Authenticity in Art

in The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics, edited by Jerrold Levinson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

Denis Dutton



Authentic,” like its near-relations, “real,” “genuine,” and “true,” is what J.L. Austin called a “dimension word,” a term whose meaning remains uncertain until we know what dimension of its referent is being talked about. A forged painting, for example, will not be inauthentic in every respect: a Han van Meegeren forgery of a Vermeer is at one and the same time both a fake Vermeer and an authentic van Meegeren, just as a counterfeit bill may be both a fraudulent token of legal tender but at the same time a genuine piece of paper. The way the authentic/inauthentic distinction sorts out is thus context-dependent to a high degree. Mozart played on a modern grand piano might be termed inauthentic, as opposed to being played on an eighteenth-century forte-piano, even though the notes played are authentically Mozart’s. A performance of Shakespeare that is at pains to recreate Elizabethan production practices, values, and accents would be to that extent authentic, but may still be inauthentic with respect to the fact that it uses actresses for the female parts instead of boys, as would have been the case on Shakespeare’s stage. Authenticity of presentation is relevant not only to performing arts. Modern museums, for example, have been criticized for presenting old master paintings in strong lighting conditions which reveal detail, but at the same time give an overall effect that is at odds with how works would have been enjoyed in domestic spaces by their original audiences; cleaning, revarnishing, and strong illumination arguably amount to inauthentic presentation. Religious sculptures created for altars have been said to be inauthentically displayed when presented in a bare space of a modern art gallery (see Feagin 1995).

Whenever the term “authentic” is used in aesthetics, a good first question to ask is, Authentic as opposed to what? Despite the widely different contexts in which the authentic/inauthentic is applied in aesthetics, the distinction nevertheless tends to form around two broad categories of sense. First, works of art can be possess what we may call nominal authenticity, defined simply as the correct identification of the origins, authorship, or provenance of an object, ensuring, as the term implies, that an object of aesthetic experience is properly named. However, the concept of authenticity often connotes something else, having to do with an object’s character as a true expression of an individual’s or a society’s values and beliefs. This second sense of authenticity can be called expressive authenticity. The following discussion will summarize some of the problems surrounding nominal authenticity and will conclude with a general examination of expressive authenticity.


2.1 Forgery and Plagiarism

Many of the most often-discussed issues of authenticity have centred around art forgery and plagiarism. A forgery is defined as a work of art whose history of production is misrepresented by someone (not necessarily the artist) to an audience (possibly to a potential buyer of the work), normally for financial gain. A forging artist paints or sculpts a work in the style of a famous artist in order to market the result as having been created by the famous artist. Exact copies of existing works are seldom forged, as they will be difficult to sell to knowledgeable buyers. The concept of forgery necessarily involves deceptive intentions on the part of the forger or the seller of the work: this distinguishes forgeries from innocent copies or merely erroneous attributions. Common parlance also allows that an honest copy can later be used as a forgery, even though it was not originally intended as such, and can come to be called a “forgery.” In such cases a defrauding seller acts on an unknowing buyer by misrepresenting the provenance of a work, perhaps even with the additions of a false signature or certificate of authenticity. The line between innocent copy and overt forgery can be, as we shall see, difficult to discern.

Plagiarism is a related but logically distinct kind of fraud. It involves the passing off as one’s own of the words or ideas of another. The most obvious cases of plagiarism have an author publishing in his own name a text that was written by someone else. If the original has already been published, the plagiarist is at risk of being discovered, although plagiarism may be impossible to prove if the original work, or all copies of it, is hidden or destroyed. Since publication of plagiarized work invites wide scrutiny, plagiarism is, unlike forgery, a difficult fraud to accomplish as a public act without detection. In fact, the most common acts of plagiarism occur not in public, but in the private sphere of work that students submit to their teachers.

2.2 Honest Misidentification

Authenticity is contrasted with “falsity” or “fakery” in ordinary discourse, but, as noted, falsity need not imply fraud at every stage of the production of a fake. Blatant forgery and the intentional misrepresentation of art objects has probably been around as long as there has been an art market — it was rife even in ancient Rome. However, many works of art that are called “inauthentic” are merely misidentified. There is nothing fraudulent about wrongly guessing the origins of an apparently old New Guinea mask or an apparently eighteenth-century Italian painting. Fraudulence is approached only when what is merely an optimistic guess is presented as well-established knowledge, or when the person making the guess uses position or authority to give it a weight exceeding what it deserves. The line, however, that divides unwarranted optimism from fraudulence is hazy at best. (Any worldly person who has ever heard from an antique dealer the phrase “It’s probably a hundred and fifty years old” will understand this point: it’s probably not that old, and perhaps not even the dealer himself could be sure if he’s merely being hopeful or playing fast and loose with the truth.)

Authenticity, therefore, is a much broader issue than one of simply spotting and rooting out fakery in the arts. The will to establish the nominal authenticity of a work of art, identifying its maker and provenance — in a phrase, determining how the work came to be — comes from a general desire to understand a work of art according to its original canon of criticism: what did it mean to its creator? How was it related to the cultural context of its creation? To what established genre did it belong? What could its original audience have been expected to make of it? What would they have found engaging or important about it? These questions are often framed in terms of artists’ intentions, which will in part determine and constitute the identity of a work; and intentions can arise and be understood only in a social context and at a historical time. External context and artistic intention are thus intrinsically related. We should resist, however, the temptation to imagine that ascertaining nominal authenticity will inevitably favour some “old” or “original” object over a later artefact. There may be Roman sculptures, copies of older Greek originals, which are in some respects aesthetically better than their older prototypes, as there may be copies by Rembrandt of other Dutch artists that are aesthetically more pleasing than the originals. But in all such cases, value and meaning can be rightly assessed only against a background of correctly determined nominal authenticity (for further discussion see Dutton 1983; Goodman 1976; Currie 1989; Levinson 1990).

2. 3 Han van Meegeren

One of the most famous episodes of misidentification and fraudulence in the last century involves the van Meegeren Vermeer forgeries. The Dutch artist Han van Meegeren (1889–1947) was born in Deventer and studied in Delft, which was the home of the great seventeenth-century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer. As his career declined in the years following the First World War, van Meegeren became increasingly resentful of dealers, critics, and academics. In part to wreak silent revenge on his enemies (“woman-haters and negro-lovers,” he called them), but also simply to make money, van Meegeren tried his hand at forgery, producing in 1923 a Laughing Cavalier, ostensibly by Franz Hals. Later he turned to the much scarcer and more valuable paintings of Vermeer. (Fewer than forty Vermeers have survived into the twentieth century.) His most ambitious plan, hatched in the mid-1930s, was to forge a large Vermeer on a religious subject. This would have been an unusual find for an undiscovered Vermeer, and therefore an unlikely choice for a forger; but in fact van Meegeren was cleverly confirming published scholarly speculation that Vermeer had visited Italy and painted on religious themes in his youth, and that such paintings in a large, Italian style might yet be found.

Han van Meegeren, Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus (1937)

This forgery, Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus, was completed in 1937. To produce it, van Meegeren studied seventeenth-century pigment formulas, incorporated volatile flower oils in his pigments to create hardness, and used badger-hair brushes (a single modern bristle embedded in the paint would give him away) on canvas recycled from an unimportant seventeenth-century painting. He conceived a way to produce a craquelure, the fine web of surface cracking characteristics of old paintings, and concocted a plausible provenance for the work, claiming that it had come into his hands from an old Italian family that had fallen on hard times and wanted to dispose of the painting under strict confidentiality (Godley 1967;Dutton 1983). The work was ultimately purchased by the Boymans Museum in Rotterdam for a price of approximately 2.5 million US dollars (2002 value), two-thirds of which van Meegeren pocketed.

When the Emmaus was unveiled at the museum, van Meegeren had the satisfaction of standing at the edge of a crowd that heard the painting extolled by the eminent Vermeer scholar Abraham Bredius as perhaps “the masterpiece” Vermeer (Bredius 1937). Van Meegeren went on to forge six more Vermeers, one of which ended up in the private collection of the Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring.

Han van Meegeren, Christ and the Adultress
(1941) Purchased by Hermann Göring

Because van Meegeren was known to have dealt with this work, he was arrested by Dutch police a few days after the end of the war for having sold a Dutch national treasure to the enemy. Only then did he confess that he had actually created this painting and the others, going on to paint a last Vermeer in jail as a demonstration while he awaited trial. The trial itself was a media event, and the worldwide coverage made him a folk hero. Van Meegeren was given a prison sentence of only one year; he died of a heart attack shortly after beginning his sentence (Dutton 1983).

The van Meegeren episode is justifiably notorious as a case of recognized experts being hoodwinked by a clever, artistically gifted fraudster. As such, it calls into question both the validity of official expertise and the existence of ascertainable aesthetic values that should ideally enable art professionals to identify “masterpieces” and distinguish them from inferior fakes. After all, if even renowned experts cannot tell the difference between a Vermeer and a van Meegeren, and if the van Meegeren has the power to delight museum visitors, as the Emmaus clearly did, then why should anyone care very much whether or not the painting is a Vermeer? Why should such a work be consigned to the basement? The discovery that it is forged does not, it seems, alter its perceived aesthetic characteristics. Arthur Koestler has argued that in such situations there can be no justification for rejecting a copy or forgery. If the forgery is indiscernible from an original (in the case of an identical copy), or if it fits perfectly into the body of work left by an artist, and produces aesthetic pleasure of the same kind as other works by the original artist, then there can be no warrant to exclude it from a museum (Koestler 1964).

In his influential discussion of forgery, Nelson Goodman has advanced arguments calling into question the idea that there can be no aesthetic difference between an original and an indiscernible forgery. In the first place, Goodman would have us ask, “indiscernible to whom?” Differences between the Mona Lisa and a so-called exact copy of it may be indiscernible to a child, but obvious to an experienced museum curator. Even if the curator cannot tell the difference between the one and the other, that does not mean that a difference will not emerge, and later on appear glaring not only to the curator, but to more innocent eyes as well. This process of change in perception, actually a sharpening of perception, is nicely illustrated by the van Meegeren episode. In the first place, it should be noted that, even at the time of the unveiling of the Emmaus, there was a divergence of opinion as to its authenticity. The local agent for the New York dealer Duveen Bros. attended the event and wired back to his employer that the painting was a “rotten fake.” Moreover, the Emmaus in retrospect looks strangely unlike any extant Vermeers. There is a photographic quality to the faces that less resembles seventeenth-century portraiture than it does black and white movie stills; one of the faces, in fact, displays a striking resemblance to Greta Garbo. This overall “modern” feel of the painting gave it a subtle appeal to its initial audience, but for the same reason it reveals to our eyes the painting’s dated origin, as much as any 1930s movie betrays its origins with its hairstyles, make-up, gestures, and language. It seems that the agent for Duveen had a more sharply perceptive view than most of his contemporaries.

Goodman also pointed out another feature of forgery episodes that is especially relevant in the van Meegeren case. Any supposed new discovery of a work by an old artist will be assessed and authenticated in part by the extent to which its features conform to the artist’s known oeuvre. But once incorporated into the artist’s oeuvre, a new work, even if a forgery, becomes part of what Goodman calls the “precedent class” of works against which further new discoveries will be assessed. In the case of van Meegeren, Emmaus was stylistically the closest of all his forgeries to the precedent class of authentic Vermeers. Once it was authenticated by Bredius and hung on the wall of the authoritative Boymans Museum, its stylistic features — heavy, drooping eyes with walnut-shell lids, for instance — became an accepted aspect of the Vermeer style. Van Meegeren’s next forgery could therefore move farther from the original precedent class of Vermeers, the next one farther still, and so on, as the understanding of the Vermeer style became more and more distorted. Van Meegeren was also aided by the fact that most of his activity was carried out during the Second World War, with actual Vermeers in protective storage and unavailable for comparison. In the end, all of his forgeries were enough alike to each other, and different stylistically from authentic Vermeers, that it is certain their status would eventually have been revealed even without van Meegeren’s confession (Dutton 1983).

Goodman suggests that, in general, knowledge that a work is a forgery, or even the suspicion that it is, conditions our viewing of the object, assigning it “a role as training toward perceptual discrimination.” It is by trying to perceive as yet invisible differences between originals and forgeries that we actually do learn to detect them. Leonard Meyer is another theorist who has argued that cultural ideas about differences between an original and a forgery are indelibly part our perceptions of art. Our understanding of any human product, Meyer claims, requires “under­standing how it came to be and what it is and,...if it is an event in the past, by being aware of its implications as realized in history” (Meyer 1967). We can no more rid ourselves of these presuppositions of perception than, as he puts it, we can breathe in a vacuum. A related point is made by Denis Dutton, who argues that much of what we call achievement in art is implicit in our idea of the origins of a work of art. The excitement a virtuoso pianist generates by producing a glittering shower of notes in Liszt’s Gnomenreigen is intrinsically connected with what we conceive to be an achievement of human hands playing at a keyboard. An aurally identical experience electronically synthesized fails to excite us: sound synthesizers can play as fast as you please, while pianists cannot. In the same way, however pleasant and skilful a modern forgery of a sixteenth-century master drawing may be, it can never be a sixteenth-century achievement, and therefore can never be admired in quite the same way (Dutton 1983).

2. 4 The Igorot of Luzon

Forgery episodes such as van Meegeren’s Vermeers are unproblematic in terms of nominal authenticity: there is a perfectly clear divide between the authentic Vermeers and the van Meegeren fakes. But there are areas where determining nominal authenticity can be extremely fraught. Consider the complexities of the following example. The Igorot of northern Luzon traditionally carved a rice granary guardian figure, a bulul, which is ceremonially treated with blood, producing over years a deep red patina which is partially covered with a black deposit of grease from food offerings. These objects were already being made for tourists and for sale at international exhibitions in the 1920s, and one famous virtuoso Igorot carver, Tagiling, was by then producing figures on commission by local families and at the same time for the tourist trade. Bululs are still in traditional use, but specialized production of them ceased after the Second World War. Today, if a local wants a bulul, it is purchased from a souvenir stand and then rendered sacred by subjecting it to the appropriate ceremony. “The result,” Alaine Schoffel has explained, “is that in the rice granaries one now finds shoddy sculptures slowly becoming covered with a coating of sacrificial blood. They are authentic because they are used in the traditional fashion, but this renders them no less devoid of aesthetic value.”

Igorot bulul (c. 1920)

We do not necessarily have to agree with Schoffel’s aesthetic verdict on “shoddy” souvenirs to recognize that he is legitimately invoking one of the many possible senses of “authenticity”: the authentically traditional. The contrast to the authentically traditional carving in this context is a tourist piece, or one not made to take part in or express any recognizable tradition. On the other hand, a tourist piece that is bought by a local person and employed for a traditional purpose is just as authentic, but in a different sense: it has been given an authentically traditional use in an indigenous spiritual context. The fraudulent converse to authenticity in this sense would be a piece that is intentionally misrepresented as fulfilling a traditional function, but which does not, for example a piece that has been carefully given a fake patina and signs of use or wear by a dealer or later owner of a carving (Schoffel 1989).

2. 5 Authenticity in Music

Arguments over the use and presentation of art are nowhere more prominent than in music performance. This is owing to the general structure of Western, notated music, in which the creation of the work of art is a two-stage process, unlike painting and other plastic arts. Stand in front of Leonardo’s Ginevra de’ Benci in the National Gallery in Washington, and you have before you Leonardo’s own handiwork. However much the paint may have been altered by time and the degenerative chemistry of pigments, however different the surroundings of the museum are from the painting’s originally intended place of presentation, at least, beneath the shatterproof non-reflective glass you gaze at the very artefact itself, in its faded, singular glory. No such direct encounter is available with a performance of an old musical work. The original work is specified by a score, essentially a set of instructions, which are realized aurally by performers, normally for the pleasure of audiences. Because a score underdetermines the exact sound of any particular realization, correct performances may differ markedly (Davies 1987).

With a painting, therefore, there normally exists an original, nominally authen­tic object that can be identified as “the” original; nothing corresponds to this in music. Even a composer’s own performance of an instrumental score — say, Rachmaninoff playing his piano concertos, or Stravinsky conducting The Rite of Spring — cannot fully constrain the interpretive choices of other performers or define for ever “the” authentic performance. (In any event, composer/performers interpret their music differently on different occasions.) Stephen Davies argues that a striving towards authenticity in musical performance does not entail that there is one authentic ideal of performance, still less that this would be a work’s first performance or whatever a composer might have heard in his head while composing the piece. The very idea of a performance art permits performers a degree of interpretive freedom consistent with conventions that govern what counts as properly following the score (Davies 2001; see also Godlovitch 1998; Thom 1993).

Nevertheless, the twentieth-century witnessed the development of an active movement to try to understand better the original sounds especially of seventeenth-and eighteenth-century European music. This has encouraged attempts to perform such music on instruments characteristic of the time, in line with reconstructions of the past conventions that governed musical notation and performance (Taruskin 1995). This concern with authenticity can be justified by the general, though not inviolable, principle which holds that “a commitment to authenticity is integral to the enterprise that takes delivery of the composer’s work as its goal. If we are interested in performances as of the works they are of, then authenticity must be valued for its own sake” (Davies 2001). This interest can take many forms — playing Scarlatti sonatas on harpsichords of a kind Scarlatti would have played, instead of the modern piano; using a Baroque bow over the flatter bridge of a Baroque violin to achieve more easily the double-stopping required of the Bach solo violin works; performing Haydn symphonies with orchestras cut down from the late Romantic, 100-player ensembles used by Brahms or Mahler. These practices are justified by taking us back in time to an earlier performing tradition and, in theory, closer to the work itself.

In this way of thinking, the purpose of reconstructing an historically authentic performance is to create an occasion in which it sounds roughly as it would have sounded to the composer, had the composer had expert, well equipped musicians at his disposal. Enthusiasm for this idea has led some exponents of the early music movement to imagine that they have a kind of moral or intellectual monopoly on the correct way to play music of the past. In one famous put-down, the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska is said to have told a pianist, “You play Bach your way, I’ll play him his way.” The question for aesthetic theory remains: What is Bach’s way? If the question is framed as purely about instrumentation, then the answer is trivially easy: the Bach keyboard Partitas are authentically played in public only on a harpsichord of a kind Bach might have used. But there are other ways in which the music of Bach can be authentically rendered. For instance, Bach’s keyboard writing includes interweaved musical voices which, under the hands of a skilled pianist such as Glenn Gould, can often be revealed more clearly on a modern concert grand than on a harpsichord (Payzant 1978; Bazzana 1997). In general, the dynamic range and gradation of the piano are an advantage for all music performed on it, in contrast with the harpsichord, though the older instrument displays some exquisite qualities in which Bach too can sound glorious. (Its lack of sustaining power, for example, required harpsichord composers to introduce trills and ornamentation which became part of the Baroque style.)

However, if an authentic performance of a piece of music is understood as one in which the aesthetic potential of the score is most fully realized, historic authenticity may not be the best way to achieve it. We would not go back to productions of Shakespeare plays with boys taking the female roles simply because that was the way it was done in Shakespeare’s time. We regard the dramatic potential of those roles as ideally requiring the mature talents of actresses, and write off the Elizabethan practice of boy actors as an historic accident of the moral climate of Shakespeare’s age. We assume, in other words, that Shakespeare would have chosen women to play these parts had he had the option. Similarly, the Beethoven piano sonatas were written for the biggest, loudest pianos Beethoven could find; there is little doubt that he would have favored the modern concert grand, if he had had a choice. (Davies points out, however, that the appeal and point of some of Beethoven’s piano writing, for instance with the Appassionata Sonata, is that it pushes to the limit, and beyond, the capabilities of Beethoven’s instruments: on a modern grand, the sense of instrumental challenge in the power Appassionata is lost, or in any event reduced.) The best attitude towards authenticity in music performance is that in which careful attention is paid to the historic conventions and limitations of a composer’s age, but where one also tries to determine the larger artistic potential of a musical work, including implicit meanings that go beyond the understanding that the composer’s age might have derived from it. In this respect, understanding music historically is not in principle different from an historically informed critical understanding of other arts, such as literature or painting.



In contrast to nominal authenticity, there is another fundamental sense of the concept indicated by two definitions of “authenticity” mentioned in the Oxford English Dictionary: “possessing original or inherent authority,” and, connected to this, “acting of itself, self-originated.” This is the meaning of “authenticity” as the word shows up in existential philosophy, where an authentic life is one lived with critical and independent sovereignty over one’s choices and values; the word is often used in a similar sense in aesthetic and critical discourse. In his discussion of authenticity of musical performance, Peter Kivy points out that, while the term usually refers to historical authenticity, there is another current sense of the term: performance authenticity as “faithfulness to the performer’s own self, original, not derivative or aping of someone else’s way of playing” (Kivy 1995). Here authenticity is seen as committed, personal expression, being true musically to one’s artistic self, rather than true to an historical tradition. From nominal authenticity, which refers to the empirical facts concerning the origins of an art object — what is usually referred to as provenance — we come now to another sense of the concept, which refers less to cut-and-dried fact and more to an emergent value possessed by works of art. I refer to this second, problematic sense of authenticity as expressive authenticity.

The nominal authenticity of a work of art of any culture may be impossible in many cases to know, but where it is possible, it is a plain empirical discovery. To identify expressive authenticity, on the other hand, is a much more contentious matter, involving any number of disputable judgements. Anthony Shelton’s account of the art and culture of the Huichol of north-west Mexico illustrates ambiguities of expressive authenticity (Coote and Shelton 1992). Huichol traditional art is intimately bound up with the rituals that embody the Huichol cosmology and value system, combining aesthetic with local ethical notions. This art involves exchange relations, not only between human and supernatural beings, but also between wife-givers and wife-takers in traditional marriages. While Shelton repeatedly stresses how semiotically distant Huichol art is from Western models — for example in fusing the signifier with the signified — he nevertheless allows that it may have a “counterpart” in the “art and ideas of beauty devel­oped in scholasticism in medieval Europe.” This is certainly true; the notion that a work of art — a statute of the Madonna, for instance — may on occasion actually incarnate, rather than merely represent, is hardly unknown in the European tradition.

Shelton describes the recent rise of Huichol commercial craft — specifically, constructions called “yarn paintings,” wooden tableaux (tablas) that depict episodes from traditional mythology. The yarn is brightly colored commercial material, embedded in beeswax on a plywood base. While deeply sympathetic to Huichol culture, Shelton regards the development of a commercial market for Huichol work as having given birth to a meretricious form of art, something that is not an authentic Huichol cultural expression. The producers of these colorful, even gaudy, pieces, on the other hand, avow their authenticity as significant products of their culture. So who is Shelton, or any outsider, to dispute the indigenous opinion and the values that guide it?

The two most significant aspects of Shelton’s critique of Huichol art involve issues of continuity and audience. While Shelton says there has been a tendency for outsiders and dealers to regard the yarn tablas as “either a traditional artform or as having evolved from a traditional form,” he rejects them as part of a continuous tradition. The Huichol do have a tradition of embedding beads and other materials in beeswax and in this manner decorating votive bowls and flat, wooden rectangles. But Shelton says that, with regard to the yarn constructions, he has been unable to trace any organic principle of evolution suggesting any kind of direct development from older forms. Shelton lists ways in which the tablas must be set apart from traditional Huichol art. The tablas’ brightly dyed commercial yarns on plywood or fibreboard, dense with elaborate color depictions, present something quite unlike sparingly decorated traditional votive objects. Furthermore, the context of production for the modern objects is not the sierra — they are made by Huichol people living in Guadalajara or Mexico City — and such objects, while illustrative of traditional mythologies, have no indigenous religious use.

Shelton therefore regards Huichol yarn tablas as indicative of the crumbling of traditional Huichol society. “Commercial arts and crafts are antipathetic to traditional Huichol values,” he says, because they serve “none of the integrative purposes of traditional art.” As craft items made for sale to foreigners, the tablas are produced to appeal to a culture whose whole theory of knowledge is, on Shelton’s account, radically different from Huichol tradition. The very translation of oral narratives into single pictorial representation takes from them the causal element intrinsic to their cultural character. Shelton notes that the flamboyance of the tablas makes them, in the view of Huichol people, items of “conspicuous consumption.” In this way, the values they embody “are foreign to the Huichol themselves, and conflict with their emphasis on humility and religious introspection.” Consequently, the tablas would never be purchased by traditional Huichols. The tablas have the over­all effect of alienating Huichol people from their own culture. It is in these respects that it is legitimate to call Huichol tablas “inauthentic.”

Shelton criticizes Huichol yarn construction for its failure to be continuously linked to historic Huichol artforms by what he calls an “organic principle of evolution.” Continuity here means persistent presence of external form, and there is little doubt that this is an adequate criterion for authenticity in some contexts. But concentration on perceptible form ignores the more important issue at stake in assessing the expressive authenticity of art. Authenticity often implies that the original indigenous audience for an art is still intact; inauthenticity that the original audience is gone, or has no interest in the art, and that the art is now being created for a different audience, perhaps for foreign consumption. The authenticity question for Huichol yarn products does not depend on whether beeswax and/or yarn, commercially dyed or not, has been used in the past. The issue is that the yarn constructions have no part in the present religious economy or other aspects of traditional Huichol society, and therefore are not addressed to the people themselves, their fears, dreams, loves, tastes, obsessions. Nor are they subjected to criticism in terms of the values of an indigenous audience: they do not express anything about Huichol life to Huichol people. They are inauthentic in these respects.

3.1 Authenticity and Audiences

Too often discussions of authenticity ignore the role of the audience in establishing a context for creative or performing art. To throw light on the importance of an audience in contributing to meaning in art, consider the following thought-experiment. Imagine the complicated and interlocking talents, abilities, stores of knowledge, techniques, experience, habits, and traditions that make up the art of opera — for example as it is presented, or embodied, by a great opera company, such as La Scala. There is the music and its history, the dramatic stories, the staging traditions, the singers, from the chorus to the international stars, along with the distribution channels for productions — broadcasts, videos, and CDs. In addition, surrounding opera there is a whole universe of criticism and scholarship: historical books are written, academic departments study the music and the art and technique of singing, reviews for new casts and productions appear in magazines and daily newspapers. When the lights go down for a La Scala performance, the curtain rises not on an isolated artistic spectacle, but on an occasion that brings together the accrued work of countless lifetimes of talent, knowledge, tradition, and creative genius.

Now imagine the following: one day La Scala entirely loses its natural, indigenous audience. Local Italians and other Europeans stop attending, and local newspapers cease to run reviews of performances. Nevertheless, La Scala remains a famous attraction for visitors, and manages to fill the hall every night with busloads of tourists. Further, imagine that, although these nightly capacity crowds — consisting of people from as far away as Seoul, Durban, Yokohama, Perth, Quito, and Des Moines — are polite and seem to enjoy themselves, nevertheless, for nearly all of them their La Scala experience is the first and last opera they will ever see. They are not sure when to applaud, and although they are impressed by the opulent costumes, dazzling stage-settings, massed chorus scenes, and sopranos who can sing very high, they cannot make the sophisticated artistic discriminations that we would associate with traditional La Scala audiences of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

How would we expect the demise of the traditional audience to affect the art of opera as practised at this imaginary La Scala? The problem here is not necessarily the loss of good singers or orchestral pit musicians: it is rather the loss of a living critical tradition that an indigenous audience supplies for any vital artform. It is impossible to engage in this thought-experiment without concluding that in the long term oper­atic art as practised at such a La Scala would steeply decline. A Pacific Island dancer was once asked about his native culture. “Culture?” he responded. “That’s what we do for the tourists.” But if it is only for the tourists, who have neither the knowledge nor the time to learn and apply a probing canon of criticism to an artform, there can be no reason to expect that the artform will develop the complex expressive possibilities we observe in the great established art traditions of the world (Dutton 1993).

Why, then do critics and historians of art, music, and literature, private collectors, curators, and enthusiasts of every stripe invest so much time and effort in trying to establish the provenance, origins, and proper identity — the nominal authenticity — of artistic objects? It is sometimes cynically suggested that the reason is nothing more than money, collectors’ investment values — forms of fetishizing, commodification — that drives these interests. Such cynicism is not justified by facts. The nominal authenticity of a purported Rembrandt or a supposedly old Easter Island carving may be keenly defended by its owners (collectors, museum directors), but the vast majority of articles and books that investigate the provenance of art works are written by people with no personal stake in the genuineness of individual objects. Moreover, when this comes into question, issues of nominal authenticity are as hotly debated for novels and musical works in the public domain as they are for physical art objects with a specific commodity value.

Establishing nominal authenticity serves purposes more important than maintaining the market value of an art object: it enables us to understand the practice and history of art as an intelligible history of the expression of values, beliefs, and ideas, both for artists and their audiences — and herein lies its link to expressive authenticity. Works of art, besides often being formally attractive to us, are manifestations of both individual and collective values, in virtually every conceivable relative weighting and combination. Clifford Geertz remarks that “to study an art-form is to explore a sensibility,” and that “such a sensibility is essentially a collective formation” whose foundations “are as wide as social existence and as deep” (Geertz 1983). Geertz is only partially right to claim that the sensibility expressed in an art object is in every case essentially social: even close-knit tribal cultures produce idiosyncratic artists who pursue unexpectedly personal visions within a socially determined aesthetic language. Still, his broader description of works of art, tribal or European, is generally apt, along with its corollary is that the study of art is largely a matter of marking and tracing relationships and influences.

This explains why aesthetic theories that hold that works of art are just aesthetically appealing objects — to be enjoyed without regard to any notion of their origins — are unsatisfactory. If works of art appealed only to our formal or decorative aesthetic sense, there would indeed be little point in establishing their human contexts by tracing their development, or even in distinguishing them from similarly appealing natural objects — flowers or seashells. But works of art of all societies express and embody both cultural beliefs general to a people and personal character and feeling specific to an individual. Moreover, this fact accounts for a large part, though not all, of our interest in works of art. To deny this would be implicitly to endorse precisely the concept of the eighteenth-century curiosity cabinet, in which Assyrian shards, tropical seashells, a piece of Olmec jade, geodes, netsuke, an Attic oil lamp, bird of paradise feathers, and a Maori patu might lay side by side in indifferent splendour. The propriety of the curiosity cabinet approach to art has been rejected in contemporary thought in favour of a desire to establish provenance and cultural meaning precisely because intra- and inter-cultural relationships among artworks help to constitute their meaning and identity.


Leo Tolstoy’s What Is Art?, which was published near the end of his life in 1896, is the work of a genius nearly gone off the rails. It is famous for its fulminations not only against Beethoven, Shakespeare, and Wagner, but also even against Tolstoy’s own great early novels (Tolstoy 1960). It continues, however, to be read for its vivid elaboration of a thesis that has a permanent place in the history of aesthetics: artistic value is achieved only when an artwork expresses the authentic values of its maker, especially when those values are shared by the artist’s immediate community. Tolstoy allowed that modern art was dazzling in its ability to amuse and give pleasure, but damned it as devoid of the spiritual import that ultimately makes art significant to us. Not surprisingly, he lavished praise on naive folk art, especially the Christian art of the Russian peasantry. It is easy to imagine that, had he lived one or two generations later, Tolstoy might have extolled the “primitive” art of tribal societies, not out of a desire to support the modernist agendas of Picasso or Roger Fry, but to champion the notion that the honest art of noble savages expresses authentic spiritual values rejected by modern society.

Tolstoy claimed that cosmopolitan European art of his time had given up trying to communicate anything meaningful to its audience in favour of amusement and careerist manipulation. While he may have been wrong in so dismissing all the art of his age, the extent to which his bitter, cynical descriptions of the art world of his time apply to both popular and high art of our own media-driven age is surprising. Where and how Tolstoy drew the line between art that is falsely sentimental and manipulative on the one hand, and sincerely expressive on the other, has been hotly disputed (Diffey 1985). But it is impossible that these categories could be entirely dispensed with, at least in the critical and conceptual vocabulary we apply to Western art. It is more than just formal quality that distinguishes the latest multimillion-dollar Hollywood sex-and-violence blockbuster or manipulative tear­jerker from the dark depths of the Beethoven Opus 131 String Quartet or the passion­ate intensity of The Brothers Karamazov. These latter are meant in a way that many examples of the former cannot possibly be: they embody an element of personal commitment normally missing from much popular entertainment art and virtually all commercial advertising.

Consider as a last example Dirk Smidt’s account of the carvers of Kominimung, a group of about 330 people living in the middle Ramu River region of Papua New Guinea. Kominimung carvers create masks and shields whose designs incorporate elaborate systems of color-coding and visual symbols for the clans of group. The clan affinities of the shields, which display clan emblems, are accorded the greatest importance by the men who bear them in skirmishes with their enemies in nearby villages. These emblems touch deep human feelings, Smidt explains, but they do more than that:

Warriors protecting themselves with shields are not just human beings holding a plank: they are protected by the ancestor of their clan depicted on the shield, with whom they identify....When holding the shield, they almost literally get under the skin of the ancestor via the unpainted part, resembling a tear drop, on the upper half of the back of the shield, which is the spot where the shield rests against the shoulder. (Smidt 1990)

The shield, Smidt claims, is a living being, the construction and painting of which goes through steps symbolizing the bones, flesh, blood, and skin of humans.

As a life may depend on its powers of defense, the making of a shield involves an intense devotion to getting the design and construction right. However, this does not entail slavish submission to the traditional demands of genre. Smidt states that “much weight is given to individual execution.” He records that it is often said by the Kominimung that one should follow one’s own ideas and not copy from another person. “When a carver temporarily puts away a shield he has been working on he may turn it with its front towards the wall of the house, in order to prevent other carvers from ‘stealing his ideas’.” In other words, while Kominimung shields are expressive of the sensibility of a culture, they are also understood at the same time to embody the sensibility of the individual carver. This is not merely a matter of local copyright on ideas: it involves the emergence of the carver’s individual vision into the design of the shield or other carving. As one Kominimung carver told Smidt, “A woodcarver must concentrate, think well and be inspired. You must think hard which motif you want to cut into the wood. And you must feel this inside, in your heart.” For the Kominimung, good carving is a matter of technical mastery, of feeling, and of meaning it.

Smidt’s description of artistic life in Papua New Guinea reminds us that the idea of expressive authenticity is not exclusively Western. Varieties of formalism in aesthetics have at various times attempted to discount its significance, but if it is possible for art ever to express anything whatsoever, then questions of sincerity, genuineness of expression, and moral passion, are in principle relevant to it. Expressive authenticity is a permanent part of the conceptual topography of our understanding of art.



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