What is wrong with Eisner’s theory of connoisseurship for assessment in the arts – and why

Elliot Einser’s theory of connoisseurship has been influential in the discourse around assessment of arts disciplines for forty years – and still is. It claims that judgments should be based on the fact that assessors are like connoisseurs: able to discern, discriminate and thereby identify good work, as well as being able to explain the basis on which their decisions are made. This opinion piece asserts that such connoisseurship is based on the assessor’s taste culture. This is not only unfair in being a hidden assessment criterion, but also tends to discriminate against a range of minorities. The convoluted assessment processes we have to use might be difficult to use, but at least what lay behind them was an attempt to be fair. Connoisseurship is not.


Published on 19th October 2018 | Written by Nicholas Houghton | Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

I knew Elliot Eisner’s (1979) theory of connoisseurship was wrong as soon as I set eyes on him. It was at an international arts education conference in New York and he was the main keynote speaker. I’d been eagerly anticipating his talk, because he was the superstar of arts education, who put forward original and compelling arguments in support of arts education.

Above all he was known for his theory of connoisseurship, which explained how assessment of arts disciplines operates. Those doing the assessing of student work were connoisseurs, who could draw on years of experience and refining their taste to identify what was and wasn’t good work. The second, no less important part of the theory was that the assessors needed to have the ability to articulate the basis of these judgements.

At American conferences they always take an age to introduce a speaker. They go on and on about this person’s many accomplishments and what a wonderful human being they are, until you want to throw up. Since Eisner was such an important academic, this eulogising went on even longer than normal, only adding to my sense of anticipation. And then it ended and there was the great man walking onto the stage – and in that instant I knew he was wrong.

The person coming into view was dressed in a loud, checked, polyester suite of the kind I’d associate with a used car salesman in a Chevy dealership somewhere in mid-West USA. On his wrist was an ostentatious and vulgar bangle, the type I’d expect a pimp to be wearing. It was like seeing someone you’d always admired as being the ultimate gourmet scoffing down a Big Mac and fries drenched in ketchup.

In case you’re thinking that what I’ve just written exposes my own, deep seated prejudices, that is exactly what I was thinking at the time – and it was that realisation that led almost simultaneously to the second: that connoisseurship has to be faulty as a theory. Because how could somebody who dressed like that assess work with me and come up with similar conclusions? He was of a different tribe, a different taste culture. And if assessment was based on taste culture, how could it possibly be fair? Hence I wasn’t thinking that my taste was right and his was wrong, rather that taste culture is not a sound basis for assessment.

It was apparent that there were other brickbats which could also be thrown as his theory, because if his taste culture was different from mine, then it stands to reason that there must be many others. If connoisseurship is the basis for assessing student work, then it would be likely to discriminate against those who came from a range of different cultures, in particular non-western. And many within the women’s movement have long argued that there is a different, feminine aesthetic.

I found I wasn’t really listening. Instead I was going over and over the theory of connoisseurship. It might have been more suited for assessing work that was produced within the paradigm of modernist formalism. The connoisseur could then pronounce on the qualities of a particular brushstroke, the intricacies of a ceramic glaze or the subtleties of a new typeface. However, the heyday of formalism was the 1960s and by the time Eisner had come up with his theory at the end of the following decade, that view of art and design was already being replaced by postmodern discourse. Moreover, the theory didn’t even match what had actually happened to assessment in the arts.

What had happened was that assessment regulations had been tightened. Until then, Eisner was right, students would bring their completed work to be assessed. When more stringent assessment regimes were introduced, it became clear that just looking at the finished work wasn’t providing enough evidence to be able to fill out the more convoluted assessment forms. It soon became common practice therefore, for students to have to not only bring the completed work, but also show evidence of the journey and be able to explain the basis on which they made decisions. In many ways, Eisner’s theory had been turned on its head: students were now the connoisseurs of their own work, having to not only identify what worked and didn’t but also articulate this, albeit using far broader criteria than their own taste.

That is surely one aim of assessment: to pass onto the student the ability to judge their own work and explain to themselves the basis for those judgments. Having other’s opinions will always be important, but as they go into the world of work, most of the time they’ll need to do that on their own. The ability to do this can be strengthened by students also assessing each other.

There is another yet another problem with connoisseurship as the basis of assessment and that is that student work isn’t being assessed as it might be for a prize. The finished work and all that led up to it is being presented so that student can demonstrate what they have learned. Were taste culture to form part of the basis of this assessment, then it should be identified in advance, for example that the students learn to adopt the taste culture of their teachers. If this sounds faintly ridiculous, it is surely better than allowing taste culture to influence assessment below the radar. I’m sure that anyone who read my description of Eisner’s attire wouldn’t want those kinds of prejudices to be aimed at their assessment. I have to put them away and concentrate on what has been learned.

I’d hate anyone to think that what I’ve proposed makes the task of assessment easy. In fact, as Orr and Shreeve (2018) claim, it is fraught with difficulties. I’ve been assessing a long time and have expert knowledge of assessment theory and practice, yet every time I assess, I struggle as I juggle. What I’m juggling are learning outcomes, assessment criteria and grade descriptors. When I undertook research into assessment in the 1980s, I found that assessors were coming up with a whole mark first and then working backwards – and there were far fewer things to consider then. The problem is not so much subjectivity clashing with objectivity, it is the impossibility of using a positivist procedure for a humanist endeavour. On this point, I’m sure Eisner would agree, were he still with us.

Thinking back, I have to concede that it’s possible Eisner had ben been presented with that nasty, gold bracelet the morning  before he spoke as a token of the esteem in which he was held and thought to himself: this thing is hideous, but I guess I’ll have to wear the thing for the rest of the day. Possibly his baggage had been lost and at the last minute and he’d had to borrow his suit from the Chevy salesman staying in the next room in his hotel. Either way, I’m guilty of passing judgment on the man simply because of his wardrobe. Instead, I should have been listening to him and judging his speech. How easy it is, to judge the person. And how wrong. When it comes to assessment, we must assess the learning and never the person.

I’m sorry Elliot. I shouldn’t have been so harsh and I was wrong to be so full of prejudice. But if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have realised that you too are wrong. Although you never knew it, you taught me two, important lessons.


Nnicholas 2-round.pngicholas Houghton is an artist based in London and Folkestone, England. His work uses a variety of media, the most common being lens-based accompanied by text, through which he tells stories. He teaches on the PGCert in Creative Education at the University for the Creative Arts, and has previously taught at University of the Arts London, University of Leeds, Cleveland College of Art and Design, Ravensbourne, Université de Quebec and Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.


References

Eisner, Elliot (1979) The Educational Imagination: On the Design and Evaluation of School Programs, New York, NY: Macmillan.

Orr, Susan and Shreeve, Alison (2018) Art and Design Pedagogy in Higher Education: Knowledge, Values and Ambiguity in the Creative Curriculum, Abingdon: Routledge.

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