Seven Ways of Thinking About Art
Monday evenings Tate Modern, admission by ticket only
Notes from Previous Sessions
Week One: Art as Thought-Provoking
Week Two: Art as Intentional
Week Three: Art as Self-Presentation
Week Four: Art as Conceptual
This week we focussed on two related aspects of original works of art:
1) Originals: how does knowledge that a work of art before us is an
original (rather than a
forgery or a copy) affect our understanding and appreciation of it?
2) Originality: what is the relevance of an artist’s creative originality, in the sense of doing something distinctively new?
These questions link back to issues we’ve discussed in previous sessions about the relevance of factual knowledge to the appreciation of works or art, and the part played by context and an artwork’s presumed aetiology (the history of how it came to be as it is).
Han van Meegeren, the most famous forger, painted and artificially aged early ‘Vermeers’ with great success. In particular he convinced the eminent art historian Bredius that his ‘Supper at Emmaus’ (1937) was a masterpiece by Vermeer. Van Meegeren’s success was in part based on his painting images in the style of Vermeer rather than copying particular paintings (so there was no risk of a point by point comparison of two images), by his choice of a period of Vermeer’s career from which there were few extant examples (an exception being the painting in the National Gallery of Scotland by Vermeer, Christ at the House of Martha and Mary). Once van Meegeren had had one of his forgeries accepted as original, this helped set the ‘precedent class’ of early Vermeers and acted as a touchstone for future attributions. This in part explains the art historians’ gullibility. Also, much of the attribution was conducted in war conditions, so most of the paintings which were to act as comparisons were hidden away in vaults. Van Meegeren was exposed because he had been accused of selling off national treasures to the Nazis – his confession to the lesser crime of forgery wasn’t surprising.
A recent case of forgery in the case of CD recordings, that of the pianist Joyce Hatto and her posthumous increase in reputation, raises interesting parallel questions to the question about originality in the visual arts. For more on this, read philosopher Denis Dutton on the Joyce Hatto case.
Some people have argued that if a work has appropriate aesthetic qualities, it doesn’t matter who painted or performed it. Its beauty and profundity are all that matter. Arthur Koestler, for instance suggested that much of our preference for original works is mere snobbery.
However, the important point in the cases of both van Meegeren and Joyce Hatto is that part of our appreciation of art is an appreciation of art as the product of an individual at a particular time (and this relates to the topic previously discussed of Art as Self-Presentation): it is not just a question of appreciating beautiful patterns, or subtle interpretations of a score.
One reason why origins might be important could be to do with the way in which artists typically create their own repertoire of expression through their oeuvres. If Mondrian’s ‘Broadway Boogie Woogie’ turns out to have been misattributed to Mondrian when it was actually painted by Jackson Pollock in his later years, then this would be transformed from a painting expressive of joy and exuberance, to one that seemed repressed and highly controlled. If a forger successfully inserts forgeries in the style of an artist into that artist’s known repertoire, then he or she prevents the artist from communicating by changing the expressive power not only of the image in question but also distorts the whole repertoire (imagine if van Meegeren had inserted thirty ‘early Vermeers’ into Vermeer’s quite small oeuvre of paintings – we would come to see him as an artist who had turned away from religious painting for some reason, and perhaps make very different interpretations of each of the later works in the light of the earlier).
So one answer to the question ‘What is wrong with a forgery in the style of a particular artist?’ is that it can prevent that artist communicating effectively with us.
In the gallery looking at Henri Matisse’s very late work The Snail (1953), many of the group acknowledged that the fact that what we were looking at was in some senses a relic, the very pieces of painted paper that Matisse at the height of his artistic powers but in ailing health, carefully arranged, was relevant to our appreciation of it. This is a preserved record of an important moment in the history of art where a great painter simplified and purified his means of expression. A copy would be interesting and perhaps informative, but not the same. Part of what museums do traditionally is allow us to experience originals (though this is clearly complicated when it comes to intrinsically reproducible art media such as photography or cast sculpture). This discussion relates directly to our previous week’s discussions about the non-identity of visual indiscernibles.
Something we didn’t discuss, but which is pertinent is that a copy might lack some of the qualities of the original. The philosopher Nelson Goodman in his book The Languages of Art made the point that because two works are visually indiscernible to an expert know it does not follow that they will be so for all time to all people. And subtle differences between images can make substantial aesthetic differences (think of the effect of a smug retoucher sharpening the Mona Lisa’s smile, perhaps with the finest of lines…).
An answer to the question ‘What is Wrong With a Forgery?’ given by the philosopher Alfred Lessing is that it lacks creative originality: a forger, even a forger painting in the style of another artist, is always parasitical on the established work of the artist imitated. In Western art such creative originality is highly valued. Lessing’s line on this was that we would quickly grow bored of art that simply played out variations within very narrow parameters. What artists typically do, he felt was to produce original works in this creative sense. This is what makes the history of art significant and insures its continuation.
Exploring the way artists can borrow from other artists and yet be creatively original, we looked at Marlene Dumas’ painting Stern. This is derived from a photograph of a Baader- Meinhof gangleader, who was found dead, presumed to have committed suicide, but perhaps murdered. This is an image that Gerhard Richter had previously painted based ona photograph. For those who know Richter's image of this, Dumas' painting is clearly making an allusion to the artist as well as to the photograph (and perhaps also to the original event). Dumas’ knowing re-use of past imagery in one sense makes her painting unoriginal; but in an important sense it has creative originality in the way it draws on past images. In fact, had she simply painted a female subject, without the links to previous image-making, she would presumably have been deemed to be less creatively original.
If you can get hold of it, Denis Dutton’s excellent anthology The Forger's Art (University of California Press, 1983) is highly recommended. It includes Alfred Lessing’s article ‘What is Wrong with a Forgery?’ and Nelson Goodman on ‘Art and Authenticity’ as well as an interesting historical account of the van Meegeren case and several other good pieces including Dutton’s ‘Artistic Crimes’.
Alfred Lessing’s article is also reproduced in my anthology Philosophy: Basic Readings 2nd ed. (Routledge).