By John Camp
After looking seriously at many images over a long period of time, a person develops a sense of quality that is distinct from personal taste, or from "good taste," or from fashion or contemporary politics.
All of those issues are confusing, and is one reason why students and younger photographers and painters (and critics) swing so wildly from one style to another, as they are influenced by successive artistic discoveries.
The finest artists in the great styles (landscape, street, portrait, etc.) impress a personal aesthetic on their work, a genius in a certain kind of perception. His or her techniques can be imitated, but the genius can't be—and the genius is what a connoisseur is looking for. For example, there are probably a million plein air painters in the U.S., but none of them are Monet....
If you look at enough images, for long enough, you begin to see that quality is everywhere, in every great style, and so is the crap. It is further confused by the fact that the same artist—Ansel Adams is a good example—can produce both masterpieces and rather lame potboilers. And that generally crappy photographers have, on occasion, produced something really extraordinary.
A couple of years ago a guy named Malcolm Gladwell published a book called Blink, in which he discusses the high quality of instant, instinctive, intuitive judgments about all kinds of complicated problems, including those of art connoisseurship. He talks about how a famous art guy hurried to (I think the Getty museum) to look at a recently acquired ancient Greek statue, and the instant he saw it, knew that it was fake—even after it had been certified by experts as a genuine masterpiece. Further tests proved him correct. He simply knew the subject so well that the quality he expected wasn't there in this object, and he knew it was wrong.
Blink actually has a lot to say about this kind of judgment, and how the mind works behind it. (The same guy wrote The Tipping Point.)
Not that there still aren't disagreements; but, generally, there is much broader agreement than disagreement on which artists are really good, and which individual pieces are genuinely masterpieces.
For me, the biggest problem is fashion. Back in the early '90s, I became attracted to the floral photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, and even paid several thousand dollars for a print. I still have it, and the print hasn't changed, but the longer I look at it, the more it seems to be...a little inane? We'll know more in twenty years or so, when the veils of fashion and politics have lifted a bit....
John Camp is a journalist. This is his first post for TOP, although he has contributed many comments.