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?