After my last post, on forgery, I found myself still thinking about the meaning of authenticity, and the questions it raises; questions for which I have no answers. During the 19th century, it was common for art, especially sculpture, to be “restored” to make it more beautiful. Broken-off pieces like arms, feet, even heads, would be replaced with new pieces and seamlessly added to statues, with little concern for the piece’s original composition. The intent was usually not to produce an accurate restoration, but to make the piece as aesthetically pleasing as possible, according to the standards of the day. Many such pieces are now considered hopelessly inaccurate, not just because of modern knowledge, but by modern standards. In other centuries, a work of art’s great value lay in its beauty; in ours, art’s greatest value is in its authenticity.
Auction houses and galleries employ or contract experts to authenticate artworks. Debates are launched on how many paintings Rembrandt actually painted, and how many were creations of his students and his studio, and prices vary accordingly. Prints and lithographs—intentional mechanical reproductions— are numbered and signed, to guarantee, what? Would even a devoted collector pay top dollar for a beautiful, historical work by an unknown? Would a wealthy, prolific collector buy a piece by a famous artist, even if he didn’t like it? Would we even admit to ourselves that we judge art by brand name and price tag? Perhaps the heart of the uncertainty lies in the nature of the art itself: it is a material object with no material use, and a symbol with more meaning than just the symbolic. As revolutionaries and pragmatists are fond of pointing out, art doesn’t feed, shelter, or keep people warm. But it is a physical thing—painting, sculpture, tapestry, photograph, mosaic— it can be preserved or destroyed, and no matter how murky the issues, it always has an owner. But its physical existence isn’t important in itself; it endures because it makes us think, because it makes us feel, because it inspires, because it moves us, because it reminds us… how much of that depends on authenticity?
If a work of art is proven inauthentic, the only area to truly suffer is knowledge. A piece doesn’t become less beautiful because it isn’t from the 18th century, or because it doesn’t have Picasso’s signature; it becomes less significant. We can never use it to understand other times, other places, other people, and I could write the rest of the year on what that loss would mean. Why then, when it would seem that the art world has everything to gain from the authenticity of art, is it so rarely concerned with the authenticity of its provenance?