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Authentic Art and Creative Preservation

Publié le 1 juin, 2008 | Pas de commentaires

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Authentic artworks compel recognition, respect, and protection. Unless mistaken for the real thing, forgeries typically don’t. Philosophers have provided numerous accounts of the importance of aesthetic authenticity, conceptions of what constitutes authenticity in art, and suggestions for how the art community ought to deal with authentic works. What is the significance of a crack in a statue? What impact can a torn canvas or a revitalized cerulean have upon our understanding of an artwork’s authenticity?

Authentic Art and Creative Preservation , Metropolitan Museum Ceiling
Hobvias Sudoneighm, Authentic Art and Creative
Preservation,Metropolitan Museum Ceiling
, 2005
Certains droits réservés.

Picture yourself leaning in to straighten Picasso’s Le Fumeur on your wall, before stepping back to admire it. This is the first time you have been close enough to notice Picasso’s name penciled in the bottom right-hand corner. Now picture standing in front of Michelangelo’s famous Pietà, a marble sculpture of the crucified Christ on his mother’s lap. It is exactly how reproductions have led you to imagine it. These cases have something in common: they raise the question of why authenticity matters in the art world 1. But they are also distinct: the first draws attention to the connection between authenticity and forgery, the second to the impact of authenticity on restorative work.

In March of 2008, Spanish and American authorities charged a group of art counterfeiters for using eBay to sell forgeries of ‘limited-edition prints’ from such artists as Warhol, Dalí, Chagall, and Picasso 2. Hundreds of collectors in Canada and elsewhere spent millions of dollars on the fakes, complete with forged signatures, mistaking them for authentic originals.

In May of 1972, Michelangelo’s Pietà was severely damaged by fifteen hammer blows. The restoration that followed was contentious: the question of whether or how to restore the original work without interfering with its authenticity was central. In repairing the Pietà, Professor Deoclecio Redig de Campostook pains to use only materials that would be identifiable under ultraviolet light. By doing so, he left a trace of both the vandalism and the repairs while maintaining the Pietà’s original appearance to be observed in its current setting: naturally lit, behind bullet-proof glass. De Campos meant to satisfy both observers’ desires to see the Pietà in its traditional form and art critics’ insistence on distinguishing between original and post-original work.

When approaching famous artworks, particularly those housed in museums and galleries, our aesthetic evaluation of their quality tends to be more immediately apparent than questions of authenticity. We don’t typically start by evaluating an artwork’s authenticity; usually aesthetic appreciation comes first. But if at any point we find reason to doubt that an artwork is the authentic one (perhaps by finding out that an ‘original’ is actually a forgery or a ‘restored artwork’ is actually more the work of a restorer than of the original artist), our aesthetic appreciation of it can be called into question or put on hold. Although continued appreciation of artworks can depend on confirmations of their authenticity, what establishes a work as authentic in the first place is still philosophically at issue.

Dynamic Authenticity

Philosopher Mark Sagoff discusses the authentic artwork as established at its point of creation, and he uses the controversial Pietà as a touchstone 3. According to him, observers can use characteristics of the art form—its technique, media, and creation context—to test for authenticity, as these factors can establish the unique character of an artwork. Following the piece’s creation, for Sagoff, the artwork’s authenticity remains static. Art enthusiasts and critics alike “value the particular, substantial, actual thing; and thus they discover that the best use of a great work of art is its preservation. 4

After creation, for Sagoff, the artwork’s authenticity can only be either maintained or destroyed. It can be neither furthered nor fruitfully improved in any way. As the artwork is exposed to various external influences (aging, environments, observation, use, travel, etc.) it may be necessarily subject to alteration. The authentic work may lose limbs as a result of vandalism or gain undertones of colour as a result of cracking paint. Sagoff makes it clear that the best response to these risks is prevention. The artwork is best left untouched, preserved in its initial state to the greatest possible degree. If repairs are ever necessary, they ought to be restorative rather than re-creative, emphasizing whatever remains ‘original’ about the piece.

Sagoff isn’t the only one who thinks this way. Many of us find this damage-control approach intuitive. Presumably many curators and art restorers do too.

Consider the contrary example of philosopher Martin Heidegger who affirms the importance of the original creation of the piece 5. For him, the creation of the artwork is bound up with the way the truth of the art, in a larger sense, is revealed and established. Unlike Sagoff, Heidegger claims that the life of an artwork inevitably involves change of some kind, and that such change may be welcomed, or at the very least not feared. Attempts to preserve what an artwork is at creation are not only exceedingly difficult, but also evidence of a denial of the temporality of the artwork. If we view an artwork’s life as extending beyond creation, we have to allow for changes in the work over time. The work can respond to changes in its environment by becoming newly relevant, differently encountered, refreshingly applied.

For Heidegger, then, what makes an artwork authentic can change over time, given changes to the work itself. The authentic artwork is not wholly determined by factors established at creation. Both the artwork and its authenticity are dynamic.

Perishables and Preservatives

When judging the authenticity of an artwork, we might look for characteristics which, while absent at creation, have notably added to the mark of the work later on. Examples abound. Think of the armless Venus de Milo. Or the sooted Sistine ceiling 6. Or even the fictional prosthetic-limbed David in the 2006 film Children of Men 7. A visibly aged or damaged statue or painting can become recognized as the authentic work partly due to the wears of time. Without these historical markers, we might not even know how to recognize a work as authentic.

Characterizing authenticity in art as Sagoff does troublingly treats artworks as though they lack (or should lack) a historical life altogether. Sagoff views authentic artworks as having completed their process of development by the time the creative act is over. This prevents future development, denying works temporal lives. Resistance to the perishing of artworks is evidence of an unwillingness to treat them as objects that develop over time. The art community’s establishment of the ‘timelessness’ of some works, whether subtly by description or strongly by canonization, reflects a static understanding of authenticity.

Artworks are better interpreted in their historical trajectory, and to some extent, this means conceiving of change as a welcome part of the artwork’s life. Heidegger actually goes so far as to say that the kind of material used in the creation of artwork “is all the better and more suitable the less it resists perishing. 8” The perishable nature of the raw materials, according to Heidegger, further expresses an artwork’s historicity. Artists like Damien Hirst and Dieter Roth and have taken up such materials deliberately in their work. Hirst’s use of dead animals (like a shark and a sheep) and Roth’s use of edible materials (like chocolate and cheese) emphasize perishability in art. Even if we sometimes object to Heidegger’s penchant for perishability in practice, denying the relevance of artworks’ histories remains problematic.

Sagoff portrays artworks only as passive recipients of external aid or affliction—created, observed, preserved, maintained, or damaged. For Heidegger, when artworks are instead taken as historical beings (rather than mere objects), they are encountered differently and more fruitfully so. An artwork encountered as a historical being is one encouraged in ongoing development, in terms of its authenticity and otherwise.

For Heidegger, the role of the aesthetic community is not to restrict and dominate artworks by forcing them to exist only as initially created, but rather to facilitate the work’s development post-creation.

Aesthetic Responsibility

Once we reorient our understanding in this way, the authenticity development of art can be seen as an issue of social concern and responsibility. Taking responsibility involves recognizing and supporting the creative preservation of artworks. Creation and preservation are crucially interdependent in the life of an artwork, and both are required for its authenticity development. Aesthetic responsibility requires that the art community foster further creative preservation as a working interchange.

If preserving artworks isn’t just about protecting them, but also (or more so) about letting them emerge in new ways over time, then the aesthetic community has to take seriously the issue of how support and recognition are given to artists doing preservative work. The need for this kind of work isn’t news to the art community: such work has long been undertaken, even when poorly funded or scarcely recognized. Well beyond what may traditionally be considered preservative work, examples include the translating of literary works, the re-curating of visual art in a gallery or museum, the re-arranging of orchestral works, the re-choreographing of dance pieces, the re-making or re-directing of films, the re-staging or re-casting of dramatic works, the re-framing or re-matting of a picture, and the innovative re-combining of media, digital and otherwise, in the re-recording of a play and similar projects. This kind of work is creative preservation, and it is already valued in a variety of ways.

Doing justice to an artwork requires its creative preservation and the furthering of its authenticity. The aesthetic community is responsible for fostering this kind of work. Preservation as creative reinterpretation is not only highly valuable, but art also deserves this kind of response 9.


1. The question is taken up widely by philosophers of art. For a helpful overview, see Denis Dutton. “Authenticity in Art.” The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics. Ed. Jerron Levinson. Oxford: Oxford U.P.,2003: 258-274.
2. For a full report, see Graham Keeley and Martin Hodgson. “Art Forgery Operation Broken Up by FBI and Spanish Police.” http://arts.guardian.co.uk/art/news/story/0,,2266799,00.html
Accessed 6 May 2008.
3. Sagoff, Mark. “On Restoring and Reproducing Art.” The Journal of Philosophy 75.9 (1975): 453-470.
4. Sagoff 463.
5. Heideggar, Martin. “The Origin of the Work of Art.” Basic Writings. Ed. David Farrell Krell. New York: Harper and Row, 1977: 149-187.
6. There is extensive and important controversy over issues of cleaning (both of method and motivation) the ceiling paintings of the Sistine Chapel. My point here is only to claim that sometimes the damage or dirt that impacts a work of art over time becomes part of what the public will use to recognize it in the future.
7. Children of Men. Dir. Alfonso Cuaron. Universal Pictures, 2006.
8. Heideggar 171.
9. Special thanks to Jocelyn Parr, Steven Burns, Carmel Forde, Jason Holt, members of the Dalhousie Graduate Student Publication Support Group, and an engaging audience at the Atlantic Region Philosophers Association 2006 meeting in Fredericton for helpful suggestions and discussions.

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