15 November 2006

An Authentic Stench of Madness

"Authenticity" can be a serious problem in the arts, especially when it's in the interest of someone in the chain between creator and consumer to alter, hide, or blur that authenticity. The most obvious examples — if only because, item by item, they seem to involve the most money and the most column-inches — come from the visual arts. Whether a painting is "really" a Van Gogh or Carvaggio can occupy art galleries (not to mention art auctioneers and scholars) for years.

This is the soul that thousands of art lovers will seek. They want to stand in front of "the real thing", to connect to the master. And yet, if it weren't for some certificate, they could not tell the difference between the authentic and the fake. How much does it matter? "It'รข€™s a great painting and so, whether or not the attribution changes, it does not change the picture itself," declared a spokesman for the National Gallery of Victoria in defence of its questionable Van Gogh.

Rachel Campbell-Johnston, "Of course it's the real thing . . . isn't it?," The Times (London) (15 Nov 2006). If you read the article carefully, you'll discover that many key issues appear to be not substance, but technique. That is, one tells the difference between a "true" and a "false" Carvaggio less by the subject of the painting and the impression that it leaves in the viewer than in technical questions like whether the hidden and "draft" aspects of the painting (framing materials, marking incisions in the canvas, and so on) are more or less like other authenticated works by the same artist. This has some interesting implications for what is original; is something that is purportedly unique to a particular creator's method of work an original element supporting copyrightability? Some theater producers seem to think so.

Sometimes even novels get involved in the same sorts of controversies — even if apparently manufactured as publicity stunts. This is another aspect of authenticity (and madness), and related directly to a third: The sense of reality (or irreality, or surreality) invoked by a work's structure. Jerome Weeks's musings on story structure and reality in spy thrillers contrast nicely with the distinction between authenticity in details emphasized by Clancy et al. and the authentic sense of paranoia, deep cover, and betrayal invoked by some authors who have no experience "inside intelligence activity".

Authenticity. Madness. Stench. Hollywood. Digital music. Frightened entertainment-industry executives. It's all a bit much for the morning.