answer is -- " Go ask the connoisseurs!"

  For Arler "a connoisseur is a person who knows the qualities in a certain area well, who is capable of identifying them and, at least to a certain extent, of weighing them against each other on a scale of importance."

     The above is, I think, a pretty good 'characterization' of a connoisseur. Knowing the qualities well entails a knowledge of which qualities one should be looking for in a particular landscape. To "identify them" is an exercise in discernment and "to weigh them against each other" is an exercise in discrimination. In another vignette I mentioned that ability of discernment and discrimination is basic for appreciation and that to exercise them properly the more we know about the objects to be appreciated, the better. 


     The know how  to  put in practice when looking for values and comparing and contrasting them requires not just factual knowledge but a pronounced flexibility of thought. The matter at hand is usually pretty ambiguous and  subject to alternative interpretations which, moreover, may change according to the various settings or contexts. This is precisely why a connoisseur of landscapes is called for; sensitivity and flexibility of mind are (or, let's say, ought to be his tools of the trade).

    Lending an ear to the widespread objections of the general public against having the connoisseurs as arbiters in matters of taste and policy (objection to elitism, paternalism, snobbery and whatnot), Arler puts forward a fictional character which he calls "the true connoisseur", quote:


      "The true connoisseur, in so far as there is such a thing, must always find himself placed somewhere in the middle between two extremes.  On the one hand, he cannot see his own work as part of an exclusive enterprise among the chosen;  this would be nothing but a dictatorship of snobs, a distasteful thing indeed."

     "A true connoisseur  knows that he is fallible. He is attentive to the presence of his own shortcomings, and he is painfully aware that there is much more to learn from other people with relevant experiences and observations."


    "On  the other hand, the importance of sensitivity and experience  is likely to be ignored, if the fallibility of  he connoisseur is used as a lever to the conclusion  that there cannot be any reasonable sequences of deliberation  and  substantial decision making in the field. This would bring us back to the utilitarian calculations  of pre-established preferences, or, to use a metaphor  which (I apply mainly because it) rhymes so well with the one above, a dictatorship of mobs."


       Note Arler's use of "insofar as there is such a thing" as a true connoisseur; because we may doubt the insofar  I called it  a fictional character. Taking into consideration human frailties and, particularly of those humans who tend to look downwards upon  persons more ignorant than themselves, the notion of a true connoisseur ought to be taken as a model with which 'honest' connoisseurs should strive to identify themselves with. The word "honest" is  used here to designate those who keep in mind that, no matter how much one knows about something, one may be dead wrong about that thing.

   To be able to ascertain the qualities of a landscape in a way conducing to its appreciation, a person has to be a landscape connoisseur. Finn Arler argues in favor of connoisseurship as the main requirement for ascertaining landscape qualities, quote:

      " "When nature quality is to be discussed in a substantial way, connoisseurship is likely to become a key concept, controversial as it may seem. A connoisseur is a person who knows the qualities in a certain area well, who is capable of identifying them and, at least to a certain extent, of weighing them  against each other on a scale of importance. A scale, i.e., which has no unambiguous denominators, and, which may even change in various ways along with the circumstances.  This ambiguity, and thus the inappropriateness  of rigorous methodology, is exactly the  reason for promoting connoisseurship. Like the wine or music critic, the true connoisseur of nature qualities recognizes the qualities when he comes across them and knows intuitively

the relative importance of each quality when seen within the appropriate setting..."

     To some people, this focus on the connoisseur may sound unfortunately elitist, paternalistic, or even snobbish. ... For now let us be content by pointing out the fact that,  insofar as there is such a thing as a true connoisseur, he must always  find himself placed in the middle between two extremes:

   On the one hand he cannot see his own work as part of an exclusive enterprise among the chosen; this would be nothing but a dictatorship of snobs, a distasteful thing indeed. A true connoisseur knows that he is fallible, he is attentive to the presence of his own shortcomings and he is painfully aware  hat there is always much more to learn from other  people with relevant experiences and observations. On  the other hand, the importance of sensitivity and experience is likely to be ignored if the fallibility of the connoisseur is used as a lever for the conclusion."


   And, to end this vignette, another pearl of wisdom offered by Arler: 

  "Differences and disagreements should not worry us. On the contrary, they broaden the horizon and force us to qualify our own thoughts and experiences.  There are things to learn from farmers as well as from landscape painters or any other group of people that have developed a refined sense for qualities through experience and reflection.

Disagreement is no reason for treating the different positions as mere expressions of non-rational private preferences… Dialogue is a much more interesting alternative…"

[1] Arler F., Aspects of  Nature or Landscape Quality, Landscape Ecology, 15: 291–302, 2000.

 I am often asked the question – How can I become a landscape connoisseur? Not an easy question to answer; not for lack of suggestions about what things to tackle, but because of having too many suggestions to offer. There is such a multitude of different aspects of knowledge about landscapes that giving even a cursory list of them is bound to put off the fellow questioner and make her consider the whole enterprise as hopeless.

                   Nonetheless, the question of how one achieves connoisseurship in landscapes is one that merits an answer of some kind.  The following, although tentative and sketchy may serve as a basis which could be later refined:


            One works under the assumption that the suggestions are addressed to a person that has a keen interest in landscapes;nay, more than that: a passionate interest in landscapes. This because, otherwise, why bother?

  The task is pretty hard and, unless the said person really cares, the effort won't be worthwhile. A second assumption, i.e. that the person is already familiar with a variety of landscapes,including landscape photographs and paintings, is actually subtended within the first one. 


        Being already familiar with landscapes, in all their vast variety, gives rise to what I consider the first step of the task: to confront the question of the categorization of landscapes.

        Categorization, that is the grouping of instances according to one or other criterion, is essential to introduce some sense into what otherwise would be an indiscriminate collection of individual landscape instances. This is in line with what is done in, say, music or literature.  In both we confront a chaotic multiplicity of works and, to introduce some measure of order into chaos, we create categories. In music, according to periods or styles as criteria,  we  distinguish the baroque from the classical or the romantic; using other criteria we distinguish symphonic from chamber music; according to some others we differentiate  between symphonies, concerti, quartets, cantatas, etc.  Ditto with landscapes: we can devise categories like designed and non designed; rural, urban and industrial; mountainous, lacustrian, riparian and so on and on. In the case of landscapes there is quite a number of various systems of categorization which have been proposed.  Particular ways of categorization are designed with some purpose in mind and, since the notion of landscape is most polysemic, hence the large variety of criteria.


  Why do I consider categorization as a necessary first aspect to confront? Again I'll resort to the field of music as a parallel. . One doesn't have to be a connoisseur to be able to enjoy listening to a piece of music, but one does have to be a connoisseur to be able to start understanding it.On listening to a musical composition a connoisseur may be able to ascribe it to one  particular genre, say, baroque.

 This action of recognition, important as it may be, is not the main point in connoisseurship; of more worth is to confront questions such as:  what makes it belong to the baroque? Which features or characteristics are taken into account to judge it so? In which ways these features differ from those shown in a musical piece judged as classical or romantic? How do our responses to music differ according to the genre to which the music is said to belong? What we are thus confronted with are theoretical aspects of music as an art form. The significance of the various theoretical approaches consists in that they represent approaches to the understanding of music.


        Much the same, but in another context holds, for landscapes: to be able to recognize a particular landscape instance as. say,  Mediterranean, is secondary to the confronting of questions such as – what features or traits are used to judge it so? In what respects do these features differ for Nordic landscapes? In which ways do we respond differently to landscapes of one or the other kind? To which extent the different responses are conditioned by our particular culture?  And on and on… one question leads to another… and, if we are  left with no more questions to pose, it can be assumed that something went wrong with our connoisseurship.


          I presume that  Alfred N. Whitehead would not have minded my  paraphrasing of some of his sentences in The Aims of Education... they are so apt to our subject...

         Connoisseurship is activity of thought, and receptiveness to beauty and humane feeling. Scraps of information have nothing to do with it. A merely well-informed man is the most useless bore on God’s earth. The aim of connoisseurship is to achieve both culture and expert knowledge in some special direction… expert knowledge give us the ground to start from, and culture may lead us as deep as philosophy and as high as art.

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