How Do You Know It’s Any Good?

On Quality in Art: Criteria of Excellence Past and Present (The A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, 1964)

by Jakob Rosenberg
Princeton (Bollingen Series), 288, 168 plates pp., $10.00

A good race horse, one supposes, is one that wins races, a good chess player one who can beat his opponents; we can tell a good watchmaker by his skill in making or repairing watches which accurately show the time, and a good linguist by his testable mastery of foreign languages. But how can we tell what is a good work of art or who is a great artist? The question does not only arise in the auction room where genuine or sometimes spurious masterpieces change hands at astronomical prices. Every year countless art students in all civilized countries are admitted or rejected by art schools and colleges, receive degrees of varying grades or prizes for the best work; later they submit their productions to owners of galleries, to critics, and to the public on whose evaluation of their efforts they will depend for their livelihood. By what criteria are they judged? Is it all a matter of fashion and pretense? If it is not, why is there so much disagreement among critics, and, if it is, how can we explain the fact that hard-headed businessmen “invest” in works of art?

Many specialists have preferred to withdraw behind a smokescreen of esoteric jargon at the approach of such philistine questions, but in the book under review Professor Jakob Rosenberg has had the courage to come out into the open and to attempt an answer in plain language. He has devoted his Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts of 1964 to what he calls “Quality in Art.” The title, perhaps, bears traces of the author’s background and professional origins. In German we speak of Qualitätsgefühl (a feeling for quality) as a first prerequisite of the Museum man and the connoisseur. Professor Rosenberg has long acquired a reputation in both these fields. He belonged to the great team of specialists who looked after the famous print room of the Berlin Museum, and after emigrating to the United States he continued his distinguished career at the Fogg Museum of Harvard University both as curator of prints and as a teacher. He has never been content merely to practice the intuitive skills of the discriminating collector but has regarded it as his task to pass on his insights to the next generation, and not to specialists only. For many years he gave courses at Harvard in which he tried to open the eyes of his students to the subtle beauties of prints and drawings, and he succeeded, by all accounts, in communicating his love and appreciation to many young people whose lives he has thus permanently enriched.

THE METHOD employed in this book goes far to explain his success. For the main body consists of thirty-six pairs of well-chosen comparisons between individual works of art, mostly drawings, which differ appreciably in artistic quality. Comparisons are routine in courses in art appreciation, but what distinguishes Professor Rosenberg’s juxtapositions from similar ones is the skill of selection based on an unrivaled knowledge of old …

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