THE HELD ESSAYS ON VISUAL ART
In Defense of Faking It

In November, I published a New York Times essay headlined “In Praise of Art Forgeries.” Nothing I have written has provoked as strong a reaction— including the response by philosopher Alva Noë in these pages.1 I have since realized that my  article touched such a nerve because it raised issues that seemed to dance around art but which are actually central to it.


Noë’s attack on a “psychologizing” approach to art objects helped me zero-in on these issues. He condemns an attitude toward art objects that bills them as triggers for instantaneous mental, even neurological, reactions. Noë reads my claim that forgery subverts connoisseurship as invoking some such psychologizing model, which holds fakes and originals as interchangeable “stimuli” that give identical pleasures to an average viewer.2

This critique of my position is partly built around a misunderstanding about terminology.  I was using “connoisseurship” narrowly to refer to a discipline whose sole goal is to determine which artist made which work and when, and I insisted that the success of so many forgeries calls for skepticism about such attributional labors.

Noë, however, using “connoisseurship” in the everyday sense of “having a fine eye for what’s good and bad,” worried that I was calling for a broader skepticism about artistic value and our skilled reactions to it. He very rightly insisted that attacking such skills for being fallible— as being proven “wrong” or useless by forgeries— gets art-looking itself wrong. As he said, true “connoisseurship” (conceived as the deployment of general art-critical faculties) is not about “discovering” real, fixed virtues inherent in a work— and in our “brute reactions” to it— but about “accounting for what one sees” in a moment of “active and thoughtful engagement.”

Yet Noë’s “engagement” model still has a psychologizing side to it because it is still about “what one sees” in the art object. To break fully with the psychologizing model would mean rejecting this view as well. What forgeries prove is that all artworks matter for much more than what we can see in them.

In my Times piece, I wrote that “if a fake is good enough to fool experts, then it’s good enough to give the rest of us pleasure, even insight,” but I ought to have realized that the object seems to give such pleasure and insight only before it is discovered as a fake at all— that is, when it is in fact functioning as an original. Once we realize a fake is a fake it becomes an entirely different kind of object from the original it copies. Experiments have demonstrated (neurologically) and quantified (statistically) the very different reactions we have to the two kinds of objects.3   

The endless fascination that we have with duplicate works of art suggests that the act of copying itself is a central human concern, and therefore a central concern in and for works of art. In a book called In Praise of Copying, the scholar Marcus Boon writes about what seems to be an almost universal value and quality he calls copia, referring to a love of “copiousness” made possible by the freewheeling reproduction of objects.4  Boon asks, “What if copying, rather than being an aberration or a mistake or a crime, is a fundamental condition or requirement for anything, human or not, to exist at all?”5 And he goes on to talk about “the joy of copying and the way it opens up to us the mysteries of play,”6 whether that play is the act of compiling our favorite songs into a mixtape or of sampling old tunes in new hip-hop tracks. When museumgoers turn out to be fascinated by the fact that an artwork is a copy or fake, they are exploring issues of copia that are as essentially “artistic”— as essential to what it is for an object to be art — as when they contemplate a work’s color or touch or iconography.

Audiences in classical antiquity and the Middle Ages knew how to take pleasure in the joys of reproduction and the “copiousness” it allows. With statues and then icons getting endlessly copied and recopied, more or less faithfully, “the more the better” seemed to be a crucial artistic principle; it’s why the concept of forged art barely existed before the Renaissance.7 Beginning around 1500, however, with the development of the art market and the dawning of art history, the principle of copia got pushed out of the fine-art mainstream. 8 It only made a full comeback with the arrival of avant-garde appropriation in the 1970s. Appropriation, you could say, is all about the old-fashioned joy of copying, but revived in and for an age of market anxiety.

The art market, where most fakes are born and (sometimes) die, can seem the most conservative of places, married to tired old Romantic, and psychologizing, ideas of the exquisite object come from the hand of a genius auteur. But fakes help us realize that in some ways the modern market is as opposed to psychologized readings as Noë . And, since the market has to sell its goods to the culture at large, such values may be ones that most of us hold.

In its obsession with authenticity and the original, the market proves that it isn’t really as invested as it pretends to be in the aesthetic qualities of the object, which might be transmitted just as well by a copy. 9 What the market really cares about is a past act of bravura creation, valued as an act of bravura creation rather than for the object it produces. The market only values the “authentic” object because it provides a certifiable link to that act, via a causal chain of material “touches” that pass authentic knowledge of the moment of creation from the artist’s hand, through the hands of a series of owners, and finally into the hands of an auctioneer or dealer.10 What the market is actually investing in is a material placeholder for a quite art-historical, almost conceptual idea of a great moment in past creativity. The market, that is, seems to buy the classic conceptualist argument about art objects, echoed in my Times piece and Noë’s, which claims that the innovative notions behind a work of art can matter more than any actual objects produced thanks to those notions: “The idea itself, even if not made visual, is as much a work of art as any finished product,” in the famous words of the pioneering conceptualist Sol LeWitt.11

The market for art, though seemingly concerned with singular material objects, is really about symbolic values, economic ones, in fact, very like the symbolic value we attach to currency and other tokens of exchange. It just so happens that the particular symbolic values that constitute the market for art are pegged to the culture’s larger notions about who and what has mattered art historically.

Even beyond the market, fakes threaten this crucial, non-perceptual role of the artwork as a verifiable link to times past, and to the people who lived in them. A certain Hipolito Hernanz, commenting on the online version of my Times article, wrote about how he feels that sometimes “the art itself is only a vehicle for a more personal connection with the author.” He speaks of how “in music, if somebody ‘found’ Chopin's Ballade # 5 and it turned out to be even greater than his last (#4), I might be moved to tears of sheer joy. I might even spend long hours learning to play it. If it was later determined that it was a fake created by some unknown musical genius, I would probably feel betrayed.” In other words, that reader— like the art market— wants artworks that function as true relics of a maker and his making, not as aesthetic and psychological stimuli.12 But whereas with relics it’s the saint that matters, not the bone that stands for him, I think we value artworks less for the things and moments to which they link us, than for the very fact that they are linked to the past at all— for their basic status as authentic links. We love them as truth-telling objects more than for the truths they tell about the past. And we hate fakes for their lies, not their looks.

After the death of the forger Eric Hebborn, the philosopher Dennis Dutton lamented that “Hebborn’s handiwork has altered our understanding of the history of graphic representation just as surely as a document forger’s skill might alter our understanding of the history of ideas.”13 Yet I’m not sure that it’s the corrupted “understanding” that Dutton and the rest of us are so upset about. After all, for most forgeries to work, their features must map onto ones already acknowledged from authentic objects, so the effect on the historical record is likely to be slight.14 A fake misleads us more about its own past than about the past it pretends to come out of; as with the lies told by our loved ones, the breach of our trust hurts us more than the misinformation. Dutton may be taking Hebborn’s deceptions so much to heart because great artworks feel almost like family, and we can’t stand the idea that there might be cheaters among them.

 The old saw that says that every fake will out because it betrays the era of its making, cited against my Times piece by New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl, almost certainly doesn’t hold water: It asks us to believe that no longstanding forgeries survive undetected in our museums— how could they, if every fake eventually reveals its birthdate?— and it ignores the fact that many fakers are contemporaries of their fakees. Yet that saw does capture an important act of wishful thinking about art: It wants to paint a picture of an ideal world where art objects cannot lie, because their lies will always be discovered.15

There is one, limited sense in which it makes sense to think of artworks as constitutionally unable to lie about their own origins, and that comes when we read what they look like as a record of the process and moment of their making— as evidence of their own history. Because, that is, the glorious art-historical event that we want them to link us to is all about the creation of a certain new visual product, the very fact that the artwork transmits a record of that product reveals and seals its link to its moment of creation. Michelangelo’s David is necessarily, among other things, a visible record of the historical moment when that sculpture was carved—its “beauty” acts as a declaration of the labors attending its birth.

The exception to this “self-certification” ought to be a forgery, which of course seems to link to a moment that predates its own making. This exception disappears, however, if we are willing to entertain the notion that every fake’s true birthday is the same as that of the model it apes. If we value Titian’s “invention” of the visible brushstroke, that is, or Manet’s revealing of a new view of modern life, then forgeries point back to those innovations as well as originals do. A copy of the David is a record of the original’s invention, at barely one remove. Forgeries don’t so much lie to us, that is, as plagiarize from other objects’ enduring truths: Hate the forger, not the forgery.

Valuing fakes and copies does not reveal any skepticism about the virtues of works of art, as Noë fears, or our ability to probe them. On the contrary, it reveals a strong belief in the power of art to transcend its merely material presence. The fecundity of a great work of art, as seen in its many offspring, may be worth seeing as one of its virtues.



NOTES

1. Alva Noë, “Art Placebo,” The Brooklyn Rail (December 2013/January 2014).

2. I have in fact argued at length against psychologizing and neuroesthetic approaches to art in my “Aesthetic Science and Artistic Knowledge,” chapter six of Aesthetic Science: Connecting Minds, Brains, and Experience, ed. Arthur P. Shimamura and Stephen E. Palmer (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2012). See www.scribd.com/doc/132992985/Gopnik-The-Failure-of-Aesthetic-Science.

3. See Mengfei Huang, Holly Bridge, Martin J. Kemp, and Andrew J. Parker, “Human Cortical Activity Evoked by the Assignment of Authenticity when Viewing Works of Art,” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 5 (2011), article 134; George E. Newman and Paul Bloom, “Art and Authenticity: The Importance of Originals in Judgments of Value,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 141, no. 3 (2012): 558–569; and Yasuki Noguchi and Miharu Murota, “Temporal Dynamics of Neural Activity in an Integration of Visual and Contextual Information in an Esthetic Preference Task,” Neuropsychologia 51 (2013): 1077–1084.

4. Marcus Boon. In Praise of Copying. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010 .

5. Ibid. , p. 3.

6. Ibid. , p. 127.

7. See Alexander Nagel and Christopher S. Wood, Anachronic Renaissance (Brooklyn: Zone, 2010) on the ability of one artwork to substitute for a similar one in pre-Renaissance Europe.

8. Maria Loh has studied a moment in Italy circa 1600 when imitation and originality were still in intense competition as artistic principles. See her “New and Improved: Repetition as Originality in Italian Baroque Practice and Theory,” Art Bulletin 86 (2004): 477-504.

9, Our market culture’s tendency to privilege authenticity over artistic effects may be quite surprisingly recent.  Jonathon Keats on p. 57 of Forged: Why Fakes are the Great Art of Our Age (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2013) , cites early 20th -century examples of an interest in copies, and of arguments in defense of fakes as being “just as good as” the originals they mimic.  See also Eik Kahng, ed., The Repeating Image : Multiples in French Art from David to Matisse (New Haven and London : Yale University Press, 2007) and my Washington Post review of Kahng’s show at the Baltimore Museum of Art, available at www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/10/12/AR2007101200543.html.

10. Newman and Bloom, “Art and Authenticity,” suggest that art viewers are invested in the original maker’s moment of “performance” as a great artist.

11. Sol LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” in Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999), p. 14, originally published in Artforum 5, no. 10 (1967), 79–83.

12. Newman and Bloom, “Art and Authenticity,” describe experiments that show art viewers employing an almost-magical idea of “contagion”, whereby a work of art links us to its maker by virtue of having been extensively touched by him or her – much as is the case with medieval “contact” relics. See Nagel and Wood, pp. 231-233.

13. Dutton, “Death of a Forger,” Aesthetics Online (1996), accessed at www.aesthetics-online.org/articles/index.php?articles_id=2.

14. For a rare exception see Keans, pp. 67-83, on the unusual forgeries of Han van Meegeren, which simulated early Vermeers for which there were few precedents.

15. See Boon p. 123-4. See also pp. 97-98, for Boon’s interesting discussion of our “taboos” on reproduction, and their roots in our deeper desire to stabilize a world in endless transformation, so that (p. 135) “we can live in a world where everything is what it appears to be, where deception never occurs, and where no one is ever deceived by anybody or anything.”

Contributor

Blake Gopnik

Art critic BLAKE GOPNIK  is at work on a major biography of Andy Warhol. He contributes to the New York Times and  the Art Newspaper and publishes his Daily Pic at BlakeGopnik.com.

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