Fiona Bruce made the obvious point, of course: how absurd it is that the painting’s value balances on the neuroses of Guy Wildenstein. But we must ask ourselves the deeper question: why is it that a painting’s worth should be connected to its authenticity at all? Fiona Bruce is forgiven for not asking this question; after all, it would undermine the premise of her programme all together, destroying the dichotomy between fake and fortune. Nevertheless, it demands to be asked. What difference does it make, really, if a painting was painted by Claude Monet in his studio-boat on the Seine, or by Freddy Forger down in old Portobello Road? Surely the fundamental substance of any painting, the impression it gives to the impartial viewer, doesn’t change at all once it’s been downgraded from a genuine work to a forgery. It’s still the same painting, after all; it still looks as pretty. But no, the art world’s procurers will say, this was painted by no one special – it can’t be worth much.
It occurs to me that this highlights a very pertinent problem in the art world, namely the shift of focus from the art to the artist. More than any other medium, the plastic arts have become dominated by the culture of personality. I’m reminded of a light-hearted interview with the eminent artist Tracey Emin, in which Paul Merton suggested that she imitate Picasso and, rather than paying for a meal in a restaurant outright she should offer up a quick doodle in payment. Unsurprisingly, she rejected this out of hand: “My drawing inevitably is going to be worth a lot more than the meal.” She was, of course, completely right; more right, perhaps, than even she realised at the time. Her drawing will inevitably be worth more than the meal. It doesn’t actually matter what the drawing is, or whether it’s any good or not. Its worth is decided by the fact that it’s a genuine drawing my Tracy Emin. In fact, it’s Emin’s eminence which grants her works value, not the works themselves.
As the chasm between ‘high art’ and simple aesthetic sensibilities has widened over the last few decades (even the last century), the culture of personality has come into full bloom. The pressure really is on for the middle-classes to appreciate, and to be seen appreciating, fine art without making fools of themselves, and what better way than to make recourse to the artist’s reputation? It’s generally a safe bet, after all, when uncertain to hide in the crowd. Oh, is this by Tracy Emin? you'll hear them say as they peruse the art galleries, Yes, very interesting. I hear she’s very eminent. And they’ll nod sagely and no one will ever guess that they haven’t a bastard clue what they’re talking about. That’s not to say, incidentally, that all avid art-goers are secret bullshitters, or that all modern art is worthless, or any of that reactionary tripe. I would hate for you, my beautiful readership, to come away from this post imagining that I am a denigrator of modern art; nothing could be further than the truth. The fact remains, however, that we have fermented in our society a culture which glorifies the artist over the art.
Mercifully, this isn’t so much the case in the world of literature, in particular that of prose fiction, where ‘literary’ fiction is never a million miles away from crime thrillers or Mills and Boon romances, and can often be found on the same shelf in bookshops or libraries (if there are any of them left). Moreover, literature is an implastic art; it doesn’t exist in paper or ink, or in any physical thing at all, but in the abstract relationships between words, and as such a piece of literature cannot really be owned, it can only be experienced. A genuine work by Monet or Emin is likely to set you back a good few millions of pounds, but you can pop into a bookshop any day of the week and get yourself a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses (which, I aver, is the greatest novel of the English language), for a cool £9.99, and experience it as completely as though Joyce were whispering it into your soul. Perhaps we can learn something, then, from the tenets of literature.
Wallace Stevens wrote Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction as a polemical poem on precisely what it is (or, perhaps, what it should be) that makes good poetry. He split it off into three sections, each establishing one of his three cardinal rules: It Must Be Abstract, It Must Change and It Must Give Pleasure. This final rule is the one we should focus on; it must give pleasure. Surely this has to be the ultimate purpose for any work of art, and who’s really to say from where one derives one’s pleasure? Why can’t we just stop caring about who painted this painting, or who constructed that installation, and just stand back for a minute and ask ourselves, Does it give pleasure? Does it make us bubble and splutter and froth with joy when we experience it? It does? Well lovely. That must be a good bit of art then. And after all, isn’t a forgery just as capable of giving pleasure as the genuine article? In fact, it’s in forgeries that we can find the solution to our problem. It would be marvellous, I think, if we could saturate the art market with forgeries, set all the forgers to work filling up the coroners of art dealers and galleries with fakes, so that nobody would be able to tell who’d painted what anymore. The question of attribution, and thence the culture of personality, would evaporate in a haze of uncertainty. I dream of a day on which I can walk into an art dealer’s shop and overhear the following conversation: Is this painting a genuine Monet? – I don’t know. – Well, it looks pretty enough. I’ll take two.
The image is a genuine work by Claude Monet (1840-1926)