Is a forgery ‘worth’ less than an authentic work of art?

Not a Motherwell Elegy

Why should a forgery be valued less than an authentic work of art? It’s a question that has recently been renewed for debate by Blake Gopnik (formerly of Newsweek and now at work on a biography of Andy Warhol), who wrote an op-ed for The New York Times last November titled ‘In Praise of Art Forgeries’. Gopnik makes a case for fakes as legitimate works of art by having us think of them as works that the original artists ‘happened not to have gotten around to’ making. To make such works, the argument goes, the artist-cum-forger must inhabit the ‘ideas’ of the predecessor artist, as embodied in the predecessor’s work, and if it’s the ideas that matter (as Gopnik is right to believe they do), then why concern ourselves with whose name is attached, as it would be irrelevant to the work’s effects?

It’s important to note that at the outset Gopnik makes a common distinction between two senses of ‘value’: ‘while forgery is very clearly an economic crime,’ Gopnik writes, ‘it may not always be an artistic or aesthetic one’. Economic or market value is different from artistic or aesthetic value. For Gopnik, as for many commentators on art and its markets (pretty much everyone nowadays), this is a commonplace, and it’s particularly helpful when considering the problem of fakes, as the distinction offers an easy logic: if market value is what matters, then forgeries are a problem; if aesthetic value is what matters, then they’re not. And so an argument ‘in praise of forgeries’ is really an argument condemning the market, which is what Gopnik’s piece is actually about.

But the problem here is not whether or not forgeries are (for markets) or aren’t (for art) a problem, it’s the claim that ‘value’ as such can be separated into two or more competing values. This ‘separatist thesis’, as I’ll call it, draws its energy from our habit of thinking of art and aesthetics as something other than, or opposed to, the market and economics, or to anything else for that matter. It’s an old habit, and it received its strongest articulation in Kant’s critical philosophy, where aesthetic experience involved either the recognition of something’s ‘purposive purposelessness’, which would make it ‘beautiful’, or the recog-nition of our own capacities of cognition in the face of something ‘contrapurposive’, which would make it ‘sublime’, and where, in either case, the question was one of ends as opposed to means: art, judged as such, had to be an end in itself, autonomous rather than determined, just as we are.

Separatists go wrong when they think of this autonomy – of the aesthetic or the subject – as securing a category of things, such as art, that is delinked from other categories of engagement or knowledge. Kant’s aesthetic was meant to bridge pure and practical reason; that is, how we know what we know and what we ought to do with that knowledge. Ought we to disregard who made a work of art, or when it was made, or in what milieu? Do we properly regard it if we do? Isn’t just being interested in what something looks or feels like to us by definition superficial and solipsistic (and, ideologically speaking, akin to commodification)? Such was the danger of Kant’s aesthetic autonomy to begin with: drawing everything back to a transcendental subject hazarded incoherence. What kind of subject, or art, is it that isn’t situated in the world where we and art and, most importantly, value reside?

Knowing that a work that looks like a Rothko is not one matters, not just to the market, but to the art, which is why it should matter to us. The relationship we have to a work of art is to what it’s about – not merely to what it looks or feels like to us, to whether it gives us pleasure or not, but to what it itself is wholly about. And that relationship – call it knowledge – is formed on the ongoing basis of a kind of trust, a fidelity to honest representation.

What, for example, is the value of a marriage after one learns of a spouse’s adultery? In the wake of such enlightenment, it’s only the spouse’s most superficial beauty that could remain in the eyes of the beholder (provided that extramarital gigs weren’t part of the original arrangement). It would also be a dishonest interpretation of that relationship that held it unchanged or somehow equivalent. Knowledge, in its many senses, matters.

It’s true that we can appreciate being duped or taken, but only when what we’ve ventured can be let go lightly (what are titles in the face of talent?). Adherents to the separatist thesis can let go of things like attribution, or history, because these things are of little value to them, as are prices. But the fullest sense of a work of art’s value cannot let go of these things, because the fullest sense of that value, the most honest interpretation of it, requires that both the aesthetics and the economics, as well as other things, such as history, politics, ethics, be taken into account in one coherent and mutually reinforcing assessment. Separatism can only diminish such an assessment, and so, in the end, art’s value.

This article was first published in the January/February 2014 issue of ArtReview.

Leave a Reply