27 July 2014

Ever Get the Feeling You've Been Cheated?

From Axel Nagel's recent essay "Beyond the Relic Cult of Art", at the Brooklyn Rail:

"In contrast to copying for training purposes, which proceeds from the premise that the lessons of the model could and should be applied in the present, copying them as artifacts proceeds from exactly the opposite premise, that the model is foreign, that art has moved irreversibly in new directions. In reproducing the strokes made by the original artist, I relive them as a series of decisions, decisions that were natural for him and are not for me. It is not just that his individual style is different from mine. If it is old enough, the entire period style, the very premises on which he worked, are different. The strange quality of a sleeve, therefore, and my resistance to it, prompt questions about the otherness of those times generally."

Nagel's essay is the latest in a series on the topic of art forgeries appearing at the Rail under the umbrella of The Held Essays On Visual Arts. The series on forgeries apparently kicked off in response to critic Blake Gopnik’s recent NYT essay, “In Praise of Art Forgeries”; including (so far) a riposte essay from Alva Noë, a counter-response from Gopnik, another essay by David Geers, with Nagel weighing in recently.

Frankly, I find the Gopnik essays abysmal (about which, the less said the better).  But they nonetheless touched off a debate. And what followed with the responses from Noë and Geers is fairly basic stuff for anyone who’s ever given the matter much thought, or read any previous discussion on the topic. Because there’s a body of literature on this very topic already, one that stacked up throughout the twentieth century, most of it penned by philosophers and aestheticians of the academic stripe. And for already familiar with these debates, the Held essays read like a casual, 101-er recap. Concerning the usual questions about authenticity and originally. About the singularity of a work of art (particularly in the case of painting) as executed by one hand, as weighed against a copy made by other hands. Also too about the matter of the intention of the maker, not only as it relates to expression but also to how a work might be the result of the artist’s search for a solution to a certain creative “problem.” And then come difficult questions about the valuation of art works – be it the “aesthetic value” of a work as perceived or derived by the viewer (who might not know that they are dealing with a fake), or the monetary value assigned to the work because of its supposed singularity (as paid by some overly-eager collector who might not know that they are purchasing a fake).

The former instance is where things get slippery, because it’s where the discussion starts venturing out of the domain of the merely aesthetic and down another philosophic avenue – the one called ethics. Because no matter how much postmodernism might’ve made us jaded about notions of “sincerity” and “originality” and the like, most people (even hair-splitting academic aestheticians) still agree on is that deceiving or defrauding other people is a shitty, shitty thing to do. Which, once you get down to the brass tacks, is the only intention or “creative solution” that a forger has in mind when they go to work.

Nagel’s essay is a welcome step outside of this unresolved debate, reframing the questions surround copies and forgeries in a broader historical context. Yes, the act of copying was once less stigmatized; but those were much different times. And yes, forgeries are very much a response to a particular type of art market. And as the recent Rothko/AbEx forgery scandal has demonstrated, it’s an enterprise that always rushes in when there’s a bubbling market.

What I’ve noticed over the years is that there’s something completely absent from discussion on this topic; something that I think would be very central to discussion surrounding artistic intention and “problem solving”. That being: Yes, it’s a process that involves a great deal of thought, contemplation, sweat in the execution stages and any number of erasures and doings-over. But that same process can also involve a number of other, less taxing things – like whimsy, irony, spontaneity, and (as they say) jouissance. The act of copying or forging, with all its slavish technical concerns and formulae-aping, doesn’t allow room for such things.

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