Art and Forgeries

by FR

A recent essay published in The Brooklyn Rail by Blake Gopnik got me thinking about a number of things–art, the experience of it, forgeries, appropriation. The text is partially a response to an essay by Alva Noë, which itself in part addressed an earlier New York Times piece by Gopnik. In this last text, published in November of last year and titled “In Praise of Art Forgeries,” Gopnik argues (no surprises here) in defense of forgeries–needless to say, a contentious position. He makes the following points: forgeries could be thought of as artworks artists didn’t get around to making; if they’re good enough to fool experts, then maybe they’re just good enough; fakes remind us that art depends on “the ideas of artists, not necessarily on their actual hands”; they also help tame the art market by scaring off speculators–a tenuous claim at best; and, lastly, forgeries “teach us to doubt connoisseurs,” since whenever a fake fools the eye of an expert, it reminds us that, “the whole idea of a unique artistic ‘touch,’ along with the ideal of ‘authenticity’ that goes with it, may be beside the point in our understanding of art”–surely Gopnik’s most sensible insight in the entire piece. He ends by noting that the idea of the forgery is a modern concept, and that forgers “help preserve modern art’s productive uncertainty” [1]. (I have to admit I’m not sure what this last point is supposed to mean.)

I’ve been thinking about and looking at art for some time now and the issue of the fake or forgery has never been one for me–or, rather, it was only something I grappled with when, years ago, I first became acquainted with art theory, or later on in graduate seminars. For those us that have gone through school in the past two or three decades and have some familiarity with art theory, the issue of originality, of the original and the copy, is an old and settled one–right? Here, I’m thinking of Barthes’s “The Death of the Author,” Foucault’s “What is an Author?” and Rosalind Krauss’s “The Originality of the Avant-Garde” along with a number of artistic practices coming out of the avant-garde and neo-avant-garde that throughout the 20th century contested modernist notions of authorship and originality. Also, the stakes of the issue today, as exemplified by Gopnik’s piece, are, at least to me, just not interesting, mainly because they don’t concern me or anyone I know: how “fakes” affect the art market, whether some collector got fooled into buying a fake. (Though none of this should be surprising in an age when reports on the state of the art market and news of record-breaking art auctions pass for art criticism.) Fake Rothkos might make for an interesting story, but surely there are more important things going on in the world–if not in my life. The only instance I can think of when I (and I’d venture to guess, most graduate students and recent grads) am confronted with the original/copy dilemma is when at the supermarket I have to decide between a brand name product and its presumably subpar knockoff.

And yet, having said all this, the issue of the forgery remains an interesting one. Not, pace Gopnik, because of the ways forgeries might affect the art market or “help burst our art bubble,” but because the issue has a real philosophical angle, one that touches on a number of questions that are still relevant today and worth talking about. Noë’s essay, “Art Placebo,” which is in part a response to Gopnik’s piece, addresses some of these questions. Noë’s text starts with a contentious proposition that is tangentially related to the question of forgeries: if art, he argues, is whatever art experts decide it is, then it follows that art is a sham. In other words, if forgeries can manage to fool even those most qualified and pass as art, then fakes are as good as originals, and, by the same logic, originals are as good as fakes.

Moreover, if what art is is nothing but what someone with some degree of power or knowledge decides it is, then art is the very opposite of, to put it one way, an experience separate from every other human experience–which is how I think Noë conceives of art when he says that there might be “no such thing as art,” as surely he’s not doubting the very real and material existence of art objects, but, rather, putting traditional views of the ontological status of art on trial. This kind of skepticism in regards to art, Noë continues, can be found in more sophisticated form in the belief that the experience of art can be reduced to, and potentially reproduced by, mere neurological activity. The argument is that, “works of art trigger experience, and experience is a neurological effect. … Art produces aesthetic experiences the way pills affect the body’s chemistry.” If all of this so, “we can’t draw a meaningful line between what is and what is not art,” and neither the object nor the experience of art can be singled out [2].

This position can be polarizing, as some of the more conservative branches of art criticism along with much of the art market are sustained on the belief that there is something that makes an object worthy of the label “art” and another one not. To illustrate this position and complicate the issue, Noë brings up what is possibly one of the most contentious texts of 20th century art criticism, Michael Fried’s “Art and Objecthood.” According to Fried, Minimalist sculpture, which came into being in the 1960s and was characterized by its use of industrial materials and a general deskilling of artistic activity, was anything but art. Minimalism, he argues in the 1967 text, “conceives of itself as neither [modernist painting] nor [sculpture],” and “belongs … to the history almost the natural history–of sensibility” [3]. Fried qualifies Minimalism as theatrical and art-like (but, again, not art), and condemns it by being concerned with “the duration of the experience,” with the fact that “the experience in question persists in time” [4].

Noë correctly identifies that through this argument Fried makes two significant claims in regards to the ontology of art: that the art object is different and separate from other objects (one gathers from his argument that, for Fried, artworks must be aesthetic), and that the experience of art is 1) visual and 2) rooted in the present, as if taking place outside of time. (Fried also suggests at the end of the essay that painting and sculpture’s condition “of secreting or constituting, a continuous and perpetual present,” is what other modernist arts, such as poetry and music, aspire to. This, of course, to suggest that the visual arts are the highest form of art [5].) Before continuing, I have to say that whether one agrees with Fried or not, the impulse define and demarcate the limits of one’s object of study, whether a valid enterprise or not, should be in anyone’s eyes a reasonable pursuit.

Noë’s alignment of the question of the ontology of art, and all and any doubts that come with it, with Fried’s condemnation of Minimalist sculpture remains interesting for reasons that transcend art market anxiety. As he correctly identifies, part of what Fried feared and rejected in the experience of Minimalist sculpture was an engagement other than visual with the art object, whether it be psychological or phenomenological: “One could say that Fried criticizes theatrical art because it conforms to the psychological trigger theory of the neuroscientist” [6]. I find the connection that Noë draws here particularly interesting as it was, as far as I know, not until the mid-1970s that Minimalism was discussed in terms of psychological engagement–Fried doesn’t use the prefix psycho- once in the entire text.

In Krauss’s 1976 essay Objecthood, she argues that Joel Shapiro’s sculptures, “seem to be in perpetual retreat because they are simultaneously present within our space and infected by memory. It is this what characterizes them as psychologized objects” [7]. And in 1977, borrowing from Krauss’s text, Douglas Crimp’s by now canonical exhibition and text Pictures further aligned the experienced of Minimalist sculpture with mental activity. In the exhibition’s catalogue text Crimp speaks of a transformation and reinvestment of Minimalism’s theatrical dimension into the “pictures”–films, photographs, and performances–of Jack Goldstein, Robert Longo and Sherrie Levine: “If many of these artists can be said to have been apprenticed in the field of performance as it issued from minimalism, they have nevertheless begun to reverse its priorities, making of the literal situation and duration of the performed event a tableau whose presence and temporality are utterly psychologized” [8]. And, lastly, a more recent instance in which Minimalism has been read as partly engaging a psychologized experience is Howard Singerman’s essay “In the Text”: “From the beginning [Fried] read Minimalism as Crimp did its successors. … he psychologized the terms of duration and read Minimalism as a narrative” [9].

In regards to Pictures, Fried’s anxiety about the psychologized experience of Minimalism was to be found a decade later in the work of a group of artists that had internalized many of the lessons of the 1960s and the 1970s–and there were many. By then, 1) skepticism toward traditional nations of the art object and its originality was a given, and 2) in addition to Minimalism’s critique of the modernist traditions of the author (through artistic deskilling) and the art object (through a rejection of aesthetic concerns), Pictures work also destabilized the modernist assumption of art’s seeing subject as a passive, neutral receiver of visual information, as an eye. The various techniques of cultural appropriation by the likes of Goldstein, Levine, Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince help support the first claim. Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills, Levine’s After Walker Evans, Goldstein’s MGM and Prince’s Cowboys, readymades for an age of new media, complicate the original/copy dialectic by furthering the notion that meaning resides as much in semiotic form as in the way (and in the contexts in which) this content is presented.

In regards to the second claim, Minimalist doubt in regards to traditional notions of art had, by the late 1970s, transcended anxieties about artworks and artists to include pressing concerns regarding the art viewer. As Hal Foster notes, “for minimalism considers perception in phenomenological terms, as somehow before or outside history, language, sexuality, and power,” leaving out “a crucial concern: the sexual-linguistic constitution of the subject” [10]. It was not until the mid- and late-1970s with Pictures that both the object as well as the subject of art were destabilized and put under scrutiny. In the world of theory, it was Lacan’s conception of the gaze in 1970s that complicated modernist trust in perception. Again, Foster: “Seen as (s)he sees, pictured as (s)he pictures, the Lacanian subject is fixed in a double position” [11]. Some of Sherman and Levine’s late 1970s pieces can serve to exemplify this “double position.” Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills and Levine’s After Walker Evans and Sons and Lovers are all series of images that address their viewers as beings within history, language, sexuality, and power, images that see as much as they are seen.

Others, like Goldstein, continued Minimalist and Post-Minimalist questioning of truth in vision and experience. Some of Goldstein’s late 1970s installations/performances, such as Burning Window and The Murder, included staged, simulacral environments that sought to trigger the same neurological connections that real instances of these “events” would, complicating notions not only of visual truth, but also of experiential truth. If an artwork such as Robert Morris’s Untitled (Battered Cubes) from 1965 upsets viewers’s visual, perceptual expectations–the four “cubes” of the piece are not quite cubes–by the 1970s Goldstein’s Burning Window not only questions whether an object can fool the eye, but whether an environment can fool the brain. In Goldstein’s description of Burning Window, he notes: “This spectacle, which may be felt ambiguously both as ‘real’ and as a ‘cinematic’ illusion, calls into question the ‘truth’ of visual experience” [12]. If indeed experienced at once as “cinematic” and “real,” the experience of Burning Window would confirm psychology and neuroscience’s skepticism about art [13].

It isn’t surprising that after discussing Fried’s doubts regarding 1960s Minimalism, Noë’s text then turns to questions of the art market, art criticism and to Gopnik’s New York Times piece. It isn’t because, as I said earlier, it is among the least progressive circles of the art world–the art market and, unfortunately, some of today’s art criticism–that the question of originality remains an issue. Noë argues against Gopnik’s belief that fakes are as good as originals, not, however, by engaging with the question of what constitutes art, but by reevaluating the task of the connoisseur/critic. He contends that Gopnik misrepresents the task of the art expert: “The connoisseur or critic, crucially, is not a measuring instrument, a kind of authorship- or value-detector,” someone merely capable of recognizing a Rembrandt from a fake. Rather, he argues, the task of critics and connoisseurs is to make artworks “intelligible to oneself and another,” to “make sense, and … give you the tools you need to make sense too” [14]. I take issue with this line of thinking because it perpetrates traditional notions of authorship and originality, only here it isn’t Rembrandt’s hand that constitutes authenticity, but the critic’s words. Noë ends the piece by claiming that, “It is the work of the connoisseur/critic—whether professional or amateur—to discern what a work is doing and so what work it is” and, moreover, that, “We are all critics” [15]. So which one is it? Are we all connoisseurs/critics or do we need critics to give us the tools to make sense, to discern what a work is?

Lastly, I am skeptical of Noë’s belief in the possibility of a “more positive, non-mythological conception of the connoisseur” [16]. And this in part because I object to the notion that the terms art connoisseur and art critic can be used interchangeably. Though this might simply be a semantic disagreement, it is one that I find important to address as it might yield some interesting insights. I share Gopnik’s view and definition of the art connoisseur, and mainly because I would qualify the task of the connoisseur as merely detecting value, and by that, continuing to breath life into the outmoded modernist notions of authorship, originality, and style. I borrow this definition of the term from Edgar Wind’s “Critique of Connoisseurship,” in which the art historian traces the history of the practice back to the 18th century and identifies it as a product of the Romantic Period. By seeking to identify an artwork’s “authentic touch,” connoisseurs, Wind tells us, “as a rule, are over-anxious not to let the artistic experience run its full course, but to arrest it at the highest point of spontaneity” [17]. I would define what Noë hopes the connoisseur/critic to be–someone who can teach us a different way of looking at something–as an art critic.

Differentiating between criticism or critique and commentary of a work, Walter Benjamin said:

“Critique is concerned with the truth content of a work of art, the commentary with its subject matter. … If, to use a simile, one views the growing work as a funeral pyre, its commentator can be likened to the chemist, its critic to an alchemist. While the former is left with wood and ashes as the sole objects of his analysis, the latter is concerned only with the enigma of the flame itself: the enigma of being alive. Thus the critic inquires about the truth whose living flame goes on burning over the heavy logs of the past and the light ashes of life gone by” [18].

Though the task of the connoisseur and that of Benjamin’s commentator are hardly the same, the passage elucidates the significance of criticism in contrast to mere commentary or attribution. Also, it reminds us of how insignificant issues such as authenticity are in light of everything art objects can tell us as objects, objects with their own lives and histories, and not as somebody’s object. This reveals, perhaps, the greatest crime of forgeries: not that in their aesthetics or formal qualities they are any less valid or accomplished than originals, but that they pretend to be something they’re not.


[1] Blake Gopnik, “In Praise of Forgeries,” New York Times, November 2, 2013; [2] Alva Noë, “Art Placebo,” The Brooklyn Rail, December 18, 2013; [3] Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood” in Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, 1995, p. 117. In an unrelated note, I wonder if Fried had read Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp,'” from three years earlier, by the time he wrote “Art and Objecthood”; I am in no way comparing Minimalism and Camp, but I find it interesting that Sontag opens the essay by describing Camp as a sensibility. Come to think of it, in “The Other Side of the Wall” George Baker explores the relationship between these two “sensibilities”: “Camp fixates on the Minimalist object’s surface. It makes Minimalism purple. Or it makes it shiny. … Camp might then value Minimalist surfaces as ‘superficial,’ but it also invests these surfaces in depth: Camp likes Minimalism’s fakeness, revels in its extreme challenge to nature. Camp turns Minimalism into theater, into so many duplicitous stage sets ripe for the enactment of ‘drama.’ Camp takes a Minimalist form and makes a bar of it, throws an imaginary party around it. Camp makes Minimalism festive. Camp turns Minimalism into objects of decor, into furniture or things to be used.” (October, Spring 2007, p. 130); [4] Ibid, pp. 144-145; [5] Ibid, p. 146; [6] Noë, “Art Placebo”; [7] Rosalind Krauss, Critical Perspectives in American Art, 1976, p. 26; [8] Douglas Crimp, “Pictures,” October, 1979, p. 77; [9] Howard Singerman, “In the Text,” A Forest of Signs: Art in the Crisis of Representation, 1989, p. 160; [10] Hal Foster, “The Crux of Minimalism,” The Return of the Real, 1996, p. 43 and p. 59; Hal Foster, “The Return of the Real,” The Return of the Real, 1996, p. 139; [12] Jack Goldstein, Jack Goldstein, 2002, p. 161; [13] See Whitney Davis, “Neurovisuality” (nonsite, June 12, 2011) for an art historical take on some of these issues; [14] Noë, “Art Placebo”; [15] Ibid; [16] Ibid; [17] Edgar Wind, “Critique of Connoisseurship,” Art and Anarchy, 1963, p. 50; [18] Quoted in Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, 2007, pp. 4-5.