But… is it ART?

One of the boons of modern technology has been a vast improvement in the quantity and quality of fake art. Imitation Rembrandts which skilled (and under-appreciated) artists labored over for months — or years — can now be whipped out in an hour or two with computerized gadgets.

To judge from the indignant tone of articles I’ve read, many in the art world do not share my view. They do not see the proliferation of high-quality fakes as a boon. They are historians and agents and curators and speculators, people1 who make money — piles of it — by acquiring, commenting on, evaluating, sequestering, and selling artists’ work.

Wait a minute. There’s a cottage industry in fake Matisses someplace, able to crank out canvases indistinguishable from the genuine thing. People who have invested fortunes and careers in the real thing stand to lose mightily. Shouldn’t I be more sympathetic to their plight?

No, I shouldn’t, and I’ll tell you why.

Art2 of any period is a vision captured in that period. Move away from that period, and the art becomes an artifact. It does not diminish in quality, but it addresses a constantly changing world. Each new age deserves its own art, drawn from images and themes of its time. No matter how much we swear by eternal verities, the images and themes of one era are not quite the same as those of the era which preceded it (nor the one which will succeed it).

In short, individual works or art do not speak to all ages with equal clarity, intensity, and purpose. In purely artistic terms, a Rembrandt, as it ages, becomes less valuable, not more.

The work of an artist — the trick, if you will — is in developing a vision and capturing it for others to appreciate. Art inheres in the artist’s vision and the execution of that vision; it is the image, not the specific medium or surface which present that image. Therefore, an accurate copy or imitation of the work is a tribute to the artist’s vision, a continuation of that vision, and one which makes it available to a larger audience.

I don’t suggest a four-color print of a Degas dancer, even naive viewers would never mistake for a painting, is as good as an original. However, a computer matched reproduction of colors and brush strokes, et al, which the experienced eye cannot distinguish from an original, is approximately as good as that original.

Imagine two painting on a wall. One of them we know is a genuine Van Gogh, and the other we know is an exact copy. But neither we nor anyone else can reliably tell the difference. This expert will stamp one as the original, but that expert will swear it’s the other. Which of the paintings ought we to admire?

The answer is, we admire them equally.

Instead of selling one for five million and the other for five thousand, we ought to sell each for what a sane and willing buyer will pay, more than five thousand and less than five million.

[We run into the acquisitive hoarder syndrome here]

Because the only difference between the two is that one was painted by the master personally and the other was faithfully copied from the master’s work. Is one therefore a superior piece of art? No. There is no difference between them in artistic value. If we insist on assigning a higher value to one, it is because it was personally touched by the master. That has nothing to do with artistic merit.

That is relic mongering.

  1. You may note one group of people associated with art is not in this list. Those are the people who do not — in most instances, cannot — benefit.  ↩

  2. Yes, I do extend the idea to the other arts, generally. Still, I advocate for Professor Ellington’s dictum: “If it sounds good, it is good.” ↩


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