Basking

Paul Seabright

  • The Forger’s Art edited by Denis Dutton
    California, 276 pp, £18.00, June 1984, ISBN 0 520 04341 3
  • Of Mind and Other Matters by Nelson Goodman
    Harvard, 210 pp, £14.90, April 1984, ISBN 0 674 63125 0
  • Fact, Fiction and Forecast by Nelson Goodman
    Harvard, 131 pp, £4.20, April 1984, ISBN 0 674 29071 2
  • But is it art? by B.R. Tilghman
    Blackwell, 193 pp, £15.00, August 1984, ISBN 0 631 13663 0

One evening last September, millions of viewers watched three young men forge a Modigliani sculpture live on Italian television. Three things distinguished the programme from other forgers’ At Homes, such as the BBC’s regular visits to the studio of Tom Keating (a sale of whose work had raised £274,000 at Christie’s that very day). The men were undergoing a public trial of their claim to be the sculptors of one of the three heads found underwater in the Fosso Reale in Leghorn in July, and declared by a hallelujah chorus of critics to be among ‘the crowning achievements of Modigliani’s oeuvre’. Unlike Keating, the three had had no training in artistic technique. And their method of producing Modigliani forgeries – including the one that had been described by Cesare Brandi, one of Italy’s most prestigious critics, as having ‘an interior light, like a veilleuse’ – was to lean on an old paving slab with a Black and Decker drill. ‘Though they do not yet have the characteristic, marvellously elongated and consumptive shapes,’ Brandi continued, ‘here in these stones we see their annunciation, their presence.’

The performance on television, backed by photographs of the men holding the head before it was first dropped in the canal, convinced nearly everyone. (An exception was Mario Spagnol, who had maintained from the start that the heads were fakes, and commented wryly that the one produced on television was the finest of the four.) The sight of Brandi and so many other members of the critical establishment wiping the omelette from their eyebrows was pantomime entertainment at its finest. Whatever lessons the joke may have had for our attitude towards critics in general, some of the protagonists in this particular episode had unmistakably been asking for it. Vera Durbe, curator of the Museum of Modern Art in Leghorn, who had originally organised the dragging of the canal, had gushed that ‘you don’t have to be an expert to see that these works in front of us are masterpieces. I am absolutely sure that they are all by Modi, they are so beautiful’ – which is a slim argument even from an art critic. And Enzo Carli, a Livornese sculptor, in declaring that ‘a fake would not have these qualities; it would be more finished, more studied. These stones have a soul,’ was laying banana skins with a Walter Raleighesque flourish along his own path.

Not everyone had been taken in. Ambrogio Ceroni, the leading authority on Modigliani, was always sceptical. Federico Zeri had described the works as ‘horrors’. The sculptor’s daughter Jeanne declared that the heads were not by her father (in a bizarre twist to the story, she was killed falling downstairs shortly afterwards, a fact which did not escape morbid comment in the Italian press). Nor did the televised dénouement entirely turn the tables. Discretion was not the better part of Vera, who held her ground and complained of a conspiracy. The most straightforward of those unmoved was Professor Giulio Argan, who maintained that the heads were probably genuine, but even so were no more than the artist’s juvenilia, deservedly jettisoned by him, and not worthy of the fuss either way.

Perhaps he is right. Some critics have overreached themselves, but what of it? It happens all the time in all areas of expertise, and no more shows the hollowness of expert knowledge than a few bent or incompetent coppers show the dispensability of the police. Others find such episodes fascinating, thinking they challenge our whole framework of aesthetic understanding. In between, those who deal in art works are daily aware that forgery is very big business indeed, in terms of volume as well as revenue. The number of fake Modiglianis alone in private American collections is (of course) only to be guessed at – but figures upward of three thousand have not been thought ridiculous. Economics, then, as well as sociology, are much illuminated by forgery scandals – but do they reveal anything about aesthetics?

Philosophers of art have gnawed on this one for many years, with little success. The Forger’s Art is both product and symptom of this unsatisfactory state of affairs. The editor has wisely focused the book on a specific case – namely, the Vermeer forgeries of the 1930s and early 1940s by Han van Meegeren. It is useful to be reminded in the process how forgery actually works. Critics who trip themselves up are not just a side-show but a part of the institution itself: van Meegeren, like many competent forgers, would study the academic output of leading critics in order to tailor his paintings to exactly what they were expecting to find in undiscovered Vermeers. Again, too many critics have adopted in practice (though never, of course, in theory) what Nelson Goodman once labelled the Tingle-Immersion theory, which treats art as the thinking man’s jacuzzi, and supposes that the way to settle the historical question of origin is by a sophisticated process of basking. The van Meegeren case also illustrates how stylistic clues invisible to one generation may become clumsily obvious to the next: even Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus, his best painting, would not now fool any competent critic, while some of the later output is an embarrassment. The reason is not just wisdom after the event. The Vermeer corpus is much better known and analysed now than it was in the Thirties – and critics evaluating the later forgeries were hindered by their previous acceptance of some van Mee-gerens among the oeuvre. Certain features of style (geometricisation, for example) now appear to us characteristic of the Thirties and inappropriate to Vermeer; critics then, for whom the style was as much a way of looking at the world as of looking at paintings, would not have seen the discrepancy (but might have had a keener eye for some forgeries that fool us now). Once a chain of forgeries had been accepted the way was open to many more: ‘we all slid downwards – from the Emmaus, from Isaac to the Footwashing,’ the critic Hoogendijk said.

Van Meegeren painted ten successful Vermeer forgeries in all, which might have remained undiscovered for much longer had one of them not found its way into Hermann Goering’s private collection. At the end of the war van Meegeren (who was traced as having dealt him the picture) was charged with collaboration, and to save himself confessed to the lesser crime of forgery. The trial took place in a courtroom lined with what had till then been considered some of Holland’s finest national treasures, and proved that, then as now, forgery makes splendid theatre. Van Meegeren, in poor health, received the minimum one-year sentence, but died within two months.

After the opening essay’s account of the van Meegeren case, The Forger’s Art launches itself with an article called ‘What is wrong with a forgery?’ – a theme that is echoed by the remaining pieces. Two hundred or so more pages don’t leave us much the wiser. I think the reason must lie with the question itself, which either invites the answer ‘nothing’ (thereby committing us to a dubious thesis about its unimportance) or seems to demand a specifically moral or aesthetic account of forgery, without illuminating how these considerations fit into our understanding of the institution as a whole. It presupposes, in other words, that the most important feature of a forgery is whatever is ‘wrong’ with it. There is some laboured discussion of the unsurprising assertion that forgery may be morally reprehensible to the extent that it involves deception. And an extract from Nelson Goodman’s Languages of Art starts a fruitless argument about whether we can state categorically that an original and a forgery are indistinguishable. Goodman argues that we can’t, on the grounds that apparently indistinguishable works may come to be distinguishable in time. He deliberately avoids answering the more interesting question, whether and how the mere discovery that a work is forged should in itself affect our evaluation of it. Other contributors line up in various ways on this issue: some argue that directly perceptible qualities are all that count, while others stress that historical context is crucial for giving a work of art its aesthetic meaning. Even where this is not just an argument about the application of the term ‘aesthetic’, the substantive points are not taken very far (except, in snatches, in an interesting if idiosyncratic essay by Francis Sparshott). Many contributors simply appeal to the importance of ‘originality’ in art, as if this solved rather than re-labelled the problem.

A serious and long-standing omission from the whole debate is an examination of what the notion of forgery is doing in art in the first place. Why do we make such distinctions? Once we do make them we are equipped to go on and make others – such as (perhaps) that between more and less valuable, or Goodman’s distinction between ‘autographic’ and ‘allographic’ arts: ‘Let us speak of a work of art as autographic if and only if the distinction between original and forgery of it is significant; or better, if and only if even the most exact duplication of it does not thereby count as genuine. If a work of art is autographic, we may also call that art autographic. Thus painting is autographic, music non-autographic, or allographic.’ Goodman has later modified this to the requirement that the identification of an instance of an autographic work of art be independent of the history of its production. Whether a work is autographic is related, though not identical, to whether some kind of notation exists for it: Paradise Lost, for example, can be exhaustively specified in the notation of the Roman alphabet, and it makes no sense to suppose that there could be a forgery of the work (there might exist a forged manuscript, or lines falsely purporting to be a lost fragment of the original poem – but a poem that is a faithful reproduction of Paradise Lost is a genuine instance of that work, however it has come to be produced).

Evidently such a distinction presupposes rather than explains the notion of forgery itself. But looking at the way the distinction operates may yet illuminate the underlying notion. In Languages of Art, for example, Goodman appended to his account of music as allographic a note saying that ‘there may indeed be forgeries of performances.’ They ‘purport to be by a certain musician etc; but these, if in accordance with the score, are nevertheless genuine instances of the work.’ Since Goodman wrote, digital recording techniques have provided a notation for musical performances, raising the possibility that our practice itself may change. A digital recording that exactly matched the recording of a Karajan performance of the Pastoral Symphony might come to be considered an instance of that (recorded) performance – irrespective of whether it was produced by legitimate copying, by computer theft or by monkeys on a synthesiser. Unauthorised copying might amount to breach of copyright, but hardly to forgery. A similar but more far-reaching change can be envisaged by considering the repercussions of a technological breakthrough that may occur within a few decades: namely, the development of a digital recording and reproduction technique for certain physical objects, including paintings and sculptures. Recordings of such objects would become not only possible but even desirable as a safeguard against physical deterioration. One can imagine the digital record (a privileged version of which might be deposited with a kind of Patent Office) coming to be considered the work itself, like a poem or a musical score. Faithful copies would no longer necessarily be labelled forgeries. This might in turn have all kinds of effect, from reducing the economic premium on so-called original works to making us revise our understanding of the qualities that an artist creates in his work. But the motivation for our change of practice would be an over-whelmingly pragmatic one. It would in no way reflect a belief that the development of a new notational technique had fundamentally altered the nature of artistic creativity.

The point is important because emphasis on the forgery of painting and sculpture has given undeserved credence to the view that what is essential (and essentially wrong) about forgery is that it distorts the intentions involved in creating a work of art. Van Meegeren’s achievement, on this view, was no more than skilful pastiche; what he was trying to do was essentially different from what moved Vermeer, just as a forger might copy a Seurat dot by dot without having the remotest understanding of what Seurat himself was doing. Forgery in this light is the manipulation of aesthetic syntax without semantic understanding. The superficial attractiveness of such a view fades when we look at examples further afield, such as those that involve changing technologies of notation. An art such as etching makes the case even more plainly: a forgery of an etching may be made from the original plate, if it is made by unauthorised means. It may even be made by the same printer, who after runing off the authorised edition lays in a few extra copies for himself. He may lose count of where the originals end and the forgeries begin, so his intentions at the time have little relevance to the classification. (This is not to make the fashionable claim that intentions are aesthetically irrelevant, merely to deny that they are constitutive of originality.)

The example of etching underlines the fact that our practice of distinguishing original works from forgeries is meant to do a certain institutional job, not to capture some metaphysical difference between two kinds of object (such as those that have the artistic tingle and those that don’t). It also strongly suggests that the institutional job it does is principally an economic one. Limiting numbers of etchings from a plate is only an explicit way of doing what demarcating ‘original’ works in the other arts achieves more subtly: namely, the creation of an artificial monopoly to restrict the supply of an object in demand, in the interests of driving up its price (sometimes the two methods interact to create a two-tier monopoly, as in limited edition reproductions). Any monopoly reaps profits because restricting supply forces those consumers to declare themselves who are willing to pay over the odds. Artistic monopolies benefit additionally because, for largely though not entirely snobbish reasons, there are many consumers whose willingness to pay is itself increased by the knowledge that the supply is limited.

Authentication of origin, then, serves in important ways like copyright or the issue of patents – and this helps to explain why what is important about van Meegeren’s forgeries is not their intentional pastiche, their craven imitation of a style. Although the term ‘self-parody’ is in common use, ‘self-pastiche’ for some reason is not – but many artists who develop an original style early in life spend much of their careers creating works that would be considered pastiche if produced by others. This may explain why some have proved embarrassingly easy to forge. While the very greatest artists (like Beethoven and Picasso) have often been those who were never content to stick with a winning formula, the fact that others did has not made their works less authentic. In the same way a firm patenting a new design may reap profits from its temporary monopoly even though the later manufacturing stages involve no novelty, nothing that competitors could not duplicate with ease.

In a world where selling works for their beauty or their contemporary symbolism alone yields a far from secure living, the economic purpose of such monopoly practices is by no means necessarily malign. Significantly, those artists who are economically secure have often been the most aware of the pragmatic and conventional nature of our practice of distinguishing original works from forgeries. Picasso, a multi-millionaire by virtue of his private collection of his own paintings alone, is said to have been asked by a friend to authenticate a series of paintings recently acquired by a third party. As Picasso pronounced them one by one to be forgeries, the friend became increasingly alarmed, until finally he protested that he had himself seen Picasso at work on one of the disowned canvases. ‘C’est vrai,’ replied the artist., ‘Il m’ arrive de temps en temps de faire un faux Picasso.’

But the excessive awe with which the distinction is generally treated has certainly had malign effects, and has contributed to the growth of the museum culture which Nelson Goodman eloquently and passionately attacks in one of the more interesting essays in his mixed bag of writings, Of Mind and Other Matters. He asks us to imagine the effect of running libraries the way we run museums, with ‘no tables, desks or cubicles, and seldom any chairs except for the guards ... no open shelves, and no books circulate. In each reading room, certain of the most important books are set out on separate pedestals, against the wall and behind a rail that keeps readers about four feet away, pages being turned by remote control. Frequently groups of children are led through the room while a docent lectures about the books.’ A shop at the entrance ‘does a brisk business selling small (and of course unreadable) plaster reproductions of some of the more important volumes’. Like many of Goodman’s arguments in this volume, this is put to both brilliant and outrageous uses. He is far less specific and less convincing about how to run a museum than about how not to run one. But the success of museums like Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge shows there is great scope for imaginative rethinking along the lines he suggests.

Nobody would maintain that the economic purpose of distinguishing originals from forgeries was the sole justification for the practice. But some of the others can easily be overplayed. Goodman as well as several contributors to the Dutton volume have it in for both reproductions and pastiches because they are frequently poor, misrepresenting many of the subtler qualities that distinguish really outstanding works. Quality control is one of the oldest (and most abused) justifications for monopoly, as a chat with any solicitor about conveyancing will confirm. The improving quality of artistic reproductions is an entirely welcome development, and the economic threat it poses to producers is nothing over which we consumers should lose any sleep.

There remains the justification of historical accuracy. Naturally it makes a great difference to our understanding of Vermeer to know that he did not paint Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus, and it is not mere antiquarian pedantry to care about getting such things right. The novelty, vision and significance of a 17th-century work would rightly be judged very differently from those of an identical work painted three centuries later, because they spring from different contexts and ways of looking at the world. The same would be true of works of, say, anthropology, though passing off 20th-century books as 17th-century is a much less popular, because less lucrative activity than art forgery. But there are three qualifications. First, some questions of attribution have much less historical significance than others. I have not seen the Modigliani heads except in photographs, but I doubt that their authenticity or otherwise makes any difference to our understanding of the artist or his work. There are many minor Victorian politicians on the authenticity of whose correspondence more momentous issues turn. Secondly, the premium paid on original works usually vastly overstates the historical importance of their attribution. Perhaps paying extra money for a canvas merely because it was painted by Modigliani makes sense. But so does buying it merely because it once belonged to the Beatles.

Thirdly, correct attribution to a school or period may be much more important than attribution to an individual. As a result of preoccupation with the idea of genius, the history of art has been slower than mainstream history to move away from understanding the past as the stamping-ground of great individuals. Compare the space devoted in any exhibition catalogue to questions of individual attribution with that devoted to the political and social significance of the symbolism in each work. What is necessary is not, of course, the banishment of an individual perspective altogether in the face of impersonal forces of history. But instead of thinking that we value works of art because we find genius in them, we would better say that we find genius in them because we value them. And there may be no single or simple reason why we value all the activities we bring under the heading of art. Genius is often little more than the compliment acquisitiveness pays to monopoly.

When we try to analyse what is common to works of art that are great or original (in the evaluative rather than the classificatory sense of that term), we rapidly run up against a variety of qualities that resist assimilation. Perhaps the most that can be said of artistic originality is that it has a capacity to arrest the attention, to hold the wandering imagination briefly but willingly captive. But the qualities which may do that are legion. If we explain that our attention is captured because we perceive originality, we explain nothing: it would be more honest to say that we believe we perceive originality because our attention is captured.

Reversing priorities in the manner of this argument is a popular tactic among philosophers, and can be tiresomely overdone. But anyone doubting its salutary potential in aesthetics should read B.R. Tilghman’s But is it art? This book outlines a pragmatic approach that has many affinities with the one I have been discussing. It considers aesthetics in the light of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, a work that has spawned some abuse of the tactic, as well as much impenetrable prose. Tilghman’s lucid and constructive book contains neither. The author’s explicit aim is a modest one, to nudge us out of the attachment to theories and definitions of art, but not by saying ‘that a philosophical theory or definition of art is impossible; I don’t know what would show that ... What I have been trying to argue is that the very idea of a theory or definition is a confused one ... the problems theories were to solve are really practical ones to which theory is not relevant.’ But the book delivers far more than the snipings of a sceptic. Tilghman recognises that the question ‘what is art?’ is often posed, not in a mood of dreamy theorising, but to help in resolving specific practical problems of how to react to objects whose artistic status is uncertain. He considers not so much forgery (the omission is a pity) as the shocking and the self-consciously avant-garde. The Carl André bricks whose photograph is reproduced on the front cover are a case in point. Post-Wittgensteinian aesthetics has often taken facile ways out, exploiting anti-theory to the point where art is what anyone chooses to call it, or arguing like W.E. Kennick that ‘we are able to separate those objects which are works of art from those which are not, because we know English.’

Tilghman is not one for whom Wittgenstein’s words that philosophy ‘leaves everything as it is’ mean that linguistic practice has no normative implications that clear thinking may illuminate. He recognises that some kinds of avant-garde (especially minimalist or neo-Dada) art can pose a real problem: the plain man’s reaction of puzzlement is not one for sophisticates to mock. He suggests merely that theory is not the best place to seek illumination; the proper injunction is a practical one to ‘look and see’. He cites Roger Fry’s defence of Post-Impressionism in 1910 as a fine example of this practical way of understanding the unfamiliar. The Post-Impressionists, wrote Fry, were ‘in revolt against the photographic vision of the 19th century, and even against the tempered realism of the last four hundred years ... We think of Giotto as a preparation for a Titianesque climax, forgetting that with every piece of representational mechanism the artist acquired, he both gained new possibilities of expression and lost other possibilities.’ Fry compared Cézanne (for instance) to Giotto, Mantegna and Piero della Francesca. But his defence was not an argument as such, writes Tilghman. What he is doing is ‘showing us how to look at Céezanne so that we will see his value for ourselves. He helps us to do this by pointing out likenesses between his work and aspects of the artistic tradition with which we are already familiar despite those aspects having been neglected in the then prevalent view of art history.’ Naturally this does not explain why, once we discover such affinities, we consider Cézanne’s work fruitful, rather than thinking it atavism or pastiche. But the clear implication is that the search for a general theory of such things is misconceived.

The absence of general theory need not induce an insipid tolerance when making judgments of specific works. Tilghman is dismissive of so-called ‘conceptual’ works (those that seek to represent the ‘idea’ of something in divorce from all its possible physical and aesthetic properties), precisely because the ‘look and see’ injunction will not work for them. There is no way to make ‘connections between the new and puzzling and the old and familiar’, for the very art form seeks to destroy the possibility of such connections. Since the realm of the aesthetic is, broadly, the realm in which these connections make sense, Tilghman is in no doubt that the modern ‘divorce of art from the aesthetic was a disaster’.

There are times when, to distinguish his view from others, Tilghman goes very astray. In an attempt to prevent art theory from creeping in at the back door via ‘the thesis that all artistically relevant descriptions are interpretations,’ he writes that this thesis requires there to be ‘something that is interpreted and is identified under a description that differs from the interpretation’. The very motivation for the argument he thus misrepresents is that description just is interpretation, the citing of an individual as a member of a class identified by a general term. It is odd that a follower of Wittgenstein, whose use of the word ‘interpretation’ had precisely this sense, should so miss the point. As one would expect in a discussion of a cryptic and elusive writer like Wittgenstein, there are many points where Tilghman’s account will seem tendentious; the margins of my copy are embroidered with dissent. He often prefers sharp to graded contrasts: in an intriguing discussion of the differences between primary and secondary senses of words, he takes primary senses to be those that are taught, those where correctness of use can be established, those that have criteria of application. Secondary uses (which underly the notion of metaphor, and which he likens to the phenomenon of ‘aspect perception’) have no criteria; they make more complex or arcane connections; they cannot be taught. What he thus represents as a division is better seen as a spectrum (children are taught the meaning of a word like ‘heart’ in a very complex way, in which metaphorical uses play an important part). So there is more rhetoric than substance in his conclusion that art – which involves centrally the imaginative vision of aspects and secondary senses, a pointing to connections for which there are no rules except our inclination to see them – may be considered, ‘paronymously, as a secondary activity’.

The deep philosophical questions posed by the many ways in which, in our urge to classify, we perceive similarities between the diverse objects in our world have nowhere been given finer treatment than in Nelson Goodman’s Fact, Fiction and Forecast. In the thirty years since it was first published, this has deservedly come to be considered one of the classic works of post-war philosophy. It now appears in a fourth edition; its vigour and the relevance of its arguments to contemporary concerns are as impressive as ever. Readers wanting an introduction to Goodman should stick to this book, and resist the enticements on the cover of Of Mind and Other Matters. Much of the latter collection discusses Goodman’s previous work with a circle of insiders, and betrays one of the failings of success: a weakness for thinking that his views will be found interesting simply because they are his.

Where it would be of real importance to know Goodman’s views is on the connection between his celebrated ‘new riddle of induction’ in Fact, Fiction and Forecast and the ‘sceptical interpretation’ of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations advanced by Saul Kripke a couple of years ago. In a new foreword to this fourth edition, Hilary Putnam mentions the parallel, but does not develop it. It is important because a formally identical argument is put to subtly different uses in the two books. Both show that similarities between the known and the unknown cannot be invoked independently of, and used to explain, our tendency to predict and perceive such similarities. But for Kripke’s Wittgenstein this is an argument about meaning, and one from which nothing systematic can be salvaged. For Goodman, who combines scepticism about system-building with a great love for doing it, no challenge is posed to the meaning of the terms in our language. And the attempt to construct justified scientific hypotheses in a systematic manner continues chastened but unchecked. Even if philosophical arguments were the kind of thing that could be forged, the differences of approach between these two great books would be evident enough to remove any suspicion of inauthenticity in either. And it is quite safe to say that neither bears any mark of the Black and Decker drill.