I’ve been mulling over the power of “authenticity” again lately, this time in connection with two developments last week. One was the decision by the Hamburg Museum of Anthropology to shut down an exhibition of what were supposed to be some of the famous Chinese terra cotta warriors from the third century B.C. The museum recently discovered that the figures were actually modern copies.
The other was the discovery by the Art Institute of Chicago that a ceramic sculpture of a faun purchased ten years ago in the belief that it was by Gauguin was actually a very skillful forgery.
Forgery utterly destabilizes most kinds of art, because it goes to the heart of the experience. (I say most kinds because it wouldn’t have the same impact on Duchamp’s readymades or Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, works that simply bypass the whole idea of authenticity.) When aesthetic pleasure is triggered by phony merchandise it calls into question all of our beliefs about the power of art and how it operates. We don’t just respond to the formal qualities of a work of art — line, volume, color, whatever. If we did a good forgery would be just as satisfying as an original. We also invest the work with sentiments based on what we know or think we know about who made it. It’s those sentiments that amplify mere formal pleasures into the higher realms of bliss and awe, or at least into more ample kinds of satisfaction. A good forgery is a like a deceptive lover. You’ve been lured into giving away your heart, and it doesn’t help to know that the deception rests partly on your eagerness to believe.
In London recently I was able to see real examples of the terra cotta warriors at the British Museum’s show “The First Emperor”. Life size figures, each of them individualized to some degree, they make a tremendous impact precisely because we believe them to be the output of workshops from more than 2200 years ago. You pore over them for signals from another time and place about how it conceived humanity. (And for the pleasure of seeing so many ancient faces clearly individuated — it’s like having 20 or so visitors show up on your doorstep.) Would it matter to be looking at replicas? Of course, and for those reasons. As well as for the reason that any modern replica is still bound to be a mediocre and misleading approximation. (But to add an extra layer of paradox, even the authentic figures are misleading, since like Greek marbles they were originally painted in bright colors that have long since worn away.)
With the Gauguin, there’s the additional expectation that the work is invested with the intentions of an individual artist whose name we know. The “aura” around that work is partly a matter of the way we transfer to it our romantic conception of Gauguin. It’s not simply a work of art. It’s in some ways a sentimental keepsake.
But if we no longer have his Faun, at least we still have his teeth. Assuming they’re really his.