“Connoisseurship: Between Craft and Cybernetics”


A connoisseur is a person who knows a great deal about art and uses that knowledge to attribute artworks to specific periods, places, or makers. Scholarship has expressed skepticism about the claims advanced by connoisseurs, often dismissing their classifications as dilettantish, subjective, even inimical to the “real” work of social and historical interpretation. In this paper Meyer explores the techniques of visual memorization that underpin connoisseurial skill and the challenges which the associated procedures present to the ever more dominant definitions of disciplinary knowledge as propositional and computable aggregates of fact. His case study revolves around the notebooks of John D. Beazley (1885–1970) recently made available by the Beazley Archive Pottery Database in Oxford. Containing hundreds of pencil drawings of ancient Greek vase paintings, the notebooks shed intriguing light on the development of Beazley’s connoisseurship. The struggles he experienced in framing his engagement with artifacts as a legitimate academic undertaking also resonate with the difficulties many scholars still face in coming to grips with the interdependence of cognitive and manual labor in generating new knowledge.

Where did your interest in this subject come from?
My interest in connoisseurship goes back to my postgraduate training in the Beazley Archive at the University of Oxford, under the supervision of its former director, Donna C. Kurtz. She initiated the integration of Beazley’s classifications of Athenian vases in a computer database and the archive’s subsequent transformation into a fully illustrated web resource based on Beazley’s extensive photographic collection. Although my own research does not rely on connoisseurship in the narrow sense, as a doctoral student and later member of the archive’s advisory board I witnessed the inner workings of this laboratory during its millennial journey into the digital realm.

How does this research question intersect with your other intellectual interests?
In recent years my interests have gravitated to the hidden role that reproductions play in the creation and dissemination of archaeological knowledge. I was drawn to this field by the literature on “intermediaries” in archaeological research, including site plans, object illustrations, photographs, casts, museum displays, and digital models. Without such devices, the discipline would simply not exist in its current form. Most literature on the subject seeks to bring out the pictorial conventions implicit in archaeological visualizations—how particular modes of representation condition particular ways of seeing and interpreting objects. I have written several articles on Athenian vases inspired by this scholarship, examining how reproductions encourage scholars to study the painted decoration as pictorial evidence rather than as an integral element of the objects’ three-dimensional design. Since then my work in this area began to converge with earlier interests in ancient craft. It occurred to me that in order to understand the effects of visual encoding, I needed to concentrate less on media as finished products than on the contexts of making in which standards of representation are established and passed on. So much of what archaeologists do—be it during fieldwork or while documenting objects off-site—relies on skills acquired through practical pedagogies that resemble apprenticeships more than anything we normally associate with university training. Visual conventions often go unnoticed because they originate in routine procedures that are not easily recognized as conduits of disciplinary formation.

Why is this question important to you?
The thriving debate on craft opened my horizon to a new field of comparative investigation, one in which Beazley’s methods of drawing vases can be studied alongside the skilled practice of the vase painters whom he so admired. By studying Beazley as a craftsperson we can learn more not only about the dexterity that Athenian vase painters expended on their creations but also about their understanding of the subjects they painted and their own world. In other words, we might be able to juxtapose their ways of perceiving and knowing with our modern ones, marked by the accelerating substitution of the digital for the handmade. The central premise of craft studies—that humans become thinking and knowing subjects through practical relationships with tools and objects as well as with living beings—can be applied to almost any academic endeavor. Although scholarship has only begun to develop the critical vocabulary needed to analyze these defining relationships, the prospects are exciting. Comparative craft studies can shed light on the interconnected ways of making and knowing that sustained ancient communities as sources of creative vitality and innovation. More importantly, an integral approach to the technological choices of past communities—ranging from methods of resource procurement and processing to notions of ecological equity—can help us rethink our future by highlighting the unsustainable costs that our productive relations exact on our social and environmental conditions.

Related Readings

The Beazley Notebooks Project

Meyer, Caspar. 2018. “Foucault’s Clay Feet: Ancient Greek Vases in Modern Theories of Sex,” History Workshop Journal 85, pp. 143–68. https://doi.org/10.1093/hwj/dbx056

Meyer, Caspar. 2020. “Ancient Vases in Modern Vitrines: The Sensory Dynamics and Social Implications of Museum Display,” Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 63. 1, pp. 91–109. https://doi.org/10.1093/bics/qbaa009