A New Lexicon of Forgery
by Antoinette LaFarge
- Assumptions, Hackneyed
- (1) All forgeries are intrinsically inferior to their originals. (2) All forgeries must sooner or later be found out. These two assertions have stood for centuries as cornerstones of western aesthetics. It seems often to be forgotten that they are not facts but assumptions. As such, both are unprovable. The first statement embodies a personal judgment ("inferior") and so cannot be universalized as a truth. The second refers to an unknowable number, so its truth condition can never be verified. See Crime Doesn't Pay.
- Assumptions, Proposed
- Perhaps it is time to replace the Hackneyed Assumptions with the two following: (1) There exist forgeries that are as good as or better than their originals. (2) There exists forgeries that never have been and never will be found out. Some may wonder what is the point of replacing two unprovable statements with two other unprovable statements. The point is that if we are to work from assumptions, we should work from the most productive assumptions. Because the Hackneyed Assumptions exist to protect certain interests (mainly those of buyers and experts), they have succeeded in narrowing the scope of art. If we open ourselves to the second pair, however, the possibilities multiply.
- The great red herring of art is the asserted link between authorship and authenticity. This link diverts attention from whether the thing is interesting in itself. See Authorship; Signature Art.
- Because the art experts' eyes are deeply untrustworthy, authorship has moved in to fill the vacuum. It's much easier to arrange a crude pecking order of categories based on authorship (Leonardo, Grünewald, Bouchard) than on the aesthetic value of individual works. Authorship has also come in useful as a relatively simple way to pinpoint when something was made and thus to distinguish an original from a copy. Because it can be settled factually, authorship has been turned into a substitute for judgments about the quality of a work -- which can never be finally settled. See Leonardo's Belle Ferronière; Record-Keeping; Signature Art.
- Copies, Bad
- General distate for forgery imperfectly conceals an obsession with good copies. For this reason, it tends to be overlooked that copies can be "bad" in infinitely many and interesting ways. Marcel Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q., for example, is a bad copy of the Mona Lisa in different way from a 100-line halftone reproduction in a newspaper. The traditional view is that we can only understand the Mona Lisa by looking long and carefully at Leonardo's "original." Perhaps we can only understand the essence of the Mona Lisa -- the Ur-Mona-Lisa -- by looking long and carefully at the thousands of instances of and variations on the Mona Lisa. In such a universe, there may very well turn out to be no "best" (although there may indeed be a "first") Mona Lisa. One can even argue that the Mona Lisa as we know now it (its pigments changed and dimmed) is effectively a time-authored bad copy of the Mona Lisa (the Mona Lisa as originally painted).
- Copies, Basic Problem of
- The fundamental problem with all copies is that by their very nature they can never be first -- and thus, under the traditional assumptions, they can never be best. Psychologically, we are still stuck in the trap Plato laid for us when he identified all derivations from the Idea (the original) as in some way degenerate.
- Copies and Ego
- The Western emphasis on the ego -- the individual 'I' that must never be confused with another's 'I' -- has prevented much exploration of the qualities of copies, particularly exact copies. We have assumed the validity of the old assumptions to protect our sense of individuality. In art, only unformed students and those who want to make money devote themselves to exact copying or to forging. It is assumed that students will eventually stop copying as they develop their own style (and will throw their presumably inferior copies in the trash). What actually happens is that artists learn how to copy more subtly; as with so much crime, it is not the crime itself that we hold in contempt but getting caught at it. See Copies, Exactness of; Thieves and Forgers.
- Copies, Exactness of
- With the proliferation of mechanical means of reproduction over the last century, we have begun to learn more about copies. When artists began to abandon mimesis, notably in the 20th century, the argument over the abandonment remained at the center of art. As art commented directly and indirectly on mimesis, mimetic strategies became increasingly convoluted. Pablo Picasso, instead of going to the trouble to copy a bottle label, pasted a real bottle label into a collage painting. Robert Rauschenberg crudely silkscreened photos, themselves a form of mechanical mimesis. Jeff Koons has copied the work of other artists but in different materials. Yet artists are still dogged by the taboo against exact copies: However elaborate these strategies, they still involve varyingly inexact forms of imitation.
Critics consistently analyze such work in terms of the kind and degree of theft (usually called borrowing or appropriation) and the kind and degree of variation (inexactness of the copy). The predominance of these two themes indirectly shows the degree to which old beliefs about forgery have remained embedded in the artistic consciousness. Central to any definition of forgery are the ideas of unacknowleged theft and exactness of the copy. When both are present in the extreme, you have a forgery; when present in modified form, you may have any of a number of modern works of art. In Koons's infamous Puppies sculpture, for example, the degree of theft is high (outright and acknowledged), but the exactness of the copy is low. What is peculiar, given the various freedoms sought in modern and postmodern art, is how artists have tacitly agreed with critics to shun the extreme end of this territory, where forgery is located.
- Copies, Hierarchy of
- One sees this same mechanism at work in the severe hierarchicalization of art works. Thus, an original work by, say, Ingres is held to be better than one of his own late copies of that same work; a copy of a Leonardo by one of Leonardo's students is held to be better than any later copy of or variation on that same work; a second-rate work by Rembrandt is held to better than a first-rate work by someone less well-known.
- Crime Doesn't Pay
- Art experts have tried to insist that every forgery will sooner or later be discovered. This is a highly self-serving statement. More importantly, it is by its very nature unprovable. Knowing that X forgeries have been exposed tells us nothing at all about how many have not yet been found out. Suppose you have uncovered 9 forgeries; how can you intelligently interpret this figure unless you also know that the total of forgeries in the world is 9 or 999 or 99 million? And how do you pin down that latter number?
- Definition of Art
- The West has never attained the universal definition of art it seeks. Historically, whenever certain characteristics were identified as necessary to the work of art, art tended to abandon precisely those characteristics. The thing defined changes endlessly under the eye of the definer. See God; Disqualifying Conditions.
- Disqualifying Conditions
- In the Transfiguration of the Commonplace, Arthur Danto asks: What are the conditions that might disqualify something from being a work of art? In Western art, the condition of being identified as a forgery has always served as such a disqualifier. From the assumed inferiority of forgery, it follows that an acknowledged forgery can never be accepted as a work of art. Any work that is unmasked as a forgery after being accepted as art must automatically be demoted. Many other disqualifying conditions have fallen by the wayside over the centuries, but not this one, "being a forgery." Why has this single condition proved so resistant?
- Duchamp as Forger
- It can be argued that Marcel Duchamp was a forger, but one whose method was unique in two respects. First, he worked in the open, thus stealing the moral imperative (exposure of deceit) from the art experts. Second, and more intriguingly, he forged himself. The usual forger forges someone else; that is, nominates one of his or her own works as a Leonardo or a Picasso. The forger thus appropriates someone else's name to his own object. Duchamp, however, appropriated someone else's object to his own name. It is tempting to call this a kind of inverse forgery, but the underlying purpose is the same as the ordinary forger's: to pass off one thing (a painting by an unknown, a urinal) as something different and better (a valuable artwork). In both cases, the signature does not correspond to the author (manufacturer) of the object.
Duchamp's series of works based on the Mona Lisa represent a watershed in forgery. At one point, he added a mustache to a bunch of ordinary postcard reproductions of the Mona Lisa to produce a "rectified readymade" version of his infamous L.H.O.O.Q. Later, he took another group of ordinary postcard reproductions of the Mona Lisa and entitled them L.H.O.O.Q. Rasée (Shaved L.H.O.O.Q.), thus implicitly declaring the Leonardo Mona Lisa a modified version of his own L.H.O.O.Q. By an act of temporal transubstantiation, Duchamp's work thus became the original, Leonardo's the "degraded" (certainly incomplete) copy.
- Duchamp suggested that art is not even as good as God. Perhaps their relationship can be stated thus: If God is the eternal form of the Absolute, Art is the protean form of the Absolute. See Definition of Art.
- It can be argued that forgers are more honest than artists. The philosopher Arthur Danto notes that in premodern art, the nominal subject of a masterwork (say, an annunciation) is not the actual subject, which is in fact simply the demonstration of mastery, sealed by their signature. For the forger, however, the creation of the signature is the sole point of the process. At the essential level, there is no fakery because the forger understands that it is not the object itself that counts but the signature attached to it. The object itself is less an object than a pretext. See Signature Art.
- I am not the first to speculate that forgeries or copies may be better than their originals.. In his story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, Jorge Luis Borges postulates a world in which artifacts are methodically copied. These copies -- called hrönir -- exist in numerous degrees depending on how far from the original they are; that is a hrön of the third degree is a hrön of a hrön (a copy of a copy). Moreover, the various degrees of hrönir have differing characteristics; Borges notes, for example, that hrönir of the eleventh degree have a purity of line not found in the original.
- Leonardo's Belle Ferronière
- The substitution of authorship for judgment has led to some very twisted thinking about art. Art historians are still arguing, for example, over which of two versions of a painting called La Belle Ferronière was painted by Leonardo and which is a later copy. The two opposing camps put forward the same argument: my candidate is better and therefore is by Leonardo. At least, such is the apparent argument; the argument actually being made runs thus: my candidate is a Leonardo and is therefore better. The proof of this lies in the fact that if one of the two paintings is finally acknowledged to be by Leonardo, both camps will end by agreeing that it is the better work. If the argument ran 'my candidate is better and therefore is a Leonardo,' the camp backing the later copy would have no reason to back down as the primary assertion would still stand. See Rembrandt's Polish Rider.
- In bringing two different things together, metaphor erases their opposition and declares their identity -- the essence of what Alfred Jarry termed pataphysics. The traditional view of forgery holds that the relation of any original to its copy is one of similitude, not identity. The "like" of a simile holds the two elements of the combination rigidly apart: a forgery of the Mona Lisa is only "like" the Mona Lisa. Metaphor allows us to assert that a forgery of the Mona Lisa is the Mona Lisa. Likewise, the Mona Lisa is a forgery of the Mona Lisa. See Temporal Reversal.
- Duchamp understood the primacy of the signature in art very well, but he twisted the rules so that the game would take a new direction. Even as he accepted the preeminence of the signature, he used it to point away from itself. His nominations cast the emphasis back on that to which the signature is attached. In his work, the act of choosing replaces the act of signing, the signified the signifier. Duchamp's nominations can be seen as a kind of up-front forgery, an attempt to pass of something worthless as something valuable. As with more usual forms of forgery, the perceived worth of the artwork depends on the successful assertion of its worth. As long as the assertion prevails, the object as value, and not a minute longer.
- Why is there no such thing as a forgery of a known work in certain fields of art, such as poetry? Nelson Goodman proposes that it is because all art can be divided into two principal types: the allographic and the autographic. Allographic art (music, poetry) is in a notation while autographic art (painting, sculpture) is not. The notation of an allographic art can be copied exactly without resulting in a forgery because the art is not identical with the notation. It is for this reason that it is not an act of forgery to copy out T.E. Eliot's "Wasteland."
Goodman's differentiation goes right to the heart of the problem of originality in art. It is only when we identify a particular artwork with its particular notation that a meaningful distinction between an original and a copy can arise. But suppose we decide to abandon Goodman's distinction and assume (act as though) all art is allographic -- painting and sculpture included?
- The idea of forgery presupposes the idea of the original. Indeed, the art world's debasement of forgery follows on its exaltation of the original. The purely economic reasons for the high status of originals are fairly obvious. Given the market structure that has evolved around Western art, forgeries create problems for anyone who wants to make money from artwork. At this point in history, artists themselves have internalized accepted beliefs about orginals to the point they no longer seriously question them.
- Platonic Forms
- Suppose we were to deal with art as we deal with the most ordinary objects in the world -- beds, for instance. For any given person, there are things that are clearly beds, things that are like beds, things that are not beds at all. These categories are not only fluid, they are different for different people. And, except in the mind, there is no "original" bed. See Temporal Reversal.
- Plurality Value
- The value of a work might come to be analyzed not on its rarity but on its plurality--the more copies of an artwork there are, the better. That is, a work would be valued for the extent to which it engaged people enough to spur forgery and other forms of copying. See Copies, Hierarchy of.
- Qualities of Copies
- The plain fact is that we do not actually know much about the qualities of copies and copies of copies. We are more comfortable with the idea than with the reality of copies. Although Western art depended for centuries on Plato's invocation of mimesis, the heart of mimesis is the inexact copy, the copy-with-a-difference. Art theoretically founded on imitation was actually founded on variation. Thus, it was impossible for an aesthetics of exact copying, a semantics of hrönir, to arise. (It should be noted that although the hrönir in Borges account clearly vary from one to the next, and so qualify rather as close than as exact copies, the initial attempt is to make an exact copy. It is this attempt that is not validated in our aesthetics.) See Hrönir.
- Authorship is a peculiarly modern obsession because it depends on the existence of a society that keeps long-term records. "Who" represents in part a narrowing of "when"; it reflects a constriction of our sense of values, their embodiment in a few select persons. See Authorship.
- Rembrandt's Polish Rider
- Anyone who doubts the sway held by authorship over aesthetics is invited to consider the disruptions caused by the latest committee to reevaluate Rembrandt's oeuvre. This committee found that the famous painting known as The Polish Rider was not by Rembrandt at all; its value instantly decline. The Polish Rider is not by Rembrandt; therefore it is not as good as everyone thought (otherwise it would be a Rembrandt). The domination of authorship leads to the overestimation of poor work by so-called first-rate artists and the underestimation of excellent work by so-called second-rate artists. Leonardo's Belle Ferronière.
- Temporal Reversal
- If one stopped assuming that time's unidirectional flow gave greater value to earlier works, Leonardo's Mona Lisa ceases to be automatically better than all the other copies of and variations on the Mona Lisa. One could argue that the "original" Mona Lisa is a forgery of all later ones. Suddenly it is possible to evaluate the Mona Lisa on other grounds than who did the particular brushwork of the particular instance. Any two Mona Lisas become potentially equal instances of the same idea, what one might call the Ur-Mona-Lisa (or possibly the Platonic Mona Lisa). It is certainly missing certain elements that appear in all Mona Lisas painted by different (non-Da Vinci) hands. It appears these missing elements are trivial. But are they? Perhaps the subtle differences are key. See Platonic Forms.
- Thieves and Forgers
- Hypothesis: all artists are either thieves or forgers. It is a subtle distinction; after all, theft in art can be seen as a form of disguised forgery and vice versa. But perhaps it is truer to see them as opposite psychological strategies: Thieves seek to appropriate other people's work to themselves; forgers seek to appropriate their work to other people. Until now, only the former category has been artistically creditable.
- Signature Art
- The obsession with authorship infantilizes us; it turns art into just another thing to get "right." Instead of asking, "How do I feel about this? Is it interesting?" we ask "Who is it by?" Under such conditions, instantly recognizable artists become most popular and most valuable. Inevitably, the work itself becomes literally a kind of signature, a substitute for the now superfluous signature in the corner. It works in much the same way as a tomcat's nocturnal spraying does: It marks territorial boundaries. As Arthur Danto points out, artists try to disguise the fact that their actual subject (mastery or signature) is different from their nominal subject. Nowadays the dynamic is much cruder; the actual subject has been reduced from mastery to a simple demonstration of presence -- "I was here," the function of a signature. (In the case of more ambitious artists, as Robert Hughes has pointed out, the effective signature may be enlarged from single works to an entire period.)
Signature art reduces art objects to the status of brand-name products without actually admitting as much. Perhaps it is time to openly accept this situation in art. In commerce, particularly successful brand-name products often pass into usage as common nouns, despite the efforts of the parent corporations to prevent this from happening. Kleenex becomes kleenex, Band-Aids become bandaids. Little-k kleenexes are not so much objects as categories of objects; similarly, Mona Lisa the brand-name Leonardo has given way to "mona-lisa" the generic category (despite the efforts of art experts and institutions to prevent it). Moreover, these mona-lisas have as their focus the Ur-Mona-Lisa rather than the Leonardo Mona Lisa. (Parenthetically, it is interesting that Duchamp's guess that any artwork has a meaningful life span of about 30 years is not far off the patentable life of any commercial product.) See Authorship; Duchamp as Forger; Nomination.
last revised 8-01