Great Wall, Great Professor: Anthony Cutler as scholar and mentor

Stephanie Swindle
December 08, 2016

Evan Pugh Professor of Art History Anthony Cutler may already have a long and impressive curriculum vitae, but he continues to add new lines of acclaim. This fall, he accepted an invitation to present at the 34th World Congress of Art History in Beijing, China. The international conference, which takes place every four years, hosted 500 presenters and 2,300 auditors, with the talks translated into seven screens simultaneously. Cutler spoke about authenticity and elusion in art.

“Authenticity is a complicated and nuanced concept that evokes notions of truth and sentiments of morality,” explained Cutler. “It is even more difficult when you are translating it into other languages. In Mandarin, a better word may be ‘autopsy,’ because it confronts materiality.”

His paper, “Authenticity and Elusion” (translated as “真實與遁詞”), addresses the crux of his own research – the necessity of the direct handling of objects in order to understand how, why, and by whom they were made. Cutler is not only an advocate of the approach in his research, but also in his role as a mentor of graduate students, providing them with opportunities to handle ivory carvings and learn from examination.

Graduate students working directly with Cutler as research assistants have examined works in Berlin, London, Madrid, Majorca, Milan and Paris over the last several years. Brynne McBryde, spring 2017 fellow at Penn State’s Institute for the Arts and Humanities, accompanied Cutler to Berlin, Madrid and Paris to examine the “Alexandria ivories,” among others. Heather Hoge and Elizabeth Peterson attended the conference in Beijing. Hoge also joined Cutler on his trips to London and Milan, where she saw the ivories of the so-called Grado Chair.

Describing the research trip to London, Hoge said, “After the conservators removed the ivories from the cases for examination, Dr. Cutler would tell me his observations, and we would measure the levels of relief and document them. In London, everyone knew him very well from his publications and previous visits, and because of that, I had the opportunity to handle 1,400-year-old ivories and meet the curators of those museums. The trip also gave me the opportunity to expand my personal experience with the architecture of the city.”

Andrea Middleton, a doctoral candidate in art history and Cutler’s former research assistant, practices Cutler’s methodology in her own research. She credits Cutler with making her a better writer and a more confident scholar.

“He has spurred me to use more theory in my work, ask good questions, and take risks. He tells me, ‘Andee, go out on a limb; just don’t saw it off!'” smiled Middleton.  

She recently presented a paper at the annual Byzantine Studies Conference — in the same session as Cutler, who presented “Raising Lazarus in Seventh-Century Alexandria” — about an ivory plaque at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., that Cutler invited her to see on a research trip. Her paper focuses on how the anatomy of the tusk could reveal its origin and how the carving technique could affect its attribution — potentially significant details in regard to the dating and monetary value of works of art.

“Monetary motivation is part of the discourse of attribution and collecting,” acknowledged Middleton. “Some works were made as fakes to trick people by copying older techniques, even burying the works to make them appear older.”

Identifying such tropes requires the careful looking that Cutler insists upon in his research. Last spring, he led a workshop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for scholars and students, including Middleton, on handling ivories. Literally having written the book on the subject, The Hand of the Master: Craftsmanship, Ivory, and Society in Byzantium (Princeton University Press), Cutler regularly fields inquiries from individuals, auction houses, and museums about the authenticity of works of art. The extensive practice of what some consider connoisseurship is how the discipline of art history originated.

Cutler mused about what he considers a misconception about authenticity and its relationship to the value of an object. “I remember giving a talk at the Evan Pugh Professors luncheon at Penn State, and a scientist got exasperated with me because I was talking about a work that was a forgery. He said, ‘A fake is a fake!’ — but even fakes are interesting because they tell you so much about the period in which they were made and what that period valued — aesthetically, culturally, and monetarily.” 

Cutler was recently chosen as a consultant to the "Empires of Faith" exhibition, opening at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, University of Oxford, England, in October 2017. His next speaking engagement will be as a member of a panel at the College Art Association’s annual conference in February 2017 in New York, only because he turned down several international offers following his return from China.

“Two 14-hour flights, a whirlwind conference, and seeing the Great Wall is enough for one semester!” he laughed. 

For more information about Evan Pugh Professor Anthony Cutler, watch his video interview:


  • Dr. Anthony Cutler leads a workshop.

    Penn State Evan Pugh Professor of Art History Anthony Cutler leads a workshop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for scholars and students on handling ivories.

    IMAGE: Andrea Middleton

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Last Updated December 08, 2016