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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

More on Art and Athenticity

Late last year, I blogged about a study that suggested that people find more pleasure in viewing a work of art when they are told they are looking at an original painting rather than a fake. In response to this study, philosophy graduate student Erich Matthes recently posed an interesting question: "Is our interest in authentic things justified, or do we merely possess an inherent bias in favor of the supposed Real McCoy?"

Matthes response is worth reading in its entirety, but here a few of his key points:
[W]hether or not something is authentic in the nominal sense depends on the context of assessment: while a Van Meegeren is not an authentic Vermeer, it is, of course, an authentic Van Meegeren. Thus whether the nominal authenticity of a work grants it any special value, and hence whether it is resistant to replacement, depends on a need to articulate a context of evaluative assessment. The fact that a given Van Meegeren is an inauthentic Vermeer only has evaluative relevance if we are assessing the value of the painting as a Vermeer. Absent this context, noting that the Van Meegeren is an inauthentic Vemeer is akin to noting that a painted horse is an inauthentic zebra: it is true that they are different animals, but outside a specified evaluative context, it is unclear why this fact should matter. In historical contexts, it cannot merely be the fact that an object embodies a particular history that blocks its substitutability: after all, everything has a particular history. There is consequently some sense in which all things are resistant to replacement, but it is not obvious that there is anything significant about that.

As straightforward as this point might seem, it is essential to how we should assess the value of authentic objects. As the Oxford study suggests (and experience corroborates), people are quick to increase their valuation of a given object based on an attribution of authenticity. But the mere fact that an object is authentic should not be where the evaluative buck stops—rather, it should be where evaluative reflection begins. If not, we risk an unacceptable proliferation of objects that we believe are resistant to replacement, which can serve to erode the importance of objects that truly possess this feature. The question we must ask ourselves when confronted with an object that we initially take to be resistant to replacement is whether that object is valuable in a distinctive way. This is what renders an object resistant to replacement. In contrast, if my umbrella is stolen, a replacement is precisely what I want, and inconveniences aside, I feel no regret about this. The bulk of umbrellas are all valuable in the same way, and thus they are perfectly interchangeable.

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