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Forgery and Reproduction
Gregory Currie

 Moderators: Anouk Barberousse, John Zeimbekis, Nicolas Bullot, Gloria Origgi

Forgery needs to be distinguished from reproduction. It is sometimes said that the aesthetically relevant question raised by the existence of artistic forgery is whether a picture visually indistinguishable from a valuable picture is itself valuable to the same or to any degree. Yet I suggest that one may have no qualms, aesthetic or of any other kinds, about the honest reproduction of art while at the same time thinking that forgery is a bad thing.

A sensible case against forgery is based on the premise that misrepresentation of a work’s origins has the capacity to mislead the viewer who seeks to experience and to understand that work. For understanding a painting depends on more than an awareness of what colours are where on its surface, It requires knowing something about how those colours got to be there, with what representational and other intentions, against what stylistic and generic background, in the light of what available techniques and theories of representation. Nor, as Goodman pointed out, is the damage confined to the work in question: thinking that a van Meegeren is a Vermeer has the effect of distorting your view about what class of works it is appropriate to compare other Vermeer’s against--or, for that matter, other Dutch interiors.

But if that is right, then surely a practice of reproduction in painting is, if not misleading, then at least aesthetically self-defeating. After all, the reproduction has its origin in quite different circumstances from those of the original. It is made (generally) by a different person at a different time, using quite different methods. What could be more starkly contrasting than the painstaking work of Leonardo, and the pressing of a button on the standardly imagined “super Xerox machine” which churns out something that can’t be distinguished, by appropriate means of looking, from Leonardo’s work. In that case, the argument against forgery also shows that reproduction cannot achieve anything aesthetically equivalent to the original. You might reduce the starkness of the contrast by having the reproduction done by a skilled and sensitive painter, but even here there remains a substantial and surely relevant difference between the circumstances of making of these two works.

But consider the following line of thought. Painting is not the only art form where a proper appreciation of the work requires an understanding of its origins. The same is true of literary arts; one cannot be said to understand fully a literary work merely on the basis of an understanding of the meaning of its constituent words and sentences. Indeed, some people (I am one) go so far as to argue that two distinct literary works can have the same text: the same word sequence. However, no one will claim that my copy--produced by mechanical means--of Emma fails to provide me with full access to the work, that I would somehow be better off if I could read it in the original handwriting.[1]

What this shows, I think, is that the objection to forgery which is based on the need for historical understanding of the work cannot, on its own, be used as an argument against reproducibility.

One line of thought is this. With painting, the original canvas is the object in which the aesthetic properties of the work inhere. If the work is said to represent a flower, to be by Bosschaert, to have revived a flagging genre, then it is this thing--this painted canvas, which has these properties. No copy of the work, however faithful, has those properties. So the original is aesthetically distinctive. Not so with literature; if the novel is said to have revived a flagging genre, it is not this physical object--my copy--which has that property. In this respect, the original (the autograph) is not aesthetically distinctive. The autograph gives us access to the aesthetic properties of the work, it does not possess them. And the same can be said of any correct copy.

In other work I have denied the premise of this argument: that the aesthetic properties of the work inhere in the original canvas. I denied this by denying that the work and the original canvas are the same thing. Not everyone wants to go so far. Suppose we accept that the original canvas is the work, that the aesthetic properties of the work are properties of this object. It follows that you are not looking at the work when you look at a perfect copy of it, that you are not looking at the thing in which the aesthetic properties of the work inhere. The question then is this. To what extent does this fact (assuming it is a fact) compromise your capacity to appreciate the work by examining a perfect copy of it?

One answer is that you cannot appreciate the work by examining a perfect copy because you are not thereby put in an appropriately direct relationship with the relevant properties. When you confront the original canvas, you confront those properties, because they inhere in the object. When you confront a copy, you do not.

However, one might draw a different conclusion, namely that this merely shows that appreciation of the work does not require any such direct confrontation. Instead, it requires merely that you be put in a position where you can fully appreciate those properties. And perhaps you can appreciate the properties of one object by being directly confronted with different properties of another object.

Take, for example, the case of a picture in which a group of figures is finely composed. This is a property that the work has in virtue of it having been made in a certain way, namely by an artist who set about putting paint on with a brush in accordance with a certain plan. If the picture had resulted from an accident with paint there would be no question of it being finely composed. But suppose that I am not in a location where I can view the original, so the Gallery obligingly super-faxes me a perfect copy of it. What I am looking at does not have the property of containing a finely composed set of figures, since the way in which this copy was made differs dramatically from the way the original was made; the copy was made by a mechanical process that did not involve the act of composition. But is it not still true that I can fully appreciate the compositional elements of the original just as well by looking at this perfect copy as I could by looking at the original? Similarly, if I want to know how far this picture differed from other pictures of the same artist, period or genre, I can find out as easily by looking at the copy as I can by looking at the original. Of course I cannot know these things just by looking at the original; I have to have a lot of art historical knowledge as well. But whatever art historical knowledge equips me to answer these questions when looking at the original, that same knowledge also equips me to answer them when I am looking at the copy.

To this extent at least, the art-historical case against forgery is not also a case against reproduction. What does this tell us about question with which I began? The question invites us, I think, to consider the perfect copy as somehow an independent work, and for us then to decide whether this work is aesthetically the equal of the original. But that is not the way to see the relation between original and copy. The creation of the copy is not the creation of any work; it is the creation of a copy of an existing work. The aesthetic equivalence between original and copy is not the aesthetic equality of two works. Rather, it consists in the fact that the copy is as good a means of appreciating the aesthetic properties of the work as the original canvas is.  

Greg Currie

[1]Indications of revisions present in the original but lost in the copy might be thought to make a difference here. To simplify, let us consider only cases where the autograph copy provides no evidence of such revision. Certainly, it would be hard to argue that, from the point of view of understanding the process of revision, a chemically identical copy would do worse than the original autograph.

Open Copies and power and mind I. (0 replies)
Ana Leonor Rodrigues, Oct 21, 2004 12:41 UT
Close Unanswered questions  
Jose Luis Guijarro
Oct 18, 2004 16:25 UT

I am lost! It seems to me that we have passed from the socio-cultural frame (Denis Dutton), to the philosophical one (Roger Pouivet), and have ended up in the theological one (Gregory Currie): “forgery is a bad thing”. This, I take it, must necessary have to do with God and one of his commandments, THOU SHALT NOT LIE!

How silly of me who thought this discussion was mainly a cognitive endeavour!

Anyway, let me try some (probably misplaced) comments on the present paper. First, it looks as if Currie would place the cognitive value we attribute to an art object (whatever that is!) in the human effort with which it has been construed (i.e., “[…] the painstaking work of Leonardo […] vs. […] the pressing of a button […]”). This would fit with the general idea that considers elaborativity a necessary condition for producing artistic experiences (see, for instance, Ellen Dissanayake, 2000: What is Art for?). In which case, some experiences, like a sunset, a landscape, a living being, and so on, could never be experienced artistically.

Secondly, although the author tries to show the difference between what happens in literature and in plastic arts, he ends up by saying that a good copy may produce the same aesthetic experience as the real thing, as a novel we may read in handwriting, hard back edition or pocket edition. I confess I am unable to understand what he tries to say, but he has indeed made me think of something, maybe indirectly. Let me explain.

One of my most impressive artistic impressions was when I unexpectedly discovered Mark Rothko’s paintings in the Tate Gallery, ages ago. Another strong one, happened when I spent a few days in a Picasso retrospective in Paris while he was still alive. I have also had similar experiences with Velázquez, Tàpies and Paul Klee. But, as far as I am aware, I never had them when looking at reproductions of works in good art books. In that case, all I know is that I can’t stand Dalí or Chirico, but I enjoy Magritte. I also know that I value highly Vassarely and Barcelo, but I don’t pay attention to Botero or Constable.

I can’t explain this double phenomenon: (1) I only have strongly experienced art when pictures were in the right environment (i.e., a museum or an exhibition). I don’t know whether I would have had it if the pictures had been exact copies (or fakes!). My guess is that I would.

(2) Although I have seen hardly a few or even none of some of the other mentioned artists’ paintings, but only copies of them (and not even perfect copies at that), I am quite sure that my positive or negative evaluations concerns those artists’ works.

My question is: what are the cognitive relationships between a strong artistic experience and may personal tastes? Do copies, fakes, originals, and whatnot have a relevant role in those instances? Would the environment (or rather, the mental construct we call context) have to be considered as well?

Questions, questions ...

  5 replies to Unanswered questions:
    Open Erratum +
Richard Minsky, Oct 28, 2004 10:22 UT
    Open Reply to Guijarro’s other question:
More on The Theory of Museum Finish

Richard Minsky, Oct 27, 2004 22:30 UT
    Close Reply to José Luis Guijarro’s comments
Richard Minsky
Oct 27, 2004 21:21 UT

I’ll try to answer your questions, José.

The first one comes from the other thread, and regards works created in a period style that are unique (in the sense of not being copies of existing works). You suggest that my notion that it is simultaneously original and a fraud moves between the worlds of art and society, and that these interpretations are somehow not compatible.

One of the things I was pointing out is that art during the XX century fuzzed the boundaries between disciplines, or “worlds.” The concepts of artistic intention expanded to include economics, philosophy, social commentary, etc. The art factory replaced the hand of the artist in some works, and the questions of originality of image and attribution became the subject of certain movements. So my question was whether a creation that would be considered fraud in the social sense you mention (like forged banknotes) becomes something else when consciously done as an artistic gesture.

I do believe that the “imitation” of Renaissance style done today produces a different work than one executed then, even if the artist mixes the pigments and media by hand according to old recipes, and uses hand-woven canvas. The concept behind the work is different. The artist brings knowledge of the intervening centuries. The intention is different. And the molecules are not that old, so it is chemically different no matter how you try to make it the same.

The second issue you raise is about my comment that “imitation is a necessary condition of both forgery and reproduction”. I didn’t say imitation is always “bad.” To the contrary, Holbrook’s performance was excellent. Your notion of biological imitation being different from artistic imitation is interesting. I am not sure about that, or even whether either is different from a photocopier. Perhaps we can table that discussion until December, after the conference here on Mirron Neurons (see for details).

The final questions you raise are about my Theory of Museum Finish, and whether it explains why you did not have an aesthetic experience with the Giotto reproductions, but felt you might if faced with the originals. Perhaps it was that the illustrations of the works lacked the surface treatment that gives the originals “Museum Finish.”

It also may be that you are sensitive to the vibes that only exist in the original objects touched by the artist. Some people feel the vibes and others don’t, or are not conscious of them. Are those vibes transmitted through the ordering of the molecules in the Work? Do the subtle manipulations of matter create the vibrations like a stylus on a vinyl record, or a laser on a cd? Or do they get transmitted through the unconscious using materials that are not on the periodic table of elements? Do cords of energy connect the unconscious to objects through time and space, such as those called Aka in the Hawaiian system of Huna?

    Open Comments on Minsky's responses
Jose Luis Guijarro, Oct 23, 2004 19:50 UT
    Open The Theory of Museum Finish
Richard Minsky, Oct 23, 2004 11:38 UT
Open copies and possession of properties (5 replies)
John Zeimbekis, Oct 18, 2004 12:51 UT
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