AGAINST CONNOISSEURSHIP
Ginger Strand

Over the davenport in my grandmother’s front room, there used to hang a picture. It was a realistic painting, in Rembrandty earth-tones, showing a woman in a humble skirt and apron, standing in the door of a farmhouse. Her face was turned away from us, and her alert, slightly mournful stance let us know that she was focused on something far off—the horizon perhaps, which snaked beyond acres of gently rolling farmlands. Her arms hung at her sides, as if the day’s work had exhausted her almost beyond standing. But still she stood in that door, gazing off into the distance, her posture speaking volumes about a hardscrabble life. I believe there was a small dog at her side.

I have no idea where this painting came from. My paternal grandparents were farmers, their uninspiring eighty acres in southwestern Michigan inherited—or rather, repossessed, in what became a family scandal—from my great-grandparents during the Depression. I used to think of the woman in the picture as my grandmother when she was young, standing in the door of the very farmhouse where the painting hung, waiting for my grandfather to come home from the fields, or for her brother to return from the hobo life he ran off at sixteen to find. The painting might have been a reproduction of some sort, sold at Woolworth’s, or maybe it came from one of those “real oil painting!” sales at the Ramada Inn in Kalamazoo, bought as a gift by one of their six children who lived to adulthood. It may even have come from farther away. As they aged, my grandparents collected objects from far-flung places, not from their children, all but one of whom stayed in the same quadrant of Michigan where my grandparents lived out their lives, but from their grandchildren, who traveled farther afield. My cousin Mark, for instance, joined the army and was posted to Korea in the 1970s. From there he sent my grandmother a trio of ceramic vases, the kind I see all the time on the streets of Chinatown, black, painted with multicolored small flowers. They came wedged neatly into a Styrofoam square. My grandmother loved the vases, and she perched the whole set, still lodged in the Styrofoam, on top of the television set, where it sat proudly for years. When I think of this now, I feel an odd ache in my chest. My grandparents have both been dead for a decade.

I can see my grandparents’ painting today in my mind’s eye, and yet in some sense I can’t see it at all. As a child, I thought it was beautiful. I wanted to grow up and inherit that picture—truly inherit it, of course, out of generosity, not as my grandparents “inherited” their farm—and hang it on the wall of my own home.

As I write this, my living room is hung with the things I consider beautiful today. Over the sofa (we don’t call it a davenport), I have a white-on-white painting by the artist Nancy Drew, a reinterpretation of Rauschenberg’s erased de Kooning. On the same wall hangs a monumental photograph of the Fresh Kills landfill by Susan Wides, and two casts of bracket fungi by the sculptor Roxy Paine, whose stainless-steel tree in Central Park was one of the treats of the 2002 Whitney Biennial. On other walls I have photographs and works on paper, and an abstract oil painting by Kurt Strahm that looks like the inside of a cave, or the surface of the moon. There is also a diptych by Charles Spurrier made of multicolored plastic shapes on one half and a jumble of Christmas tree lights dangling before a mirror on the other.

I love the things hanging on my wall. There aren’t any recognizable superstars there, no Jackson Pollocks or Damien Hirsts or well-known vintage photographs. Bob, the man I live with, and I buy what we can afford. Some of it may increase in value but we don’t care about that—we chose each piece because we loved it. Other people might feel differently; responses to art are very personal. I’m sure our guests often wonder why we made one choice or another. They might think the Spurrier light bulb piece is somewhat overpowering, for instance, or they might feel—as does my mother—that Lisa Kereszi’s photograph of a pastied showgirl is not ideal living-room fare. They might dislike the slightly burgundy frame a framer convinced me to use with a red photograph, or dislike how on one wall we have hung a greater than usual number of pictures, opening ourselves to potential accusations of gaucheness. What they are less likely to think, however, is what I would think if I were to walk into someone’s home now and see the picture of the farm wife that hung for so many years over my grandmother’s couch. They might disagree with my taste, or even think I have bad taste. But they probably won’t think I don’t even know what to want.

I am not talking about art. Let me tell another story. Recently Bob and I drove to Ithaca, New York. The route up from New York City edges the Catskills, and then, north of Binghamton, leaves the interstate and travels an older, two-lane highway. On one stretch of road, it seemed that each village or boro we sped through was more abjectly dilapidated than the last. Crumbling frame houses were slowly being displaced by mobile and modular homes of mind-boggling drabness. Vehicles in various stages of disrepair clogged driveways and yards. Cars, trucks, snowmobiles, houses: everything was up on blocks.

All of this produced in me a complicated upwelling of emotion. It reminded me of Michigan, and specifically of the increasingly shabby rural landscape in which I grew up. To my own surprise, I felt an odd surge of longing. I knew from childhood the insides of those modular homes—the plastic corner trim, the shallow-pile wall-to-wall carpet—and they seemed incalculably inviting, more so even than the exposed brick and hardwood floors of the nifty downtown apartment Bob and I were so excited to get. For a moment, driving through a lifescape that gentleness would label bleak, I missed Lays potato chips, from-concentrate orange juice, Sears jeans, M*A*S*H, and the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books that were stacked in my grandmother’s attic, and which I would lie on the davenport reading. I missed the oily smell of the furnace, the lumpy welcome of what I would later learn to call a sofa, the polyester afghan, the uncomplicated pleasure to be gleaned from zipping through a heavily abridged Michener novel and following it with a “Real Life Drama.” I missed the delicious macaroni and cheese casserole my grandmother used to make with Velveeta, and which she would gently dust with a layer of crumbled cheese puffs. I missed all of the things I used to enjoy, before I began to see enjoyment as a marker of taste—and thus something I could get wrong.

Much is made of the acquisition of “taste” in our culture. A common lament is that the American people en masse want the wrong things. In a world full of choices, they stampede cluelessly to the worst ones, choosing reality TV, Ore Ida Fries and Britney Spears over indie film, Fingerlings and Bach. They hang tacky paintings over their davenports and read Reader’s Digest Condensed Books beneath them. The cognoscenti distinguish themselves from this tasteless rabble through their ability to want the “right” things: Edward Wormley sofas, Whitney Biennial–approved artists, literary journals with ironic, adorable names.

Sometimes I think of my education as little more than an extended exercise in upgrading my own desires. By the time I was in high school, I had seen just enough of the world to long for worldliness, and to know that my ill-funded public school in rural Michigan was not going to get me there. I convinced my parents to send me to a girls’ boarding school in England to finish high school. There, in my literature seminars, I learned what books I ought to have read in order to be “in the know.” I pored over the A-level reading list and committed new names to memory: Auden, Eliot, Thomas. I stayed up late at the creaky dark wood tables of the sixth-form library, reading Macbeth, Julius Caesar, King Lear. I was mapping a territory in which I could confine my sense of lack, before methodically hunting it down.

In college the process continued. I added films and artists to my list. I remember few things with as much pleasure as sitting in the semidarkness of my art history class two mornings a week, watching slides of cathedrals or bronzes flicker by. There, I said to myself. Those are the things I want to know. Abroad in my sophomore year, my boyfriend and I rifled through Europe like jackals seizing upon a dead antelope. He, like me, was a rural Michigander who somewhere along the road to adulthood had conceived highbrow aspirations. Together, we wore out our shoes trudging from basilica to palazzo to konzerthalle. We did not join our classmates at pubs or biergartens; we did not look at parks, Eiffel Towers or hot springs. We weren’t there to have fun. We were there to gain sophistication, and since we didn’t have the money to eat great food or drink great wine, we would focus on what we could afford. And so we hoarded our money for inexpensive pensiones and museum admissions, subsisting on stashes of baguette and cheap cheese. To this day I can’t abide brie. But we were on a mission, determined to use our time abroad single-mindedly in the acquisition of expertise we knew we lacked. We were connoisseurs in training.

The art world defines “connoisseur” as something specific: a person with an “eye,” whose talent for visual discrimination and assessment helps to establish authenticity and fix values in a notoriously unstable market. But I’m talking about the more general meaning. The etymology is straightforward, deriving from Latin’s cognoscere, to learn or to know. Most dictionaries give two definitions, the first having to do with the presence of expertise or special training, the second a broader sense denoting a person of taste. In popular parlance, the two definitions have merged, and the word has come to mean someone who becomes a person of taste through the acquisition of expertise. A connoisseur knows from having learned. Thus we have connoisseurs not only of art, architecture, music, fashion, design, but of wine, whiskey, beer, cigars, chocolate, gems, coffee, even popular culture. If there can be a right and a wrong to something, a good and a bad, it has connoisseurs to declare which is which.

Let me not give the wrong impression. I do not hate luxury. I love wine; I enjoy whiskeys that I can’t pronounce; I have even been known to indulge in the occasional cigar. I am not uninterested in pleasure; I am not even, in most cases, morally opposed to expense. What disturbs me is the idea of “appreciating” good things—wine, a chair, a painting—rather than enjoying them. I don’t deny that understanding often enhances enjoyment. But the languid unfolding of pleasure is too easily eclipsed by a headlong rush to analysis. Somewhere along the way, fun is lost. Yoking enjoyment to evaluation confuses a striptease with an anatomy lesson.

Distanced from his own experience, the connoisseur replaces appetite with achievement. What he thinks becomes more important than what he feels, because in the end, it’s not about liking something; it’s about liking the right things. There’s more than a whiff of compulsion here. Hedonists are not connoisseurs. They’ll take enjoyment from any source: Bring it on! They are egalitarian where connoisseurs are elitists. “To eat is a necessity,” according to La Rochefoucauld, “but to eat intelligently is an art.” And if it’s an art, it must be learned.

Education is always said to be an equalizer. But learning is also a means of exclusion. As with any exclusive pleasure, the enjoyment to be had in connoisseurship increases in inverse proportion to the popularity of its object. The better something is, the fewer people know it’s good. Appreciation thus signals distinction, which drains it of fun. I’ve seen people ordering from menus with a commitment to choosing the “right” things—the distinctive, the rare, the odd parts of the creature Americans usually hate—that factored out appetite entirely. I’ve watched friends who would be happier drinking a beer gallantly attempting a whiskey they didn’t enjoy in the least; but they felt they were drinking the right thing. Connoisseurship imposes the requirement to enjoy where indulgence once beckoned.

The urge to replace appetite with analysis rears up highest where appetite is most primal. Through connoisseurship our basest needs—food, drink, covering, shelter—magically transmogrify into polite appreciation of cuisine, wine, fashion, architecture. This is less about Puritanism or fetishism, as some would argue, than it is about the good old-fashioned fear of the physical. As La Rochefoucauld’s maxim declares, without the interpolation of intellect, eating is simply necessity, a servicing of the body. With intellect, it becomes an art—a human accomplishment, and hence the accomplishment of humanity. Odysseus’s Cyclops, remember, bolted his wine. A friend of mine, when he feeds his dog a slice of sausage, holds on to the meat while she takes it, forcing the dog to savor—that is, not to be a dog. The ability to subjugate our bodily neediness to the higher notion of pleasure is what separates us from animals and monsters.

This is simple mind-body stuff: eat to live or live to eat. It’s the body that wants. The body hungers. It requires warmth, longs to sleep, and lusts to procreate, all of it beyond our control. To usher in the mind through the gateway of culture is to manufacture the illusion of taking charge. We do not answer to the body. We dine, we dress, we desire, we do not die.


Somewhere along my own path from naïf to sophisticate, the balance between indulgence and instruction was lost. When I think back on my college years, the scrim through which the whole era shimmers is that feeling of repeated lack and fulfillment—an endless incomplete sufficiency, like when you’re incredibly thirsty and begin drinking water, each swallow simultaneously gratifying and not enough, so that you gulp and need more, gulp and need more, gulp and need more, until you remind yourself to breathe.

But this is precisely where the metaphor fails. In the end, one gets enough water, at least for the moment. Eventually you stand up from the spigot or set down your glass and release a sigh of satisfaction. There is no equivalent moment for the intellect. As I move toward that nebulous territory we have labeled “middle age,” I realize that the body can rest content but the mind cannot. Perhaps this is what I mean to say when I say I am against connoisseurship. I am against it because it puts the cart before the horse. It subjugates the body’s desire to the mind’s appreciation, when in fact it should be the other way around. That’s not an attempt to advance some relativistic notion of quality: I don’t know much about X, but I know what I like. Instead, it’s a reminder that intellectual appreciation should always proceed from pleasure. The mind’s panting restlessness may be its hallmark, may in fact be the source of its beauty and—if I dare use the word—its nobility. But the body is where it starts. And ends. Although my own end is—I hope—some time to come, the fact of it has begun to nudge its way into my thoughts, enough to make me see that if I am ever to face death with equanimity, it will be not as connoisseur, but as hedonist.


After my grandmother died, my grandfather, in one of those fits of resentful fear that often beset the very old, began selling things to strangers in order to prevent their falling into undeserving family hands. His 1927 Model T was advertised in The Allegan Flashes and promptly sold to some lucky punter for a fraction of its book price. Other things he simply destroyed. He made huge bonfires in the yard out back and hauled truckloads of household articles to the dump. The family wrung their hands, because among the cow creamers and the souvenir plates and condensed books, there were bound to be some things worth having.

My grandparents were poor all their lives. From the dawn of the century to its close, they lived the spare, unembellished life of Depression-era farmers . They never acquired anything of value, except for things—like the Model T—that accrued worth through the odd calculus of rarity, longevity. and cultural relevance that turns mass- produced objects into valuable antiques. A connoisseur picking through their home would have made two piles: the things that had aged into desirability and the things my grandfather was free to use as kindling. The painting, I suspect, would have wound up on the latter heap.

But my grandfather was no connoisseur. For him an object had value if it was useful, and after my grandmother’s death, he had little use for anything. Although over the course of a seventy-year marriage he had rarely spoken a complete sentence to her, although none of us twenty-six grandchildren and thirty-five great-grandchildren had ever seen him bestow a single drop of affection on her, my grandfather mourned my grandmother to distraction and then to death. And so he destroyed the detritus of their life together, quickly, indiscriminately, unrepentantly. Perhaps he was right to do so. The contrived value the world might ascribe to an old car, a wooden bowl, or a salt and pepper set given out at gas stations in the twenties, was nothing to him. I picture him at the pit out beyond the well where he burned the household trash, poking a stick to hurry the fire along. He’d be wearing overalls—his uniform—and the denim work coat that hung in the entryway, smelling of hay and oil and cigars and Old Spice and the slightly metallic tinge of Michigan winter. In front of him, the painting I once loved balances atop of a pile of clothing, magazines, books. As the flames catch the picture, a black emptiness opens in its center and flowers outward, rippling quickly toward the wooden frame.

At the time, I was in grad school. As my grandfather turned his back on the things of this world, I was reading French theory and watching Antonioni at the Film Society. If I had been there to witness the conflagration, would I have saved the picture? Even if I had, where would it fit in my new home? Whether it was burned by my grandfather, driven to the dump, or salvaged by a sentimental cousin—even if it sits behind a box of my discarded dolls of many countries somewhere in my father’s basement, the painting is lost to me.

When I visit Michigan now, I sometimes drive to the small cemetery where my grandparents are buried. It’s a typical farmland graveyard. You drive down a gravel road until you come to a low rise, dotted with maybe forty graves and some scrubby trees, a U-shaped two-track winding through. Carl and Mildred Strand. They each have a small marker, but I never feel their presence there, not as much as I would by looking at the picture of the farm wife, or by going to their farm, which is less than a quarter mile away on the same road. Like the picture, the farm is lost, subdivided into five-acre lots that now sprout boxy modular homes. One of those five-acre lots was my inheritance, but I didn’t know what to do with it, so my father sold it and gave me the money. I used a good part of it to buy my first real piece of art, a black-and-white photograph, by Bruce Cratsley, of a crumbling stone face in the antiquities section at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“I see you’re collecting photography now,” a friend said upon seeing the photo, newly framed, on my wall.

“No,” I said, and still say. “I just love the picture.”

 

Ginger Strand’s essays and stories have appeared in The Iowa Review, The Believer, Raritan, and The Carolina Quarterly. Her novel Flight will be published in May 2005 by Simon & Schuster. Visit her Web site at www.gingerstrand.com.

 

© 2007 Swink, Inc.