My discussions around anthropological perspectives on art have led me to reconsider the relationship between art and authenticity. This was also the subject of a recent Leeds Humanities Research Institute seminar. The seminar series, entitled ‘Experimental Philosophical Aesthetics’, was organised by Aaron Meskin and Shen-Yi Liao, in order to “uncover connections between aesthetics, morality, and communication with the aid of empirical methods.” As part of this series they invited a George Newman from Yale University and Greg Currie from York University to discuss their research into ideas of authenticity in art.
Authenticity and art
The session was introduced as follows: “In general, we seem to have a preference for “the real thing”. We tend to like people who we find genuine. We tend to find authentic food more delicious. However, nowhere is this preference more apparent than in the domain of artworks. We look down upon copies, replicas, and forgeries because they lack the aesthetic virtue of authenticity.”
The first presenter, George Newman, was interested in communicating the relationship between aesthetic judgement and other kinds of values. His objective was ultimately to create a ‘lay theory of art’ whereby he could determine how works of art were valued by audiences, both financially and emotionally. His presentation ‘The Valuation of Authentic Goods’ discussed “why people value original artworks more than identical duplicates and what explains consumer demand for celebrity memorabilia or luxury products?” Through the use of empirical methods, Newman has attempted to uncover psychological factors relating to audience assessments of works of art, using ideas of performance in artmaking, and laws of contagion.
Artwork as performance
In his 2011 paper ‘Art and Authenticity: The Importance of Originals in Judgments of Value‘ in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, Newman writes: “Dutton (2003, 2009) has argued that people assess artwork, even static artwork such as paintings, as the endpoint of performances. From this perspective, our assessment of an artwork is related to our intuitions about the processes that gave rise to its existence. Thus, an original is different from a forgery because it is the end point of a different sort of performance. The original is a creative work, whereas the forgery is not.” Despite my interest in the provenance of artwork as a type of performance, I think it is important to note the difference between ‘forgery’ and ‘replica’, as although both may be produced from the original, the implications of each term are very different.
Ideas of performance were also linked to the law of contagion, whereby the proximity of the artist to the work of art was a factor in its perceived value and authenticity. Such theories were developed as part of anthropological studies by writers including Frazer, 1890/1959; Mauss, 1902/1972; Rozin & Nemeroff, 2002; and Tylor, 1897/1974. As Newman et al. 2011 discovered, “such contagion effects [were] not limited to art; [but also extended] to objects such as autographs, baby shoes, and the possessions of celebrities”.
Why do people value original artworks?
The term original is used in two senses here, as both individual object and the result of a unique creative process. Although scenarios were presented whereby artworks and original artefacts were duplicated, only the duplicate artwork was consistently deemed to be of lesser value than the original, suggesting that people valued something other than the aesthetic or the craftsmanship of the object.
Factors which may have contributed to these findings were presented as follows: “artworks are generally one of a kind, whereas artifacts are mass produced; artworks and artifacts are manufactured using different types of methods and may require different amounts of time and effort to produce… these factors may [also] be particularly salient in the domain of art in part because artworks do not have any functional value… and this salience explains why authenticity matters so much in this domain (Hagtvedt & Patrick, 2008). One prediction from the studies reported here is that these processes may have a compensatory relationship, such that increases in the importance of functional value decrease the importance of historical factors (such as contagion or performance), and conversely, that decreases in the importance of functional value increase the importance of these historical factors.”
Although the definition of art is not made explicit, the results seem to suggest particular assumptions about the nature of art, ie. its lack of functional value, thereby excluding certain types of cultural objects. Despite this non-anthropological perspective, this creates an interesting question about what would happen if we were to view ‘gallery’ artworks in a functional context.
Authenticity and the Traces of Making
The second speaker, Gregory Currie from the University of York, discussed whether the term ‘authentic’ was necessary when discussing works of art. Although, in his view, “Authentic Rembrandts are Rembrandts, and vice versa”, he was interested in the questions that this raised about people’s interest in the history of an object. He felt that the idea of contagion was too illogical an analysis, but argued that aspects of the artist’s making and thinking processes were evident within the work, which explained the higher values of ‘authenticated’ works.
My thoughts about the term authentic are linked to context, in particular, in relation to cross-cultural interpretation of objects, whereby artworks are reclassified in accordance with the cultural systems to which they are introduced. For example, in the case of sand paintings which have been taken out of context and recreated as permanent artwork (usually with changes) for a gallery setting, rendering them both authentic and inauthentic at the same time.