Genuine Art

The idea that a genuine work of art, that is, a work of art known to have been produced by a famous artist, should be worth more than a similar work of art the authorship of which is disputed, is absolutely absurd, yet this is today’s prevalent view. I’m not talking about copies of course, those are either plagiarism when unauthorized, or replicas when allowed. I’m talking about art with uncertain authorship, which, when resolved, can give or take millions from a monetary valuation – e.g. some newly discovered painting which may or may not be by one of the old masters. In those cases, people scramble to verify the author rather than take time to appreciate the work itself, forgetting the whole purpose of the creation.

Art is not money, and while it can be used as an investment, and often is, its real value is not a monetary sum. Its value lies in the essence of the experience it gives us: how much it can ease, enrich or elevate our lives. And yet today it’s not surprising to see a work valued on a signature alone, as if a couple of lines or an expert’s verification somehow changes the nature of the work, somehow alters our experience of it. But it doesn’t matter who produces our bread, as long as it’s bread and as long as it nourishes us – bread is only fake when it’s no longer bread, not when it’s produced by another baker.

The poverty of technique in modern art makes the above a problem. You must have heard the following sentiment from somebody viewing the latest modern art exhibit: “I could draw that” – to which someone would inevitably reply: “sure, but you didn’t”. But after saying this they don’t realize that the next logical step is to ask the question of: “well…why don’t you do it now?” The question is never asked of course because what’s being replicated has no value outside of it being a “genuine work of art”, and so replicating it would just be a waste of time. The worth of that work is in who made it alone, not in any of its own qualities.

Thomas More has a great analogy of this in Utopia. He illustrates the absurdity of rich folks buying diamonds, who, unable to tell whether the precious stones they are about to purchase are real or not, have to bring in experts and microscopes to verify this for them. If their eyes cannot tell apart a piece of glass from a diamond, what is the difference in the stones really worth to them – the difference they cannot and will not ever experience themselves?

August 2012