Newsletter Archive: Spring 2004
Medal of Honor for the Courtauld Institute
On 13 November, 2003 at 105th anniversary dinner of the Arts Club in New York City, Prof. James Cuno accepted their Medal of Honor, awarded to the Courtauld Institute of Art. Excerpts from the speech made on that occasion by John Elderfield, PhD 1975, and now Deputy Director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, follow. He recalls his interview for his PhD, and makes some observations on art history.
"The Courtauld Institute of At was founded in 1932, we know, in conscious emulation of Harvards Fogg Art Museum, a bastion of connoisseurship since 1909. It is wonderfully fitting, then, that Jim Cuno has moved from the Fogg to the Courtauld to check up on its progress."
He describes his application interview for a PhD with John Golding; " with John, I visited Anthony Blunt and Alan Bowness. Anthony asked me if my German was good enough to do a dissertation on Kurt Schwitters; I said, "Yes". Alan said, "Are you sure you want to be an art historian?" I said, "Yes". Afterwards, John said, "You do realize what you have promised". I said "Yes". And that was it, I was admitted.
"It was an honor system. You gave your word .There was no course work or language examination. You said you would do it so you did it, and you knew it would be unforgivable if you didnt.
"What I have described is not, despite appearances, what is popularly known as British amateurism. The foundation in 1933 [a year after the foundation of the Courtauld Institute] of what became the Warburg Institute turned the invigorating cold shower of Kunstgeschichte onto the Courtauld. The result was, at best, an alliance of the native tradition of empirical connoisseurship with the German tradition of scrupulous empirical research, to combine them in an art history that emphasizes the investigative act of seeing. This, to me, was the great lesson of the Courtauld, and I know that in my case it is what helped to transform an art student passionate about arts history into a museum curator.
"I do hope that the Courtauld will continue to nurture those whose understanding of art history gives priority understanding to the practice of art. Connoisseurship may be said to have derived from taking pleasure in affective things, and Kunstgeschichte from enjoyment in putting them into an order. practising art history will always benefit from practical interest in the creating mind at work. Long may the Courtuald teach us of this lesson."