Wednesday, 8 January 2014

The Quality Instinct

Picture: Amazon
Maxwell L. Anderson The Quality Instinct: Seeing art through a museums director's eyes University of Chicago Press 2013, £30

Maxwell L. Anderson is the youngest person ever to have graduated with an Art History PhD from Harvard, at the tender age of 24. If you missed that on page 3, he tells you again on page 29. The book is part memoir and part guide to looking. It's sometimes brilliant, but Maxwell's self-regard rankles. And when he's not telling us how clever he is, he's trying too hard to be hip. He arranged to send a Mesopotamian tablet into space because "how cool would it be to send the oldest object ever on a journey to orbit the earth?" (p. 94). He thinks the Mona Lisa is famous only because it was stolen - or, in Anderson-speak, "ripped way out of its comfort zone" (p. 95). But if you can get past these excruciating passages, Anderson is often sensible and insightful.

He is passionate about sharing his knowledge with the public, and he understands the difference between accessible communication and dumb populism. He is leery of the light entertainment provided by exhibition videos, and he is a brilliant critic of the commercial exhibitions that now proliferate:
They all include highly dramatic recreations of the original milieux of the works on view. Their lighting involves dramatic pin spots rather than the more subtle wash that typically illuminates works of art in museums - and not coincidentally helps preserve them for posterity The quality of the objects on display is erratic. There is next to no new scholarship resulting from any of these enterprises. And all of them assume that visitors hunger for theme-park experiences rather than unvarnished, individual encounters with works of art. (p. 73)
Anderson's account of his early career is compelling, enlivened with anecdotes about fearsome scholars of yesteryear. Professor von Blanckenhagen told him "Mr Anderson, let me warn you of something. In my experience, young people propose things that are new but not right, or right but not new" (p. 142). No pandering to students in those days! Anderson's tales of hunting through the store rooms at the Met are quite wonderful, and he clearly has a good eye. His taste in contemporary art is more wide-ranging than mine, and I enjoyed having a guide with such visual intelligence to show me works for which I have little instinctive sympathy.

Most of the book is a guide to assessing quality, using examples that range widely across time, place and media. His comments are always perceptive and interesting, but his approach is unsystematic in its mix of anecdote and analysis. The framework he provides is helpful in organising his material, but too schematic as a tool for looking. Jakob Rosenberg's On Quality in Art is still a better source.

Despite being the youngest ever Harvard Art History PhD, he is often wrong or off-key. Oxygen was identified by Joseph Priestley not Joseph Priestly, and it was discovered at Bowood not Lansdowne House. He describes the shift in perspective that's called parallax, but he uses the less appropriate term 'synesthesia' instead. He cites Isaiah Berlin as a critic of relativism when Ernest Gellner would be better in the context, suggesting that his reading has been selective. He generally uses the terms postmodernism, poststructuralism and relativism interchangeably, thinking of them as infections to be avoided rather than ideas worthy of engagement. His summary of Foucault does not suggest familiarity with the work of this most fascinating and sophisticated scholar.

He thinks Sterling Clark had an unerring eye, which anyone seeing the bunch of Renoirs he bought will have cause to doubt. The Becket Casket was bought by the V&A with contribution from the National Heritiage Memorial Fund, not bought by the fund. He claims that the art market thinks price is the best measure of quality, but markets don't have views. The market is a mechanism that establishes price, and in my experience participants in that market are perfectly well aware that price and quality are different things. But for all its flaws, this book inspired lots of little cheers when it attacked the pretensions of relativists and obscurantists and cynical showmen. 


  1. What's the best overview you know of of the research that's been done into how different kinds of lighting affects paintings? So many galleries are lit poorly that I have often wondered how strong the evidence against certain other kinds of lighting is. I ask noting that you have written previously that you are satisfied that the evidence shows that flash photography doesn't damage pictures.

  2. This is good: though a few years' old now. I read a good summary of the research on flash a few years ago, but can't now locate the article. The gist was that the duration is too short to do much harm to paintings (different with more light-sensitive artifacts). Bad lighting is a bugbear of mine - as you say, often done badly.

  3. Did you read that the Sistine Chapel has been fitted with a new LED lighting system supposedly tailored to the pigments used?

    I wonder how that will look, because it looked a bit 'Disneyland' last time I was there, following the restoration.

    1. Thanks - no, I hadn't heard about that. Don't think anything will make up for that 'restoration', but I'm intrigued by the new lighting.