Friday, 9 October 2009

On Appearance and Authenticity

Between Rene Magritte’s 1926 drawing ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ and Michael Craig-Martin’s 1973 sculpture ‘An Oak Tree’ is made apparent the final evolution and subsequent conundrum of contemporary art. In Magritte’s drawing the viewer sees a carefully rendered visual representation of a pipe floating on the page above the drawn words of the title (which translates as ‘This is not a pipe’) in a style reminiscent of a botanical text book. In Craig-Martin’s sculpture the viewer sees a glass of water on a plain glass shelf placed above head height while below left on the wall a text by the artist pre-empts questions and their answers arising from the work.

The former informs the viewer that not only is the drawing of the pipe not a pipe but neither are the words “this is not a pipe” (to what does the word (or even the drawn representation of the word) “this” refer? Is it the drawing of the pipe? Is it the words? Or is it the word ‘this’ itself?), and in a very simple singular gesture Matisse undermines the language systems (visual and verbal) on which human beings rely to navigate their world. [1] We can only know a thing if it is named. But the name is not the thing. [2] This may appear obvious but surely it proves that we can truly know nothing. This statement has been a fundamental question of philosophy since Plato considered the flickering shadows on his cave wall.

With ‘An Oak Tree’ Craig-Martin completes the work begun by Duchamp in 1917 with ‘Fountain’ by claiming that not only can anything be art if the artist declares it to be, but that the artist can declare it to be anything he wishes it to be. The glass of water on a glass shelf is not a glass of water on a glass shelf. It is an oak tree, in as much as the words “an oak tree” cannot be an oak tree. Craig-Martin states, in a gesture as equally simple and devastating as Matisse’s, that art is a more powerful tool for navigating the world than is the word, and also that art, and subsequently life, can, and does, lie.

[1] For a full (if highly idiosyncratic) exploration of the philosophical implications of Matisse’s work see Michel Foucault, This Is Not A Pipe, translated by James Harkness, University of California 1983
[2] See Jacques Derrida’s meditation on Death as an unpassable and therefore unknowable barrier ‘Aporias’, translated by Thomas Dutoit, Stanford University Press 1993

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Fake or Real?

In October’s issue of The Art Newspaper there is a story, subsequently reported in a number of other media outlets, of a painting which until recently had been considered a valuable forgery. The painting, ‘The Procuress’, a brothel scene, owned since 1960 by the Courtauld Institute in London, was thought to be a twentieth century ‘fake’ in the style of the Dutch Golden Age by notorious counterfeiter Hans van Meegeren, known for his exceptional Vermeer copies. Scientific studies performed over the last year by Courtauld specialists and The Art Newspaper have discovered ‘The Procuress’ is more likely to be an ‘original’ by a fairly average painter of the Dutch Golden Age, Dirck van Barburen. What was once valuable because it was a brilliant fake becomes less valuable because it is a mediocre original.

What does this story tell us about the current criterion used to value a work of art? Physically it is the same painting, but with its new context it becomes an entirely different work. Roland Barthes discussed the ‘Death of the Author’ in his seminal essay of that title. Michel Foucault responded with his question ‘What is an Author?’ Both were interrogating the relationship between a work and its creator. Can one be separated from the other? Can we understand a work fully without knowing its back-story? Or do we need an intimate knowledge of the author of a work and the cultural context of its creation to be able to judge its artistic (and indeed fiscal) value? Barthes said the work doesn’t have a single author. It cannot be separated from its context and time, as it can only exist as an amalgam of the ideas, words and thoughts which preceded it. Foucault added to this saying if we wanted to understand the meaning of a writers’ work we should place as much weight on his shopping lists as we do on his masterpiece.

Surely this is the same painting? It is the same pigment on the same canvas depicting the same scene; the same quality of brush stroke; the same insight into light and colour, shape and form? The same talent, or lack thereof? Apparently not. Apparently we now have two paintings: the potentially true and the potentially false, each living their own life depending on which context, which author, you the viewer, believe in. And it is the potentially false version of events which the art world values highest.

Albert Camus said, in ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’, his study of the absurd, that the act of creation is ‘the absurd joy par excellence’. Nietzsche is quoted in the same work as saying ‘we have art in order not to die of the truth.’ Can we not value art without knowing the truth of it? Or is all art a lie?