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Friday, August 27, 2010


This post has nothing at all to do with politics. It is just a record of some thoughts that were prompted by materials I have been reading for the revision of my textbook. I thought it would be fun to use, as the topic for the end-of-chapter Contemporary Application in the Philosophy of Art chapter, debates about what constitutes forged as opposed to authentic art. Experts on Old Masters are accustomed to paying close attention to brush strokes, the use of light and shadow, perspective, composition, and that sort of thing. In the modern world of art auctions, tens of millions of dollars can hang on their judgment that a painting is, or is not, a Tintoretto or Rembrandt or Titian. When it comes to a Jackson Pollock, things get a trifle dicey. It is not really clear that dribbling paint on canvas requires skills mastered over a long apprenticeship. Indeed, it is not even clear that it requires a human hand. And matters get much, much worse when we come to artists who claim that the act of placing a random object in a museum makes it art. Does it cease to be art when it is removed from the museum? Do I have to buy the entire museum to truly take possession of the object as a work of art?

As I was taking my morning walk, I turned over in my mind all the old familiar arguments. If a copy can be distinguished from an original only by spectrographic analysis of paint samples and snips of canvas, why -- leaving aside considerations of auction prices -- is the original in any way superior to the copy? And if a great forger can create a canvas whose aesthetic, as well as technical, properties are indistinguishable from something from the brush of the master, why not accept it as yet another great work of art and hang it alongside works by the artist being imitated? And so forth and so on. You are all familiar with this debate, I am sure.

But then a thought occurred to me. I am not really a lover of the visual arts. [Hence, I derive a measure of schadenfreude from the debates.] There are a few paintings that give me genuine aesthetic pleasure, but for the most part, I am a reluctant visitor to museums -- a fact that tries the patience of my wife. Music, on the other hand, is an entirely different matter. There is a great deal of music -- mostly but not entirely, from the Classical period and earlier, that gives me immediate, intense, profound pleasure. Indeed, I cannot have music playing in the background when I work, because I will stop working to listen to the music. Several years ago, Susie and I went to Tanglewood and sat on the lawn during a modern dance performance that was accompanied by Yo Yo Ma playing some of the Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello. I discovered that I could not watch the dancing and listen to the music simultaneously. I had to shift my law chair so that my view of the dancers was obscured, allowing me to listen to the music undisturbed. It was a pity, since the dancers were quite good, but I was so ravished by the music that I could not allow any sensory distraction.

Now, the curious thing about music is that it is simply logically impossible for a question to arise as to whether something that one is hearing, for example, is the real Third Razumovsky or an imitation. Beethoven's Opus 59 #3 is a certain set of notes, organized in a determinate manner. Like the number seven, it is what it is, and can neither be forged nor faked. I have a copy of the Opus 59 quartets, and I have played them [or, more precisely, I have played the viola in a quartet playing them]. Is my copy authentic? Yes, as are all the other copies in the hands of private persons or music sellers or libraries. Now, the autograph copy of the quartet, if indeed it exists [I have no idea] is undoubtedly worth a great deal of money, market demand and rich people's fancies being what they are. But if I had that autograph copy, I would be no closer to the true quartet than I am when I put my copy on the music stand. Suppose my apartment were broken into, and the thief, having better taste than morals, were to steal my copy of the Opus 59 quartets. If I applied to my insurance company, saying that the Opus 59's are priceless, the agent would simply ask, "How much will it take to replace your copy?" "Thirty dollars," I would be forced to reply, for except for my fingerings and bowings, which are valuable to me but not exactly priceless, another copy would be just as good as the one that had been stolen. "Your deductible is $100, so you get nothing from us," would be the last word from the insurance agent.

Exactly the same thing is true of a Dickenson poem or a Dickens novel or a Shakespeare play. Each is a collection of words shaped in a particular manner. It diminishes it not at all to reproduce it, duplicate it, make exact copies of it. The meaning, and hence the beauty, of a literary work may indeed be in part dependent on the historical and cultural milieu of which it is a part. The same is of course true of a painting or a sculpture, or indeed a building. The Cathedral of Notre Dame, whose beauty strikes me viscerally every time I see it down at the end of the street on which we have our little Paris apartment, would be an entirely different art object in a different place, or a different century. But whereas it seems to make a very great deal of difference, for example, whether the Gypsy Girl that hangs in the Denon Wing in the Louvre is truly by Frans Hals, it makes no difference at all whether my copy of Hamlet is an authentic First Folio or a cheap paperback edition meant for schoolboys and girls. The words are the same [leaving aside scholarly debates about variants, etc.], and that is all that matters.

My prejudices being what they are, I incline to the view that this makes music and literature purer art than painting and sculpture -- but I will not break a lance for that thesis.


Bob said...

You might find this book of interest. Carey argues for literature as the Queen of the arts. My review of the book is here.

English Jerk said...

Since I'm working on some related questions non-pseudonymously (nymously?), I don't want to say too much. But I sympathize with your sense that the authenticity issue falls away in the case of music and literature, and that this is an asset of some kind. The question for me is: if Hamlet is just a determinate sequence of words, then what is its ontology? It seems irreducible to any individual physical copies (you can destroy any of them without destroying Hamlet itself), but it seems equally absurd to attribute to it the same ontology as the number seven. And if materiality and ideality both won't work, what will?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

English Jerk, indeed! You raise some fascinating questions. I feel quite comfortable saying that the number 7 exists, independently of whether there are any sentient beings to form a concept of it. But I think it is quite odd to say that every logically possible musical composition and literary work exists, in every possible language or musical scheme, regardless of whether any artist has created it. I am not sure it matters much [except to oddballs like philosophers], but it is curious. Great scultpers like Michelangelo apparently think of themselves as simply clearing away the extraneous rock and revealing the Pieta trapped inside. It makes one think.

GTChristie said...

Interesting that you mention sculpture in your reply above, since painting and sculpture share the salient characteristic: the original is the creation (or work of art) in physical media, where the idea is the work of art in auditory media (print being simply a representation or symbol for the spoken word). Recall McLuhan: the medium is the message. In narrative forms (which are temporal, as both speech and music must be exposed to the listener/reader over time), the primitive medium is sound and the message is auditory (carried to a virtual form in print); in painting and sculpture the medium is static and spatial (not temporal): shapes, colors, brushstrokes etc are both the medium and the creation itself; if virtualized (a photo of a VanGogh or the Pieta, or indeed a copy forged) it doesn't bear the mark of the creator, whose physical effort is part of the object in a way that word/music doesn't demand. The difference is in the nature of the medium. To be analogous, we would want to hear how Mozart played his music and how Hemingway read For Whom the Bell Tolls aloud. "Genuine-ness" is medium-dependent.