Tag Archives: Walter Benjamin

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Valuing the Source More than the Thing

                           A Fake Rothko

Eight million dollars is a lot to pay for a fake. But it is still the same canvas that was once loved when it was purchased years ago.

Sometimes our apparent devotion to a specific thing gets betrayed by our deeper and occasionally unmasked love for its ostensible caché.  We may like the idea of owning something more than the object itself.  For example, many of us have hundreds of books that we may never read again. But they stay nearby, proudly displayed as representations of an identity we are willing to share. These books are doing most of their work as unopened artifacts, their spines neatly lined up and visible for the world to see.

Our misplaced love for assumed attributions of good taste suggests values that have perhaps become inverted. To use the language of the art world, can the provenance of an object mean more than the object?  Sometimes– a fact well represented in Director Barry Avrich’s documentary, Made You Look now available on Netflix. It’s drama means that it will surely be a feature film in the near future. In it, Avrich takes us back to the early 2000s and to New York’s Knoedler Gallery and its Director, Ann Freedman.  Over a full decade, 80 million dollars changed hands at the gallery as what were supposedly “unknown” paintings by Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko were sold to Manhattan’s money-to-burn elites.  Even the President of the Board at Sotheby’s and his wife couldn’t resist.

You know where this is heading.  All of the newly discovered works of abstract impressionism were fakes. They were sold to Freeman, who found it convenient to accept the story of a Queens New York woman who claimed that she was simply helping a friend, a South American art collector who wished to sell off works that he no longer wanted. The mysterious woman sold them to the gallery for modest sums, and then the gallery sold them to their well-healed clients.

In fact, there was no collector. Instead, a very good Chinese artist then living on Long Island had mastered the common cultural practice of making nearly perfect paintings in the styles of the artists. It was an effective con involving scores of “new” canvasses that had supposedly been purchased directly from leading painters of mid-Twentieth Century American art.

The problem is what to make of copies of a famous work at a time when we have almost perfect tools of reproduction.

Interestingly, if we buy a copy of a musical performance—perhaps a CD, DVD or download—we know we are getting a copy, and that is exactly what we want.  We want the performance that is brought back to life in bytes or pixels. With music, everyone can be a collector of music.  But the modern art world has a distorted set of values.  The assumption is that each painting is unique and monetizes the celebrity of a famous artist.  All of this presumably increases the size of the numbers on price tags. A long-running BBC series, Fake or Fortune, made the same point for years. Sleuthing the origins of someone’s inheritance of a possible Constable or Gainsborough became the most popular arts program in Britain.

Avrich talks to some of the people who were duped, including Dominico and Eleanore De Soles. They thought they were buying the rather striking painting at the top of this piece, supposedly by Mark  Rothko.  Even though Mr. De Soles was an auction house executive, he was fooled like almost everyone else who viewed it. When the con was revealed, suddenly the picture that had hung on the wall of their home was, in his word, “worthless.”

The problem of what to make of copies in an age of instant reproduction is actually not a new quandary.  Philosopher Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935), raises the question of what to make of convincing copies of the real thing. After making a pitch for cherishing “authenticity,” he reaches the mostly unsatisfying conclusion that an original as an “aura” that is missing in a copy.  But there is at least some logic here. In simpler terms, perhaps the De Soles and others were buying a vaunted reputation that comes with an established artist, something both less and more than the material object itself.

One indicator of this inverted state of affairs is the recent observation of writer and critic Fran Lebowitz, who has noted how strange it is that auctions of stunningly high-priced works follow a pattern where the painting is shown to a packed but silent room, followed by a burst of applause only when a final high bid is finally accepted. Similarly, for many news organizations the story of a famous painting is not about the art, but the astronomical price paid for it.

     The Alleged fake Renoir owned by Donald Trump

Donald Trump apparently owns an attractive but fake Renoir. It may be easier to sell a fake to someone who so eagerly trades in appearances. Even so, it probably still hangs on a wall in one of his homes. And it should. Ditto for the Chinese copy that the De Soles bought. Eight million dollars is a lot to pay for a fake. But it’s worth remembering that it is the same canvas they bought and loved years ago.


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Subverted Experiences

     A fake Renoir owned by Donald Trump

Anyone can hang a version of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in their home or view it online.  But seeing the original fulfills the desire for a pilgrimage. 

What does it mean for a painting or a musical piece to be endlessly replicated and copied? Is a good reproduction of the Mona Lisa still a Mona Lisa?  Is a march by John Phillips Sousa captured on old Victor acoustic recordings that he hated still a Sousa march? And what does it say about our sensibilities that a lot of people on the rim of the Grand Canyon seem to be preoccupied with a digital device rather than the glorious and unmediated view?

Budding critics and art scholars are usually required to take a look at Walter Benjamin’s seminal 1935 piece, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. He addresses the question of how we should treat a copy of an original at a point in time when copies of everything are mostly what we know.  Benjamin claims an original has an “aura” that a  reproduction cannot match.  And  yet, as the recent BBC/Netflix series Fake or Fortune makes clear, it may require the precision of an electron microscope to tell the difference between a Renoir and a good fake. We see millions of paintings done in the style of French master.  If we love the style, why not love them all, regardless of their pedigrees?

To say the least, our relationship with an original in its own place is peculiar and unstable.  Anyone trying to actually see the Mona Lisa in Paris or Vincent van Gogh’s iconic Starry Night in New York is likely to experience the same kind of crowding that happens on a subway platform. The mob scenes in the galleries often block a clear view of a painting, mostly because of a forest of cameras held high to catch the moment.  What brings these crowds out?  Is the real thing that much better than a good print?  Do the hordes expect some sort of transference-by-proximity?

It’s usually the case that a photo of a painting or a bootleg of a concert will be a degraded form of the original. But I suspect the expectation of seeing more in the original is usually not the point. A better explanation is fundamentally social: tied to being in the presence of a recognized icon, even when the actual experience is surely a long way from what the artist envisioned as an ideal viewing experience.  Indeed, the fact that there are so many copies of a cultural artifact surely increases the impetus to find the original.


Being in the space of the original is what functions as a kind of secular pilgrimage.

My theory: as individuals, we occasionally need just one degree of separation rather than six.  We need to be at the scene of what everyone else celebrates second hand.  And we need to take home some evidence that we were there. Anyone can hang a version of the Mona Lisa in their home or view it online. But being in the space of the original is what functions as a kind of secular pilgrimage. Somehow our status as an occupant of the planet is formally affirmed.  Our own Hajj can lay claim to the association factor that comes with being in the same place.

None of us are immune to this pull.  Ask anyone what they have put on their personal ‘bucket list,’ and you are bound to hear about places that are crowded with people on their own pilgrimages. These might include throngs of tourists in Times Square, the daily homages paid to any number of pieces of art sitting in a city’s premier museum, or even a tour of the Warner Brothers back lot. We seek the aura that Benjamin suggests, even though the circumstances of our attendance usually end up sabotaging what is or was so sublime about the original.

     Midwest Street, the Warner Brothers Back Lot

For example, in Burbank we can still visit outdoor sets used in the shows The Music Man, Gilmore Girls and La La Land.  But with film, the fakes are actually the sets, which are used along with a number of  photographic “cheats” to make them look authentic. With film, the real thing is what actually ends up on a screen out in Duluth or Denver.

Of course being ‘in the scene’ says little about understanding what makes a work a masterpiece. For that we need the practiced eye of a dedicated appreciator, and maybe a sense of the consciousness an artist originally experienced.  All may be more easily captured away from the crowds and planted in front of a good facsimile. But of course this deprives us of the social act of visiting our own version of Mecca.