All smoke and mirrors?
The many issues—the market, law, conservation, originality, reproduction and simulacra—bearing on the meaning of “authentic”
By Alexander Adams. Books, Issue 244, March 2013
Published online: 12 March 2013
The issue of authentication has become ever more pressing in an era when the value of art, the world’s premier luxury commodity (bought as investment and status symbol), is predicated on the aura of authenticity. The introduction of Art and Authenticity raises as an object lesson La Bella Principessa (the beautiful princess), a drawing assumed to be a skilful 19th-century pastiche of Leonardo da Vinci until a recent (largely rejected) attribution to the master himself. The attribution changes the object in no respect other than raising the value by $150m.
When a question is raised about the value of a painting, the Dutch reply “wat de gek ervoor geeft” (what the fool will bid for it). Fine art artefacts are repositories of potentially enormous wealth yet have no objectively determined value. In the opaque art market, the authenticity of an art object is the foundation of its financial value, yet this quality is contestable and subject to sudden change. Both Picasso and de Chirico on occasion repudiated their own paintings, leaving frustrated owners with genuine paintings that were hard to sell. In more recent years, work produced by assistants that has left artists’ studios under unclear circumstances has been considered “unauthorised” or “unapproved” rather than inauthentic. Today’s boundaries of art have expanded to encompass everyday readymade items elevated to the status of fine art by nomination alone and authentic paintings relegated to a hazily defined legal limbo of the unauthorised art object.
In the US, the estates of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol have disbanded their authentication committees, in part at least because US law permits an individual to sue an expert if the expert’s action (for example, refusing to accept a painting as authentic) deprives the claimant of economic benefit by devaluing a work in his possession. It may be overly pessimistic to suggest we are on the threshold of a dark age of dubious attributions and worthless “certificates of authenticity” but this is the spectre that some academics fear.
If “authentication” (so closely linked to attribution) is arrived at by consensus relying on scientific data, historical documentation and connoisseurship, “authenticity” is more nebulous, covering as it does concepts of genuineness, perceived historical consistency and notions of adequate communication of an artist’s ideas or a cultural norm. Just as collectors demand certainty of authorship, art viewers seek authenticity of expression and experience.
Ideas of what is authentic can have significant practical implications. When the Sistine Chapel was cleaned in 1994, restorers—convinced that Michelangelo was a technical purist who painted only on wet plaster—uniformly stripped the plaster surface. These erroneous suppositions led to the eradication of details and shading added by Michelangelo after the plaster was dry. Hence faulty conceptions of authenticity—especially when based on partial knowledge or unsubstantiated theoretical beliefs—can have grave consequences.
Art and Authenticity is a collection of essays that address aspects of authenticity and show how elusive and changeable the idea of authenticity is. From a historical perspective, past revivals of earlier Tudor and Gothic styles—distorted and incomplete interpretations—are now authentic styles in their own rights.
Examples of modification and appropriation are common in applied art and craft. Noël Riley examines the case of Ernest Beckwith (1872-1952), a craftsman from rural Essex, who modified damaged or outmoded furniture produced by others. The contemporary Dutch designer Maarten Baas takes period furniture and modern design classics, chars them with a blowtorch, seals the wood with resin and re-upholsters the items. In this instance it is appropriation and intervention rather than fabrication that are marks of authenticity.
When the South Kensington Museum (later the Victoria and Albert Museum) was founded, examples of art, craft and decoration were acquired as a training resource for designers and manufacturers. Objects were intended to be studied and imitated for their intrinsic qualities rather than association with a specific creator or attributes of rarity and great value, so plaster copies sufficed, as Barbara Lasic explains.
Trompe l’oeil paintings of American paper currency and stamps by William Michael Harnett, John Haberle and Victor Dubreuil in the last quarter of the 19th century bring into focus issues of deception and an underlying concern about the debasement and devaluation of currency. Jonathan Clancy notes that contemporary commentary on the paintings debated whether the artists were, in a technical sense, counterfeiting currency but not whether art itself was being counterfeited. Viewers were so exercised about the competent imitation of legal tender that they did not stop to debate the merits of the paintings as art, at least in print. One looks forward to an extended discussion of Photorealism as an extension of the trompe l’oeil painting tradition.
Today’s sophisticated viewers of art have a range of expectations that they apply selectively when they encounter differing modes of art. They crave “authentic” contact with the artist’s expression (in the paintings of Van Gogh, for example) while finding nothing objectionable in art made by studio systems staffed by assistants and specialist craftsmen (in Minimalist art). The studio system is the Renaissance model of art production, fell out of favour with the Romantic ideal of individual expression and, later, the cult of personality that Modernism inadvertently fostered. In the past, when a premium was set upon a work by the master’s hand (as attested to by contracts drawn up in Holland stipulating that paintings be largely or wholly made by the master rather than his studio), it is uncertain whether this was because patrons sought authorial authenticity or simply wanted to assure high quality. The assumption might have been that the master had greater ability than his pupils to finish a work to the highest order.
The relocated workspaces of Constantin Brancusi, Francis Bacon and Eduardo Paolozzi are testaments to a belief in the studio as a crucible of creative endeavour (another Romantic legacy), as Bernard Vere points out. We undertake secular pilgrimages to these sites, hoping to gain insight into the working of the artist’s mind, yet all studios analysed, dismantled and reconstructed in new locations are layered in multiple falsehoods.
Among other essays, David Bellingham discusses attribution to Frans Hals, hingeing on the existence of multiple versions of single compositions. In an engrossing study of the accuracy of designs in Cesare Vecellio’s 1598 book of costumes, Sophie von der Goltz used the evidence from Venetian paintings and scraps of a period dress to guide construction of a feasible facsimile of a high-status Venetian woman’s dress.
In the atomised field of contemporary art whole careers are built on semantic quibbles. Elaine Sturtevant replicates work by artists such as Warhol and Jasper Johns and exhibits the versions under her own name. Anthony Downey’s essay on Sturtevant—like his subject—raises questions of originality and imitation but cannot dispel the suspicion that her art is an arid endgame conducted in a hall of mirrors, rewarding only for academics and art students. In that respect, Sturtevant is a perfect example of the quandary of art in the post-modern age, when originality seems either impossible or irrelevant.
Although marred by some minor production issues—the printing of text in grey, black and black bold is especially distracting–this volume contains thought-provoking and wide-ranging approaches to authenticity and authentication.
Art and Authenticity, Megan Aldrich and Jos Hackforth-Jones, eds, Lund Humphries/Sotheby’s Institute of Art, 208pp, £39.95 (hb)
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