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Authenticityfree

  • Thierry Lenain

The concept that a thing (person, object, type of behaviour, etc.) is what it seems, or is said, or believed to be. Implicit in the very notion of authenticity is the possibility of misrepresentation. In essence, to be authentic is to be the opposite of fake or phony. Authenticity is judged by performing tests to verify that external appearance and substantial reality actually match. An artwork can be deemed ‘authentic’ as a work of art (as opposed to a mere product without artistic value); as the product of a particular artist (a Monet, rather than a work by another artist in his style); as an artefact of a specific time (a 14th-century sculpture, as opposed to a Gothic Revival imitation); or as an object composed of a particular material (a bronze sculpture, versus one made of plaster with a bronze-like patina).

1. Methods of establishing authenticity.

Each judgement of authenticity is based on a different set of criteria. To conclude that someone is authentic as a person is to say that his or her way of behaving is in accordance with their inner self, personal values, social background, and life choices; this is a moral judgement that cannot be reduced to assessing the presence or absence of objective features. Similarly, pronouncing an object a genuine artwork denotes that it is the result of real artistic talent and sincere commitment. This assessment relies on an element of subjectivity and is always dependent on a specific cultural context that will define which class of objects can be elevated to the status of art. It also carries moral overtones as it amounts to a declaration of whether the object in question was made by a true artist acting as such, that is, by someone faithful to the essential and somehow transcendent demands of art.

Determining an object’s material composition or provenance is an entirely different matter. Physical or chemical constitution and historical provenance are strictly objective properties that can be evaluated using scientific methods or archival documentation (see Technical examination). It goes without saying that the attempt to determine the presence of those properties does not necessarily result in a clear-cut conclusion. If the evidence (materials, provenance, etc.) is incomplete, which is the case more often than not, the expert must rely on his or her personal judgement based on their own sense of common sense and plausibility.

Visual examination by a knowledgeable specialist or connoisseur, with a particular focus on style (regarded as the most revealing factor of the work’s origin), has long been considered sufficient to ascertain the period and author of an artwork (see Connoisseurship). However, scientific methods, such as the use of X-rays, UV light, infra-red light, carbon-14, thermoluminescence, and spectrography are now often used to complement direct visual inspection. It should be noted, though, that laboratory tests are often cost-prohibitive, and therefore practically limited to financially or historically important cases.

Testing should of course be carried out in an appropriate manner by competent experts and without regard to the financial consequences at stake. Unfortunately, cases of authentication hindered by threats of legal prosecution reach the headlines every now and then. When positive, the results of a laboratory test will be endorsed with a certificate of authenticity. This document, supporting the object’s veracity, will then become the major evidence reinforcing the object’s reputation for authenticity. However, the certificate is only valid if the object it refers to has not been substituted for another and if the document itself is not a forgery.

This does not mean that the scientific testing methods using lab machinery make traditional, art historical approaches irrelevant. Historical methods, such as archival research, remain an indispensable stage in the practice of authentication, and it is always necessary to be able to link the results of scientific testing to art historical findings and stylistic analysis, which still produce much more precise dating than physical and chemical analysis. Stylistic analysis is not the only means by which an expert may unveil a work’s origin. Giovanni Morelli posited that each painter manifests his- or herself at the level of infra-stylistic traits, such as a formulaic treatment of finger tips or the shaping of ears. Physiognomic types also tend to recur within a master’s corpus, either because artists employed the same models for a number of different works (or resorted to a portfolio of drawings made after live models) or because they personally favoured those physical types, consciously or unconsciously. The study of figures’ costumes can provide further precious information and can help to date works with greater accuracy.

2. Limits of authenticity.

Matters of authenticity often reveal themselves to be yet more complicated. This is, first of all, because most art objects bear the traces of their journey through time. Artistic materials can become chromatically distorted or lose their opacity; for example, oil-based paint, a compound formed by combining mineral or organic pigments with a binding agent, increases in transparency over time as the oil hardens. Works may be modestly or extensively altered and restored. Some have been unabashedly modified at their owner’s initiative or by the creative hands of later artists; others have suffered from inept if well-intentioned restorations, leaving upon them the stamp of another time. Generally speaking, most material objects will naturally, if slowly, acquire a patina over time. For all these reasons, the delicate and complicated work of maintenance and restoration can easily, and often unwittingly, cause distortions to an original work. These alterations can in turn compromise the authenticity of a work of art in the hands of a less competent or unscrupulous restorer (see Conservation and restoration). Moreover, some of the most famous restorers have acted as wily forgers on the side, such as Belgian restorer and forger of Flemish Primitives Josef Van der Veken (1872–1964). Likewise, forgers often maintain dubious connections within the restoration community, as in the cases of famed forger of Dutch Master paintings Han van Meegeren and forger of Old Master drawings Eric Hebborn (1934–96).

Due to the historical complexity of all but the most recent art objects, ascertaining authenticity can seldom be conducted in a single, global fashion. One must consider not only the work’s origin (the time, place, and cultural context of its making; the identity of its author; etc.) but also investigate all layers of its subsequent history. When a work has undergone significant alterations—some of which may bear fair testimony to the object’s journey through time while others obliterate important aspects of that very same singular history—conflicts may arise surrounding which layers of historical evidence deserve to be preserved. Thus, decisions taken by museum officials regarding interventions meant to re-establish a better state of authenticity must often follow a slow, painstaking process in order to balance conflicting demands.

A second reason for the complexity of the topic is that each particular form of artistic expression comes with its own codes of authenticity. As Nelson Goodman has argued, artworks can be either autographic, where the art object in its final form was made by the author’s own hands (painting) or allographic, when the work itself is a score that finds material expression through a performer’s interpretation (music, theatre) or a process of strict duplication (written literature). The artistic process may involve only one stage (painting) or more than one (moulded sculpture, printmaking, photography). And it can yield a unique original (painting), multiple originals (printmaking, moulded sculpture, photography), or no original at all (literature, music). Each of these specificities has a bearing on how the notion of authenticity is to be applied. Performing arts, in particular, obey principles of authenticity that appear to be very different from those fitting other forms of artistic expression. One must consider how closely the performance follows the original script not only in literal conformity, but also according to the interpreter’s own subjective perception and creative understanding of it. In addition, the market imposes unique requirements for specific domains, for example, so-called tribal artefacts, collectables, etc. Museum practices also determine to a large extent what is and what is not ‘authentic’, and how something (presented as) authentic is supposed to look like (see Phillips).

Each historical period and cultural context operates within its own paradigm of authenticity, and demands that works of art meet unique criteria within their own understanding of the term. The classic example of a non-Western notion of authenticity is the traditional Japanese tenet that wooden heritage buildings be dismantled and rebuilt periodically in order to maintain their authenticity. The need to recognize and take into account the diversity of conceptions of authenticity across cultures worldwide when creating guidelines for heritage preservation motivated the 1994 international conference in Nara, Japan, organized at the initiative of the UNESCO, ICROM, and ICOMOS agencies. Yet, even within the Western tradition, the criteria for authenticity have varied considerably. The standards applied to the works of artists working independently do not apply to those emanating from large workshops, where a master supervised a team of assistants to produce replicas of compositions on demand. In that particular case, a work’s authenticity depends less on strict autography than on a guarantee of the work’s quality and conformation to the stylistic direction given by the master (who may add a few finishing strokes, if needed). At the other end of the cultural spectrum, the notion of authenticity in contemporary art does not rely on the definition of a work as a singular, material, permanent object.

Different constructions of the notion of authenticity often mingle with and contaminate one another. For instance, one may decide that no forgery can be considered a true artwork because it does not reflect its real origin, even if well made from a technical and aesthetic perspective. Another example is the flexible categorization of copies, which are sometimes seen as true artworks in their own right but also, conversely, as mere manufactured products with no creative, and thus no artistic, value.

Considerable conceptual difficulties and paradoxes arise when one attempts to theorize the nature of authenticity and to decide what exactly is at stake when addressing a work’s authenticity. Addressing these difficulties often leads to open-ended philosophical discussions with no promise of straightforward, unequivocal, and readily applicable solutions. What if a copy or a forgery cannot be told apart from the original without resorting to lab methods? Should this happen, would it not provoke a ruinous divorce between the aesthetic (what is actually sensed by the beholder) and the notional aspects of the experience of art (what is known about the work in question)? In what measure is the aesthetic appreciation influenced by what is known (or assumed) regarding the work’s identity? To prevent such questions from undermining the very notion of art and the implicit practical consensus sustaining the art world, a dogma has long dominated the issue. It asserts that the difference between an authentic artwork and a copy or forgery must always be aesthetically perceptible, although a wealth of historical evidence proves that this dogma does not hold. The question of authenticity as applied to the experience of the beholder raises another potential problem. Is authenticity an empirical quality or rather an experience intrinsic in beholding a work of art? Is it reasonable, from a philosophical point of view, to completely separate these two forms of authenticity considering that art is an essentially subjective experience?

These thorny theoretical issues are further aggravated by the fact that most artworks are not valued merely as ‘art’, but also as pieces of heritage, or historical remnants valued for their particular significance (see Cultural capital). Criteria for authenticity in heritage and in art follow largely independent paths (for discussion of authenticity as the ‘very core’ of heritage as a social construct, see Heinich 2011). Artistic and historical concerns may thus easily clash with respect to authenticity. For example, we might very well speculate that some artists may have artistic reasons for wishing their work to be left to deteriorate (and, eventually, disappear), or to be repaired using overtly anachronistic components, though, in the name of preserving the object’s heritage, most conservators will recoil at doing so. Ethnographic objects also raise considerable problems of authenticity. Is an object’s ethnic origin (and this itself can be a controversial definition) a necessary criterion, as is sometimes claimed? Is authorship relevant in non-Western art? The idea that an object must have been used in its original context to be declared authentic can help to distinguish works that are genuinely bound to the culture of their makers and imitations produced for tourists or made to order for Western clients. But, as Denis Dutton pointed out, what if such an ‘imitation’ is used to perform a traditional ritual? What if an object initially created and intended for ceremonial use is collected before it is ever used? In a similar vein, David Lowenthal made a valuable point when stressing that, for some observers and in certain contexts, replicas or surrogates of historically authentic objects can convey the ‘essence’ of the original better than the original itself. At the end of the day, authenticity in art should be defined, as it increasingly is, as a relative, flexible, and context-dependent concept.

Bibliography

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