by J. PEDER ZANE
FEB. 11, 2013
Not anymore. Driven by a relentless quest for “the best,” we increasingly see every item we place in our grocery basket or Internet shopping cart as a reflection of our discrimination and taste. We are not consumers. We have a higher calling. We are connoisseurs.
Connoisseurship has never been more popular. Long confined to the serious appreciation of high art and classical music, it is now applied to an endless cascade of pursuits. Leading publications, including The New York Times, routinely discuss the connoisseurship of coffee, cupcakes and craft beers; of cars, watches, fountain pens, lunchboxes, stereo systems and computers; of tacos, pizza, pickles, chocolate, mayonnaise, cutlery and light (yes, light, which is not to be confused with the specialized connoisseurship of lighting). And the Grateful Dead, of course.
This democratization of connoisseurship is somewhat surprising since as recently as the social upheavals of the 1960s and ’70s connoisseurship was a “dirty word” — considered “elitist, artificial, subjective and mostly imaginary,” said Laurence B. Kanter, chief curator of the Yale University Art Gallery. Today, it is a vital expression of how many of us we want to see, and distinguish, ourselves.
As its wide embrace opens a window onto the culture and psychology of contemporary America, it raises an intriguing question: If almost anything can be an object of connoisseurship — and if, by implication, almost anyone can be a connoisseur — does the concept still suggest the fine and rare qualities that make it so appealing?
There were probably Neanderthals who tried to distinguish themselves through their exquisite taste in cave drawings. But the word connoisseur was not coined until the 18th century — in France, of course, as a symbol of the Enlightenment’s increasingly scientific approach to knowledge.
At a time when precious little was known about the provenance of many works of art, early connoisseurs developed evaluative tools — for example, identifying an artist’s typical subject matter, use of color and use of light — to authenticate works by revered masters and to debunk pretenders to the pedestal.
“Works of art do not carry a guarantee,” said Dr. Kanter. “It has always been the job of the connoisseur to question, investigate, refine the received wisdom of earlier generations.”
As the aristocracy declined and the bourgeoisie enjoyed new wealth, especially after the Napoleonic upheavals, the number of people who could afford art expanded, as did the types of art they were interested in. Connoisseurship grew in response to the need for authoritative guidance in a changing world. In the 19th century, connoisseurs helped reassess the works of forgotten artists, like Giotto, Fra Angelico and Botticelli, who are now considered canonical. They studied and appraised ignored forms like German woodcuts, French porcelain and English statuary.
Contemporary efforts to apply connoisseurship to a host of far-flung fields are consistent with this history. “Our definition of quality continues to expand and mature,” Dr. Kanter said, “so it makes sense that we can talk now about connoisseurs not just of art but also of rap music, comic books and Scotch. Connoisseurship is not about objects; it’s a process of thinking about and making distinctions among things.”
True connoisseurs — and this is what makes the label so appealing — do not merely possess knowledge, like scholars. They possess a sixth sense called taste. They are renowned for the unerring judgment of their discerning eye. They are celebrated because of their rare talent — their gift — for identifying and appreciating subtle, often hidden, qualities.
Despite its expanded applications, connoisseurship still revolves around art, if we define art broadly as things that are more than the sum of their parts because they offer the possibility of transcendence. We do not speak of connoisseurs of nature (which can transport us) or diapers (which are simply useful). But no one blinks when we apply the term to wine, food or literary forms like comic books, because these are believed to offer deeper experiences to those who can gain access to them. Generally speaking, almost anyone can become an expert, but connoisseurship means we’re special.
If connoisseurship is a way of thinking, its rising popularity reflects the fact that people have so many more things to think about. ` Robert H. Frank, a professor of economics at Cornell whose books include “Luxury Fever: Why Money Fails to Satisfy in an Era of Excess,” noted that the British economist John Maynard Keynes worried during the 1920s and ’30s that rising productivity would lead people to work less as it became easier to satisfy their basic needs.
“It’s funny,” Dr. Frank said, “that someone as smart as he was didn’t realize that we would invent a million new things to spend our money on and create higher and higher standards of quality for those products that would cost more and more.”
Hence the $5 cup of coffee and the $8 pickle.
In the dark ages before arugula, most supermarkets seemed to carry only one type of lettuce, iceberg, and apples were either green or red. In 1945, the average grocer carried about 5,000 products; today, that number is more than 40,000, according to Paul B. Ellickson, a professor of economics and marketing at the University of Rochester.
In addition, the Internet has made millions of other options just a mouse click away. Easy access to higher-quality products opens new avenues of connoisseurship — gorau glas cheese is more interesting, more provocative, than Velveeta. But it also presents us with a mind-numbing series of choices. In this context, connoisseurship is a coping strategy. When we say we want “the best,” we winnow our options, focusing our attention on a small sample of highly regarded items.
Put another way, rising connoisseurship is a response to life in an age of information shaped by consumerism. As ideas increasingly become the coin of the realm, people distinguish themselves by what they know. An important way to demonstrate this is through what they buy.
It is a form of conspicuous consumption that puts less emphasis on an item’s price tag — craft beers aren’t that expensive — than on its perceived cachet. In hoisting a Tripel brewed by Belgian monks, the drinker is telling the world: I know which ale to quaff. As, in all fairness, he enjoys a very tasty beverage.
Ironically, many items celebrated as examples of connoisseurship — handcrafted, small-batch, artisanal products — are themselves a reaction against the mass production trends of the global consumer society that shapes us. Just as art connoisseurs authenticate paintings, others seek wines and cheese and cupcakes that seem mystically authentic.
“A lot of what gets called connoisseurship is really just snobbery,” said Thomas Frank, who has dissected modern consumer culture in books like “Commodify Your Dissent,” which he edited with Matt Weiland, and “The Conquest of Cool.” “It’s not about the search for quality, but buying things that make you feel good about yourself. It’s about standing apart from the crowd, demonstrating knowledge, hipness.”
The rub is that, as access to knowledge through a Google search has become synonymous with possessing knowledge, fewer and fewer people seem to have the inclination or patience to become true connoisseurs. How many people, after all, have the time to make oodles of money and master the worlds of craft beer, cheese, wines and everything else people in the know must know?
In response, most people outsource connoisseurship, turning to actual connoisseurs for guidance. “Many people want the patina of connoisseurship on the cheap,” said Barry Schwartz, a professor of social theory and social action at Swarthmore College. “So they contract out the decision-making process. My guess is that a tiny fraction of people who are true connoisseurs of wine — and there are some — don’t make enough money to buy a $500 bottle of wine.”
As Steven Jenkins, an expert on cheese and other products at Fairway Market in New York, recently told a reporter for The New York Times: “The customer has no idea what he or she wants. The customer is dying to be told what they want.”
People have always relied on connoisseurs for guidance. What is different today is the idea — suggested by journalists and marketers intent on flattering their customers — that people can become paragons of taste simply by taking someone else’s advice.
Dr. Schwartz said this could be a wise strategy. Consumers may not get the pleasures of deep knowledge, but they also avoid the angst. “You get the benefits of discernment without paying the psychological price” of having to make difficult choices and distinctions, he said. “You’re happy because you’ve been told what to get and don’t know any better.”
This psychological dimension is essential to understanding connoisseurship, said Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University whose books include “Predictably Irrational.” While recognizing that a small handful of people are true connoisseurs, he said his experiments with people interested in wine revealed a startling lack of discernment.
In one experiment, Dr. Ariely asked people to taste and write descriptions of four wines. He waited 10 minutes and then gave them a blind taste test, asking them to match the wines to their descriptions. For the most part, they couldn’t.
In another experiment, he used food coloring to make white wine appear red. The participants, he said, “rated it highly in terms of tannins, complexity” and other general characteristics of red wine.
Dr. Ariely’s work dovetails with other experiments that have found, for instance, that many people cannot tell the difference between foie gras and dog food in blind taste tests.
Even connoisseurs have a hard time getting it right. Echoing a famous blind taste test of wines from California and France in 1976, known as the Judgment of Paris, nine wine experts gathered at Princeton University in 2012 to compare revered wines from France with wines from New Jersey that cost, on average, about 5 percent as much. Not only did the experts give vastly different scores for many of the wines, but they rated the Garden State wines on a par with their costly French counterparts.
Dr. Ariely said these results did not necessarily debunk the notion of connoisseurship. “Whether we can actually tell the difference between cheap and expensive wine may be less important than whether we think that we can,” he said. “We might actually experience more pleasure when drinking an expensive wine, enjoy it more, because we’re slowing down, savoring it, paying more attention to its qualities.”
Which, as it turns out, is a hallmark of connoisseurship.