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Blind faith in age of the connoisseur

15 Feb 2013 THE AGE
BY J. PEDER ZANE


WE haven't always asked so many questions or expected so much in our quest for enjoyment. In the past, it was enough to simply savour a good cigar, a nice bottle of wine or a tasty morsel of cheese.

Not any more. 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 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 specialised connoisseurship of lighting). And the Grateful Dead, of course.

This democratisation 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", says Laurence Kanter, chief curator of the Yale University Art Gallery. Today, it is a vital expression of how many of us want to distinguish ourselves.

"Our definition of quality continues to expand and mature," Kanter says, "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," Frank says, "that someone as smart as he was didn't realise 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.

"A lot of what gets called connoisseurship is really just snobbery," says Thomas Frank, who has dissected modern consumer culture in books such as Commodify Your Dissent 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," says Barry Schwartz, a professor of social theory and social action at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.

"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.

Schwartz says 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 says. "You're happy because you've been told what to get and don't know any better."

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