Thursday, August 19, 2010

Does a Famous Name Make Anything More Beautiful? - WSJ.com

Ansel Adams, Caravaggio and Other Art Authentication Fights: Does a Famous Name Make Anything More Beautiful? - WSJ.com: "Why is a set of photos worth millions if they were shot by Ansel Adams, and next to nothing if the photographer depressing the plunger was a nobody? After all, the images remain the same. To the extent that art is about appreciating aesthetic objects for their own sake, is it right to put so much stake in the question of who did the drawing or painting or snapping?"
The basic market definition of value is perfectly reasonable: A work is worth what someone will give you for it—an amount usually determined by the intersection of desirability, scarcity and the expectation that there will be someone down the line willing to pay even more. But isn't art supposed to have value that transcends the market—something inherent in the object itself?

We seem to treat paintings like Abe Lincoln's hat, valuing them for their association with great men and historical events. Take a moth-eaten stovepipe: If it came from Abe's White House closet it's a priceless artifact; if not, it's just a worthless old topper. Which is to say, the hat itself, as a hat, isn't a thing of any value. But shouldn't art be something more; something that has intrinsic worth based on aesthetic merit? And so why base so much of its value on who made it?

There can be very good reasons to judge art by who made it rather than by merely appreciating the thing itself. Take two indistinguishable cubist paintings. "We might think they must have exactly the same aesthetic features and value," and yet we would be wrong, says Matthew Kieran, professor of philosophy and the arts at the University of Leeds, in England. "One work was produced by Picasso and was the first cubist art work, the other was produced by me last year. Only the Picasso is original, brave, daring and revolutionary, whereas mine is at best an academic pastiche."

No doubt. But it's also worth imagining what would happen if Vincent van Gogh had died an utter unknown, without any of his paintings ever having been seen or saved. A hundred years later "The Starry Night" turns up at a yard sale, a grimy orphan. Would it be recognized as a masterpiece?

The answer is, regrettably, probably no. Even so, it isn't unreasonable to put so much stock in the reputations of artists, says Jonathan Gilmore, an art critic who teaches philosophy at Yale: "If we don't have enough time or attention to look at every painting, it's better to invest what time and attention we have in considering the work of recognized masters." To that practical reason he adds an aesthetic one: "Our interest in the work by a great artist reflects a relatively justified approach by which we deal with our uncertainty about what is a great work of art."

Given that uncertainty, we might want to be more open-minded when we encounter art of dubious provenance, allowing ourselves to judge and appreciate works for their quality rather than their attribution. Who knows, maybe Uncle Earl was an artist with something to say.