What's in a Fake?

The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

What's in a Fake?


"Talking about Fakes: The War between Aesthetic and Extra-Aesthetic Considerations" by Rochelle Gurstein in Salmagundi (Summer-Fall 2003), Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, N.Y. 12866.

Hanging in New York City's Frick Museum is a wonderful painting called The Polish Rider. It bears the signature of Rembrandt, but some art experts say it's a fraud. If they're proved right, the painting will be virtually worthless in the art market. Yet for many art lovers, it will still be a wonderful picture.

Would the reaction be the same if the artwork were one of Andy Warhol's famous reproductions of a Brillo box?

That question sends Gurstein, author of The Repeal of Reticence (1996), on an inquiry into the history of aesthetics and the debate over the differences between art and imitation. She begins with philosopher Immanuel Kant's distinction in Critique off Judgment (1790) between aesthetic judgment and taste. Aesthetic judgment involves the appreciation of objects that are inherently beautiful, while taste involves the appreciation of objects in relation to ourselves. A cookie, for example, has no inherent beauty, but we can appreciate the delightful encounter of ingredients and taste buds.

The explication of taste led art historians and others to the question of forgeries. Hans Tietze, for example, argued in 1936 that a painting is more than its physical attributes: It is also "the expression of a personality, of an epoch, of a nation, and of a race." A forgery might appear beautiful to the untrained eye, but the connoisseur will detect its defects.

In Languages of Art (1968), Nelson Goodman took a more radical tack. He argued that there is no such thing as the disinterested appreciation of beauty. What happens if we are confronted with both a Rembrandt and a perfect copy of it, Goodman asked?

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