Monday, March 1, 2010


Authenticity: A Trap for Fools. Act One
Selling Genuineness

An essay by T. Storm Heter

One year after Andy Warhol's death in 1987 an American filmmaker Joe Simon-Whelan paid $195,000 for a Warhol silk screen, "Red Self Portrait," made in 1964. In 2001 Simon-Whelan found a buyer willing to give him $2 million--but on the condition that the work be submitted to the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board. Simon-Whelan agreed without hesitation and was shocked when he received a short letter from the Board stating that 'Red Self Portrait' was a fake. Simon-Whelan's frustration grew as he asked for a public explanation of the Board's decision and received none. In July of 2007 Simon-Whelan filed a suit against the Board, arguing that it wrongly denied the authenticity of Red Self Portrait for selfish economic reasons; the Board, Simon-Whelan said, was not a disinterested party, but in fact had close relationships with several art galleries and dealers who wanted to corner the market on Warhols.

The evidence that Red Self Portrait is an authentic Warhol is compelling, in fact overwhelming. (See Richard Dorment, "What Is an Andy Warhol?" New York Review of Books, Volume 56, Number 16 · October 22, 2009) The facts of the case are interesting in their own right, but perhaps not as interesting as the underlying assumptions about what "authenticity" means in the context of artistic production, and moreover why anyone should care about it.

Money, money, money. That's the first answer. If I own a car and someone steals it and sells it, I'm not happy. I've been robbed of my assets. So if I own a painting (whether I've painted it or not), and someone steals it and sells it, I've been snookered. Artists and intellectuals have more to worry about than just the physical books they write or the pieces of cloth they stain with paint; we also have in investment in our intellectual property. Think of sampling. Sure, I'd love for others to get inspired by my music, ideas or images and develop a work of their own, but I don't want to be ripped off. There are lots of foggy areas when it comes to separating influence from theft, but Picasso wasn't ripping of Braque, Coltrane wasn't ripping off Dolphy, and Paul Simon wasn't ripping off Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The Audry Hepburn film "How to Steal a Million" (1966) illustrates a caricatured case of the rip-off; the sleuth (Peter O'Toole) catches the master copyist who paints daring fakes in his super secret studio. As the title indicates, the stakes are monetary.

But what if we factor out the money? I still care if someone plagiarizes my writing, even if he doesn't make a dime doing so. I am insulted that someone else would fail to give credit where credit is due. I am both insulted at the lack of integrity of the other person, but mainly what I desire is
recognition. I want the public response to the created object to be directed at me, not at others.

If authenticity is bound up with recognition, we must wonder about anonymous works. If authenticity means recognition directed at the right person, then it might seem that anonymity is disingenuous; but surely not. There are times with anonymity is cowardly, other times when it is a practical or legal necessity, and yet other times when it is part and parcel of the artistic gesture. Graffiti is somewhere in the middle between anonymity and recognition. The tag is a secret code used when one wants recognition from some (fellow graffiti artists) and anonymity from others (police).

The dispute over Red Self Portrait is whether Warhol created the work with his own hand. He didn't sign the work, but not all Warhols are signed by Warhol and not all works signed by Warhol are Warhols. Warhol sometimes signed actual cans of Campbell's soup; are these soup cans instantly transformed into Andy Warhols? The collectors--the people with the money--pronounce the can to be worth the signature itself and nothing more. When Warhol signs a silk screen reproduction of one of his works with "This is not an Andy Warhol. Andy Warhol" do we read it as irony or as the literal truth? It is of course literally true, but why point out this fact unless to toy with the whole authentication enterprise. Bottom line: Warhol wants to have his fun, but he isn't interested in some punk "Stealing a Million" at his expense.

Much of Warhol's work was collaborative. Those familiar with his working methods have said that it wasn't unusual for him to to swoop in at the last minute and put his finishing touches on a work or to give directions over the phone. There were even times when Warhol did nothing but sign a work that was crafted entirely by someone else.

Richard Dorment writes, "Throughout the 1960s Warhol was personally involved in choosing, mixing, and applying the paint in most of the silk-screened works. But it was also his frequent practice to delegate the manual task of silk-screening an image onto canvas to his assistants Gerard Malanga and Billy Name. Malanga has said that in the summer of 1963 he was responsible for painting several canvases, including some Electric Chairs, entirely by himself. The following year Warhol told a journalist from Glamour magazine, "I'm becoming a factory," and of course the building he worked in wasn't called the "Studio" but the "Factory.""

Warhol cut his teeth as a commercial artist which taught him that relinquishing control, bureaucratizing, could create an entirely different kind of art. To judge by contemporary art criticism, it it Warhol's process that has had the lasting effect on the art world. Warhol is synonymous with 'The Factory.' His scene is his art. Warhol is a performance artist. His rejection of painting is a performance. Warhol transformed himself into one of the images that he produced and painted. He was a hollow silkscreen of himself. Warhol was himself a faker. The fakest of fakers. The least authentic. All shell, no inside.

And so now we've stumbled on further, non-economic sense of genuineness: genuineness-as-artistic-and-emotional-depth. The authentic artist is he who taps into a reservoir of inner emotions. These emotions must be his own, and not someone else's. When a white middle class kid does a heartfelt rendition of 'redemption song' what emotional sluice gate slides open? What does the line 'old pirates yesterday rob I,' mean for this performance artist? It's comical to hear a chameleonic cover artist who mimics every miniscule vocal aside, every riff, and who even goes so far as to develop a foreign accent. When semi-anonymous bloggers--like the man known only as 'brap'--write that the Beach Boy's tune Let's Have a Luau "was an Alpine heap of suck," I can only guess it is because of the fake Hawaiian accents the Boys used throughout the song. The Beach Boys are perhaps all surface, like Warhol--everything conspires against calling them genuine-in-the-sense-of-having-emotional-depth; but personally, I cannot help but hear the structure of the music (harmonies, layering, overdubs) as an emotional Alpine avalanche. If Warhol is all facade, the Beach Boys are a clown's face: behind the makeup we see facial wrinkles revealing an old soul.

It is always possible to assimilate Warhol's anti-authenticity project as just another variation of the old style of authenticity. Let's reduce authenticity to a word--uniqueness. Warhol, although trying to disrupt the classical idea of an artist who paints all his works by hand and then signs them, is nonetheless just trying to be unique. Maybe we are dealing with oldest trick in the book: the artist/intellectual claims to be radically different from his predecessors, but the narrative 'I'm radically different' is the same narrative that everyone else claims. The narrative of radicalness, newness, uniqueness is the oldest appeal to authenticity we know. To claim that what I am doing is not new, novel, unique, or different--that's unusual. But what a psychological feat it is to believe that I am not an individual, but a mass-person, an everyman, a shallow representation of my generation. I wonder if art is even possible if the artist identifies wholly with the average, the mean, the has-been-done, the copy.

New York writer Cynthia Ozick has a brilliant portrait of the borderline between authentic and inauthentic in her novel "The Puttermesser Papers." The protagonist, Ruth Puttermesser, falls in love with a man who anyone in their right mind would call a "copyist"; he reproduces paintings of the masters, photographs them, and sells them, avoiding the financial difficulties that might come with photographing and selling the originals. The copyist furiously refuses Puttermesser's labeling him a 'copyist'; he is a proud, authentic, original artist. Nobody has told him what to do; nobody is causing his action; his 'art' is the height of human freedom. All this he maintains without a shred of irony. Puttermesser thinks the copyist is a playing a cosmic joke, and when it turns out he's not, she finds that the two of them are living out a screenplay not of their own making. Their lovemaking is nothing more than hours of reading aloud from George Eliot novels. Puttermesser's fascination with the personal life of Eliot metastasizes until she and the copyist are acting out every odd detail of Eliot's personal love life. Suddenly there are no stones to throw. Uniqueness, individuality, newness--these concepts become meaningless. Our lives have already been lived before. The only thing that separates us from the past is attention to detail.

The copyist is a performance artist, and what makes him remarkable is simply a lack of irony. Is he all surface in the way I've said Warhol is all surface? Perhaps. The difference between the copyist and Warhol is the spirit of seriousness of the former and the 'f-you' that I can never escape feeling when absorbed in a Warhol performance piece. Warhol doesn't need your approval; the copyist does.

To keep myself from becoming too serious about authenticity I dream about a surrealist Authentication Board. Living artists would have to submit their own work--work that they know they have produced--to the Board. The Board copies the paintings, stamps the original with a huge, permanent 'inauthentic' mark, sells the copies as originals, burns the money, takes a polaroid of the burnt money, then sneaks into the Guggenheim and when the guard isn't looking, tacks the polaroid to the wall. That poor artist, struggling for authenticity, has got what he wanted: he's been hung in the Guggenheim, after all. The money was never the real point, was it? The superficial, capitalist notion of authenticity was not what the artist was looking for, or else he'd have gained it right away by selling his works to the highest bidder.

To me the 'readymade' was the first of a series of brilliant and hilarious countermeasures against a romantic ideal of authenticity. Modern art requires irony. Modern art requires an engagement with bureaucracy. Individualism is a modern pathology. The mass-produced, the fake, the surface, the recycled, the serial: these are the terms through which performance--the only true medium of modern art--must sell itself.

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