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Great art like Velázquez is best not left to the experts

In contrast to Shakespeare, who belongs to all, the valuation of a lost portrait by the Spaniard is a matter for a knowledge elite

Is a "new" Diego Velázquez portrait unveiled this week the real thing? I assume so. Experts have declared that a painting previously attributed to a different artist is worth £3m now it has been given to the great Spanish painter. Who wants to argue with the experts?

Yet it's one of those art stories that adds little to our understanding of art, precisely because they are presented as debates among "experts" whose connoisseurship and knowledge is presumably so lofty that the general public can only shrug at what they say. Van Gogh's death was another recent issue that came and went in the news without adding anything to anyone's ability to respond to his paintings. These stories are so ephemeral and at the same time so unilluminating that it is tempting to think that art journalism is all just meaningless blather.

Yet it is not really the "media" or the "internet", twin scapegoats of the age, that make these stories so opaque. The Velázquez find is of legitimate interest – an undiscovered portrait by the man who painted Las Meninas is surely important. But the reason so much news reporting of art is uninspiring is the gap that exists, between a knowledge elite whose opinions shape prices at Sotheby's and the ordinary art lover who does not feel qualified to engage with the qualities that might make a painting a Velázquez (or not).

It was heartening to read the thread of debate that followed my piece on Shakespeare yesterday, because so many people were adding their own knowledge to the argument. Shakespeare is like that – he inspires interest and passion. The argument seemed substantive, and it struck me that Shakespeare is truly our common cultural property in a way that few great painters or sculptors are.

Even in Spain, I don't think people are close enough to the life and work of Velázquez to engage in such a debate. Knowledge of art is a specialism that revels in exclusiveness. There are art snobs but no Shakespeare snobs. And this seems to have something to do with money and power: you and I will go and see the "new" Leonardo da Vinci painting, Salvator Mundi, at the National Gallery soon but our opinions of it will be irrelevant to the debate among experts that determines its ultimate status and price tag.

Art needs a knowledge revolution. A day must come when the great art of the world can be enjoyed, appreciated and discussed by a public armed with a useful, insightful and humane art education. The old masters are too important to be left to these experts and snobs and auction houses. We need to be able to converse with great artists as we can with Shakespeare. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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