The Aesthetics of Forgery
Authorship Vs. Aesthetics
When we stand and evaluate a painting, most of us would like to think of it as an autonomous experience governed merely by the aesthetic features of the work. We thus remain unaware of the myriad of non-aesthetic factors that bias our judgement from the outset. When it comes to contemporary commercial art, aesthetic features are probably among the last of the considerations that go into the appraisal of a work. This is because what matters more than the content, properties, technical mastery and aesthetic appeal of a given artwork, is authorship. The fact would not be so astounding were it not for the fact that the artworld goes about its business of criticism as if aesthetic considerations were the thing that really counted. It only takes a good forgery to shatter such naiveté to smithereens.
Consider the case of the thirteenth century Gothic wall-paintings of saints that were discovered by Dietrich Fey during the restoration of Lübeck’s St. Marien Church. After Fey’s assistant, Lothar Malskat, restored the frescoes, art experts all over Europe praised it as a valuable treasure and fabulous discovery of lost masterpieces. Two years later Malskat confessed to fraud: Malskat had himself painted the work. Naturally the frescoes lost all worth and were no longer praised for their aesthetic qualities.
The questions raised by this incident were taken up by Arthur Koestler in his essay, ‘The act of creation.’ Koestler asks whether the Lübeck saints ceased to be as beautiful once the truth was known. According to the public, the answer would seem to be yes, for the frescoes ceased to be considered ‘a valuable treasure of masterpieces’ once they were known to have been painted by Herr Malskat and not by someone in the thirteenth century.
One could argue, of course, that this misses the point. The real reason the fresco’s were thought to be valuable was because of their historical importance. Yet the fact remains that, according to the critics of the time, it was the beauty of these lost masterpieces that made them so endearing. Did all their beauty disappear once it was discovered that they were a recent production?
The van Meegeren Affair
The problem becomes even more acute if we consider the forgeries of the notorious Han van Meegeren. Van Meegeren was a Dutch artist who worked in the 1940’s. He began to develop an interest in the style and technique of seventeenth century painter Vermeer. Eventually van Meegeren became so skilled in imitating Vermeer that he was able to successfully market his own paintings as Vermeer originals. These paintings were analysed by the leading experts of the day and some of them praised as being among Vermeer’s greatest achievements. In particular, van Meegeren’s Disciples at Emmaus hung in the Boymans Museum for seven years during which time critics said that it was “the masterpiece of Vermeer…” When van Meegeren confessed in 1945, no one believed him at first. Even after he was found guilty, some leading critics still maintained that the Disciples at Emmaus was a legitimate Vermeer. (Subsequent laboratory tests have proved otherwise.)
Van Meegeren’s motive in producing these forgeries was not simply money. Nor did his reason for confessing have anything to do with guilt slowly eating away at his conscience. Rather, he was trying to prove a point. During the time when The Disciples hung in the Boymans it was praised by the leading critics of the day for it’s magnificent aesthetic qualities. As one critic put it, “The colours are magnificent…the highest art…this magnificent painting…the masterpiece of Vermeer…” This was precisely the trap that van Meegeren had laid for the critics. As Lessing points out,
His reasoning, at least about his first forgery, The Disciples, was in effect as follows: ‘Once my painting has been accepted and admired as a genuine Vermeer, I will confess publicly to the forgery and thus force the critics either to retract their earlier judgments of praise, thereby acknowledging their fallibility, or to recognize that I am as great an artist as Vermeer.’
The critics acknowledged that they had been mistaken in thinking the work to have been painted by Vermeer, but they did not retract the praise they had lavished on the work. But neither did they acknowledge Han van Meegeren as being as great as Vermeer. The work was simply removed from the walls of the Boymans and the critics quietly forgot about the whole episode. The Disciples is now worth hardly anything in comparison to its original value.
Apparently, the work ceased to be as aesthetically pleasing once the authorship was known, for otherwise is would surely have not been removed from the walls of the Boymans. One could suggest that the central issue here is that the work was produced in dishonesty, and that its removal from the Boymans was as a result of moral rather than aesthetic criteria. But this merely avoids the central question, for we might easily imagine van Meegeren producing his work publicly and never claiming that it was by Vermeer. In that case, the question would not be why the work was removed from the Boymans, but why it never made it there in the first place. One would never even get an opportunity to ask that question, however, since the critics would never have praised it – in fact, they never would have noticed it at all. Apparently, then, the opinion of critics has little to do with aesthetics despite the fact that their criticism is ostensibly about little else.
Lessing on the Importance of Originality
One solution to this problem has been suggested by Alfred Lessing in his essay ‘What is wrong with a forgery?’ Lessing starts off by acknowledging that forgery has nothing to do with aesthetics. As he writes,
Considering a work of art aesthetically superior because it is genuine, or inferior because it is forged, has little or nothing to do with aesthetic judgment or criticism. It is rather a piece of snobbery.
Lessing suggests that the existence of so many artistic forgeries in the first place is because of the preponderance in the art world to non-aesthetic criteria such as fame of the artist and the age and cost of the canvas, etc.. We all know that a beautiful landscape by an unknown artist gets infinite less attention than a few scribbles from Picasso’s notebook. It is difficult to distinguish aesthetic from economic value, taste or fashion from true artistic excellence, and good artists from clever businessmen.
This being the case, asks Lessing, what is wrong with forgery? Lessing doesn’t think that a straight-forward moral solution to this problem is very helpful. Though it is true that it is morally wrong to pass something off as something it is not, the kind of deception we have in mind when we speak of forgery is in terms of passion off an inferior as a superior. But, asks Lessing, what is meant by inferior here? It cannot mean aesthetically inferior for reasons already mentioned.
Lessing’s answer to the question ‘what is wrong with forgery?’ hinges on the concept of originality. Lessing points out that the concept of forgery applies only to the creative and not to the performing arts. This is because the concept is meaningful by reference to “the concept of originality, and hence only to art viewed as a creative, not as a reproductive or technical, activity.” Van Meegeren did not forge Vermeer’s technique, for you cannot forge technique because in order to forge it you must already possess it. Rather, it is Vemeer’s discovery of this technique and his use of it - that is, Vermeer’s originality – that is forged. The light, composition, colour, and many other features of The Disciples were original with Vermeer and not van Meegeren. Van Meegeren forged Vermeer’s original style.
Lessing argues that the concept of originality depends on the historical context. Van Meegeren’s forgery is not original in the sense of representing a significant achievement appropriate to its historical context. Therefore, Lessing suggests that
…what makes The Disciples a forgery is precisely the disparity or gap between its stylistically appropriate features and its actual date of production. It is simply this disparity which we have in mind when we say that forgeries such as The Disciples lack integrity.
Building on this, Lessing points out that Van Meegeren created a false dilemma when he thought that either the critics must admit they were wrong or else say that he was as great an artist as Vermeer. The reason this dilemma is false is because the notion of greatness involves the concept of historical originality. A great artist combines skilful craftsmanship with originality, both of which Vermeer possessed, while Van Meegeren only had the former. “A forgery par excellence”, writes Lessing, “represents the perfection of technique with the absence of all originality.”
Lessing attempts to answer the question of why originality is so important, especially given the fact that its importance is typical only of modern Western art. According to Lessing, it is important because artists do not seek merely to produce works of beauty, they seek to produce original works of beauty. “It is for this reason too”, Lessing suggests,
that aesthetics has traditionally concerned itself with topics such as the inspiration of the artist, the mystery of the creative act, the intense and impassioned search of the artist, the artist as the prophet of his times, the artistic struggle after expression, art as the chronicle of the emotional life or a period in history, art as a product of its time, and so on.
Lessing makes it clear that the search for originality is merely a means to an end. The end is the production of objects that will provide a valuable aesthetic experience. As he writes, “the search for originality is, or ought to be, but the means to an end, That end is, presumably, the production of aesthetically valuable or beautiful works…” Such works yield an aesthetic experience that is, to use Lessing’s phraseology, ‘wholly autonomous.’ That is to say, such an experience does not take into account anything that is not perceivable in the work itself, including the historical context. Thus, forgery is irrelevant to the aesthetic appreciation of a work. Van Meegeren’s forgeries did not cease to be as aesthetically pleasing once they were known not have been painted by himself. They are still just as aesthetically pleasing, and this is a testament to Vermeer’s greatness, not van Meegeren, since they embody the style invented by Vermeer. The Disciples is, therefore, just as much a monument to the artistic genius of Vermeer as Vermeer’s own paintings.
So according to Lessing originality, though not relevant to the aesthetic features of a work, is still relevant in assessing whether an artist or a work is ‘great’ since a great artist combines both originality and technique.
Is Originality So Important?
Let us assess the merits of the reasons Lessing gives for thinking originality to be so important. Lessing defines originality in terms of the uniqueness of “a whole corpus or style of works of art.” Such originality is valuable, he thinks, because it unlocks previously unknown and unexplored realms of beauty. Now this is surely true. It is appropriate to consider the artists great who discovered new realms of beauty and whose creativity opened up new avenues for other artists to travel down. But let us not forget that any good work of art, even if it is not stylistically original, is still capable of unlocking previously unknown realms of beauty to a discerning recipient. In this sense, one might say that every work of art, if it is truly beautiful, offers something original, like each human face.
Be that as it may, however, let us confine our discussion to the kind of originality that Lessing has in mind, namely, the originality of “a whole corpus or style of works of art.” I agreed that this kind of originality was valuable since it unlocks previously unknown and unexplored realms of beauty. Yet the value and purpose of unlocking a thing is surely so that others can follow and explore the possibilities of the new region. The great artists who forged original styles make it possible for later artists to find new expressions of beauty if they choose to work within the rubric of that style.
However, Lessing seems to not allow for this since he says forgery, even when done openly and as an imitation of someone else’s style, is against the spirit of art. Imitative art – of which I will say more shortly – is ruled out on the grounds that ‘the spirit of art’ requires artists to seek unique originality. Hence, Lessing can refer to such things as the inspiration of the artist, the mystery of the creative act, the intense and impassioned search of the artist, the struggle after expression, and so on, making the artist sound like he is on a mystical pilgrimage after self-expression. However, the ancient artists that are now considered to be great rarely, if ever, even thought about such matters. They were not trying to be original, and few of them were trying to achieve self-expression in the contemporary sense.
On the other hand, as originality becomes something that artists assume is a necessary condition for the production of great works, we approach the point where the availability of original styles reaches closure. We have virtually reached that point today, and that is why we find artists stretching the very definition of art in an attempt to achieve originality. Yet as I stand back and contemplate all the various lengths to which contemporary artists go to achieve originality, I am hit by the paradoxical impression that there seems to be a monolithic sameness about it all. I personally find nothing so boring as an artist trying to be original. Many of the great artists of the past were original but some of them were not, and few of the great artists tried to be original.
Earlier I disagreed with Lessing that imitative art was against the spirit of art. I agree that there is a greatness involved in originating a style, but why can there not also be a greatness involved in the artist who can produce beautiful works in that already created style? An artist is great who forges a new frontier - is the artist not also great who successfully builds in that new frontier? If a composer who self-consciously takes Chopin as his inspiration, successfully produces a corpus of works as aesthetically pleasing as Chopin’s, why should these works not be considered on an equal par with Chopin?
Art, like science, is – or should be - about building on the achievements of others. If Chopin’s music was great, then the music that builds on it must also be great, and can potentially become even greater.
I think there are two primary reasons why the artists of today are not content to imitate great works. One is because of their ego. They all want to be great pioneers. They all want to be known for starting something original. They all want to be iconoclasts. The shift, therefore, has moved off of art and onto the artist. Medieval and Renaissance artists often did not even sign their work. Now, however, we have moved to the point where the signature on a work counts more than the work itself. And that is why forgery has become such a problem. If critics were content to consider a work on its own merits, then Van Meegeren would never have needed to forge Vermeer. Therein lies the second reason why imitative art is devalued.
I believe that the greatest development in the history of art will be when imitative art begins to become widespread and acceptable. We stand on the brink of an artistic revolution; all that is required for that revolution to occur is the acceptability of imitation in the professional art world. All the ingredients are in place. Consider that we are the heirs of an enormous legacy of Western art; consider that the great artists (including composers) of the past have opened up wonderful classes of works of art. At the moment those classes are closed. Brahms wrote only four symphonies while Schubert wrote only one; Chopin wrote only one chamber trio and Homer wrote only two epics and Rembrandt painted only one seascape. These classes are currently limited, but how monumentous it could be if the artists of today could start enlarging these classes through imitation! There is certainly the skill and knowledge to do this. The only thing needed is the right ideology to make it acceptable. One could then begin to attend symphonies in the style of Brahms, view paintings in the style of Vermeer, buy CD’s of Nocturnes in the style of Chopin and read sonnets in the style of Shakespeare. If the CD or concert was labelled ‘in the style of …’ it would give one an idea of what to expect. Naturally, the world of art criticism would have to extend to accommodate these new developments, but we need not think that the principles of such criticism would be radically different than traditional criticism. One can imagine a critic complaining that the imitators of Shakespeare never quite measure up to the master, or that certain imitators have finally surpassed the genius of Rembrandt.
We need not think that all this would undermine the distinction between original works and imitations, for the authorship of the imitations would be just as important as the authorship of the original. What I think we would find happening is that the imitations would begin to form a class of their own. For example, one can imagine critics saying something like this, “Smith’s imitations of Mozart are superior to Hazelwood’s imitations. Yet, as the corpus of Smith’s symphonic imitations develops, it is becoming increasingly difficult to compare the two, for Smith is sounding less and less like Mozart and developing his own innovations.” Or one might imagine a critic saying, “He started off doing tight imitations of Vivaldi, but then he began to draw inspiration from Handel for his counterpoint. Now his music bares an almost entirely unique character and it is almost false to call it an imitation of anything.”
As I am trying to show, we need not think of the originals like a standard to which the imitators must always measure up. The originals can be like starting points, both for inspiration as well as for education. If an imitator who starts by strictly imitating Beethoven begins to broaden into his own marked style, so much the better. I believe that the focus on imitation would actually open up new avenues for originality. When originality is no longer a god, then I believe we would find artists truly being original.
If any creative person imitates the work of great masters, eventually something of him or herself will begin to come through. At first the imitation might be mechanical, but that is how one learns. As one becomes more and more skilled in a certain genre, whether it be imitating Vermeer or imitating Vivaldi, any truly creative person cannot help but bring something original to the enterprise. That is why this proposal should not be viewed as a limitation. I am not saying that imitative work should be the only kind of work that people consider valuable. But I am saying that imitation should be viewed as valuable because imitative works are aesthetically valuable, as well as because imitation can lead to original styles as one pushes the development of certain composers further.
Granted that in today’s art world people are ‘influenced’ by the great masters. Yet such influence remains indirect since direct imitation is not considered a serious option for the aspiring artist. This is a tragic limitation to art. Throughout their life times, the great artists were growing, maturing and evolving in their artistic ability. When imitation is practiced, that growth can continue, unhampered by the confines of one human life span. Imagine an imitator of Vagner being able to build on Vagner’s achievements and surpass it. Then imagine another imitator coming along and imitating the imitator of Vagner and surpassing even that. The potential evolution of art is mind-boggling to contemplate! At the moment these classes are closed: few opera companies would want to perform an opera written in the style of Vagner. Few Shakespeare companies would want to perform a play in the style of Shakespeare. But if these classes could become open-ended, if thousands of great imaginations could begin directly building on the develops of the former masters because they know they have an audience, then the progress of the great artists could continue even after they have died. As living artists follow directly in the footsteps of the dead artists, the evolution of creativity need no longer be limited to an artist’s short life spans.
As counter-intuitive as my proposal may seem to our traditional way of approaching the arts, it is not as strange as it may at first seem. We already have this kind of imitation in the genre of reproduction furniture and architecture, with the imitations usually classified in terms of the period from which their inspiration is drawn, such as Regency or Victorian.
The lack of serious attention currently afforded to imitative art in the main genres is one of the reasons why artists are driven to produce forgeries. A work that would otherwise not have been taken seriously can have its aesthetic qualities appreciated if people can be fooled into thinking that a master painted or composed it. The art world is therefore partially to blame for the existence of so many forgeries. That explains why forgery has only really been a problem in the Western world.
Do Historical Considerations Matter Aesthetically?
As should be clear from the above discussion of imitative art, I would like to see more emphasis put on the purely aesthetic features of a work and less emphasis on non-aesthetic considerations such as originality. But I am not saying that our perception of works should be exclusively aesthetic. I began this essay by asking what difference it made whether a work was an original or a forgery if one could not tell the difference? My discussion centred on cases of forgery like those of Van Meregeen where an artist imitates the style of a master. I argued that imitative art should be taken more seriously. But we might equally have asked about cases where a specific painting or drawing is copied so expertly that one cannot tell which is the original and which is the copy by merely looking. Suppose that side by side we have a pen and ink sketch from Picasso’s notebook worth thousands of pounds juxtaposed to an indistinguishable copy of it worth nothing. Though there is clearly an absurdity here, I am not happy saying that it doesn’t make any difference at all which is the original and which is the copy.
That there can be a significant difference between two things which are physically identical is suggested by the fact of how human beings behave towards non-artistic objects which are special, sentimental or sacred. Consider the case of a great grandmother’s broach that has been passed down to through the family and which I consider to be priceless, not because of it’s economic value, but because of the role it has played in family history. Suppose further that someone presents me with a perfect copy of this broach, made out of the same materials and being physically identical in every way. I certainly would not want the two broaches to get mixed up with each other, for though I am unable to distinguish one from the other, the fact remains that the one belonged to my great grandmother and the other did not. It is not difficult to imagine additional examples: the glove of one’s lover, the signature of the Queen, the sword that knighted a hero, may all be perfectly reproduced or imitated and yet fail to have the same value (and I do not mean economic value, though often this is involved as well). The point is that historical considerations have the power to solemnify objects and give to them a significance alien to objects which may look identical. That is the other side of the coin to my discussion of imitation. Although I would like to see an aesthetic consciousness for imitative work, I would not say that authorship is irrelevant. What then are some of the appropriate ways in which authorship may be relevant to our appreciation of a work of art?
It may be relevant because of the authenticity of a work. Francis Schaeffer argues that for a work to have authenticity the artist’s work must be consistent with the artist’s worldview. To use an example, the work of Picasso and the work of Rembrandt were both symptomatic of the men’s views about the world and life. Picasso’s work and Rembrandt’s work both embody a certain world view. If Picasso were to paint like Rembrandt his work would lack authenticity because he would not be being true to his own existentialism. On the other hand, if Rembrandt were to paint like Picasso, he would not be being true to his Christian beliefs about the world. If imitative art ever achieves acceptability, artists must strive to put their soul into their imitations and choose genres in which they can be true to themselves rather than simply mechanically copy what they know will be popular. A nihilistic painting of despair may be very profound if painted by an existentialist because he has put his tortured soul into the work, yet if I learned that the same painting was actually painted by a Christian as a joke, it loses its profundity and becomes trivial. To use another example, suppose I see a painting that is quite poor hanging on the wall of my friends’ house. I dismiss the work until I learn that it was painted by my friend’s five year old girl.
Another way that authorship may effects how we view a work is that, by viewing a work in the context of the artist’s entire corpus, we can know what to look for, how to interpret it, how to compare it other works by the same artist, etc.. Historical information about where the artist was coming from, his motives behind the work, the historical climate of the time, and other such considerations, assist us in the process of criticism and make the reception of the work all the more enriching. For example, knowing that Beethoven wrote a certain symphony after his disillusionment with the Napoleonic wars, or that a certain Sonata was written when he was broken-hearted, increases our aesthetic appreciation of the work. Similarly, a certain text that we dislike because of its conservative ideas may take on a different colour if we learn that it was actually very radical for the time in which it was written.
Though I have acknowledged that historical considerations can effect one’s aesthetic experience, I believe that this principle is carried too the point of absurdity in Western Art.
Consider the case of the Ossianic texts popular in the 18th century. James Macpherson claimed to have discovered some ancient Gallic manuscripts that had been written by Ossian the son of Fingal. The texts were translated in many languages and, according to some authorities, spearheaded the entire romantic movement in Europe. At the time Dr. Johnson challenged the claim that they were originals, saying that if the poems are not originals then they are worthless. It has subsequently been proved that Dr. Johnson was correct, though Macpherson did incorporate portions of tales and legends into the work. Unfortunately, the texts which had such an influence on all of Europe, are now virtually forgotten. All because it was proved that they were written in the eighteenth century! Although I acknowledged that historical considerations are relevant in the process of aesthetic evaluation, this is surely going too far. Is it right that a work, so appreciated, so influential and – judging from my own limited reading of the texts – so beautiful, should be all but forgotten merely because of the date of it’s authorship. While the historical context of its production is not irrelevant to our appreciation, since I showed that historical considerations appropriately colour, inform and enrich our reception of a work, it is surely absurd when such considerations are allowed, not merely to inform, but to predominate and obliterate the purely aesthetic features.
As long as this continues to be the case, forgery will always be a problem. Maybe ‘problem’ is the wrong word to describe it. Perhaps I should say that forgery will continue to be a benefit to mankind. After all, if James Macpherson had never forged the work of the non-existent Fingal, millions of people in the eighteenth century, and a few people today. would not have enjoyed these beautiful works. Of course, the end doesn’t justify the means, nor am I saying that ignorance is bliss. But perhaps, in the case of forgeries, ignorance is bliss. But it certainly need not be.
Since writing the above essay, my views on the subject of forgery have slightly changed. The following essay represents my new position.
What is wrong with a good forgery? In order to answer this question we must distinguish between two kinds of forgeries. First, there is the kind of forgery where an artist imitates another artist’s style, as van Meegeren did with Vermeer’s style. Secondly, there is the kind of forgery where an artist actually copies an existing work. I will have occasion to refer to this distinction.
The simple way to answer this question is to say that forgeries are wrong because they are dishonest. Though such an answer is true, it doesn’t really get to the heart of the problem. The kind of deception we are dealing with here is in terms of passing something inferior off as something superior. But what do we mean by inferior here: do we mean that the forgery is aesthetically inferior?
According to Lessing, though forgeries are inferior because they are contrary to the spirit of art, they cannot be said to be aesthetically inferior. In his essay “What is Wrong with a Forgery?”, Lessing writes that,
Considering a work of art aesthetically superior because it is genuine, or inferior because it is forged, has little or nothing to do with aesthetic judgment or criticism. It is rather a piece of snobbery.
Lessing rules out non-aesthetic, external information as having an aesthetic relevance. That is why he can speak of aesthetic experience as an autonomous occurrence which does not take into account anything that is not directly perceivable in the work itself. The historical context in which that work of art stands is, according to Lessing, “wholly irrelevant to the pure aesthetic appreciation and judgment of the work of art.”
At first, this may seem like mere common sense. Consider the case of the thirteenth century Gothic wall-paintings of saints that were discovered by Dietrich Fey during the restoration of Lübeck’s St. Marien Church. After Fey’s assistant, Lothar Malskat, restored the frescoes, art experts all over Europe praised it as a valuable treasure and fabulous discovery of lost masterpieces. Two years later Malskat confessed to fraud: Malskat had himself painted the work. Naturally the frescoes lost all worth.
One could argue, of course, that the reason the frescos lost wroth was because they were no longer historically important. Yet the fact remains that, according to the critics of the time, it was the beauty of these lost masterpieces that made them so endearing. At least that is what they said before the fraud was exposed. Once it was discovered that they were a recent production, did all their beauty and aesthetic features disappear?
The questions raised by this incident were taken up by Arthur Koestler in his essay, ‘The act of creation.’ Koestler asks whether the Lübeck saints ceased to be as beautiful once the truth was known. According to the public, the answer would seem to be yes, for the frescoes ceased to be considered ‘a valuable treasure of masterpieces’ once they were known to have been painted by Herr Malskat and not by someone in the thirteenth century. But Koestler argues that this knowledge about the origins should not make any aesthetic difference at all. Like Lessing, Koestler thinks that one’s aesthetic appreciation should not be affected by historical considerations such as authenticity and non-authenticity.
Along this line Koestler tells of a lady who, upon learning that the ink line drawing of Picasso’s she had been given was actually an original and not a reproduction, moved the painting from over the staircase to the more prominent location over the mantelpiece in the drawing-room. She said that she now ‘saw’ the work differently. Koestler couldn’t understand this and tried to prove to the woman that the newly acquired knowledge did not change the work’s aesthetic qualities one bit. He wanted her to admit that it gave her more of a thrill to know that it was an original while acknowledging, at the same time, that this had nothing to do with aesthetic value. For, writes Koestler, “the question of period, authorship, and authenticity” is “extraneous to aesthetic value…” Snobbery, he argues, occurs because of the confusion to separate these two aspects.
Let us unpack the argument. It begins with the premise that anything external to what is directly perceivably cannot have an aesthetic relevance. External considerations may make a difference in other respects, to be sure, but it does not affect the actual aesthetic features. But is this premise true? I do not think so. In our normal, everyday response to works of art, it is possible to think of many examples where external information (that is, information not directly perceivable in a work) affect our aesthetic response to a work. Knowing that Milton was blind when he wrote his poem on blindness affects our aesthetic enjoyment of the work. In knowing that these are the words of a blind man, they take on an added richness and vividness. Knowing that the brass in Mozart’s Magic Flute was intended to give a royal sound, or that in Bach and Handel’s day the oboe and flute were intended to be reminiscent of the rustic bagpipe and shepherd’s flute informs and enhances our aesthetic response.
Consider another case. Imagine a piece of wood cut by a wood worker for the purposes of slitting into a joint of a wall. Imagine further that this piece of wood looks identical to an artwork found in a museum. Place the two side by side and they are indistinguishable. But it still matters aesthetically which is the one made with the artistic intentions, for as in the case of the poem, there are many aesthetic qualities – qualities such as clumsy, controlled, innovative, vulgar, simplistic, etc. – that can only be applied to the piece of wood that we know was made with artistic intention. Thus, to attend to it as an artwork is already to be aware of more than merely its appearance. To do otherwise, and merely to take the object at face value, entails ridding our vocabulary of a wealth of aesthetic predicates and, in so doing, limit the potential enjoyment that might be derived from the work.
Seeing that aesthetic enjoyment may be affected by background knowledge, it is quite reasonable to say that knowledge that a work is a forgery may affect our aesthetic response. With regard to the kinds of forgeries that imitate an artist’s style, there are many reasons why knowing a work to be forged can affect our aesthetic response.
First, our aesthetic appreciation of any single work is enhanced by viewing it in the context of an artist’s entire corpus. Our viewing of any single work within the artist’s corpus is enhances by perceiving distinctive trends, preoccupations and innovative contrasts. A forgery is parasitic on this corpus, inviting us to enjoy it for reasons that are false.
Secondly, I have already shown that to appreciate something as art is already to be aware of certain factors about its origin, namely that it is an artefact made with artistic intent. But this is not the only intent that is important; there is the intent of the artist to embody his feelings, vision, perception, understanding or observation of those things which inspire him and which he chooses for his subject. However, a forgery distorts our knowledge of what this subject of inspiration actually is. Vermeer’s work was inspired from his observations of 17th century Holland while van Meegeren’s forgeries of Vermeer’s work were inspired from Vermeer’s work. They were, therefore, parasitic or derivative on Vermeer’s own observations and inspiration. This requires us to approach forgeries differently. They can still be appreciated but it is a different kind of appreciation because it was inspired from different subject matter than that which inspired the original.
Return to Robin Phillips HOMEPAGE
You are invited to join my mailing list!
As a member of my mailing list, you will receive automatic notification about additional material and features on this site, as well as occasional newsletters. To join, send a blank email to
largerhope @ tiscali.co.uk
with “Join” in the subject heading. To unjoin, send a blank email with “Unjoin” in the subject heading.
(Note: for anti-spam purposes, the above email address has had spaced inserted before and after the @ sign. The address will only work after deleting these spaces.)