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Friday, August 17, 2018

The Philosophical Difference Between Original Art and a Fake

Rembrandt’s Lucretia
Why do people prefer an original work of art to an exact-copy of it when they cannot tell the difference between the two? It cannot be due to aesthetic reasons because the two look similar. It is possible that if the copy which looks like the original is a counterfeit, we will be averse to it for purely moral reasons, just as we are averse to any act of fraud.

But even if the copies do not entail any act of counterfeiting, they can evoke some kind of negative response from people. For instance, there are copies of Leonardo da Vinci’s Monalisa and other famous masterpieces that are openly labelled as exact-copies. If the original and the exact-copy are displayed side-by-side in a museum, people will queue up in front of the original.

Nelson Goodman offers a perspective on the philosophical difference between an original and a copy in Chapter 3, “Art and Authenticity,” of his book Languages of Art: An Approach to A Theory of Symbols. He argues that we prize an original more than a copy because we realize that even though we do not detect the difference between them today, we may in future have the knowledge and the tools to discern the difference. He writes:
Although I cannot tell the pictures apart merely by looking at them now, the fact that the left-hand one is the original and the right-hand one a forgery constitutes an aesthetic difference between them for me now because knowledge of this fact (1) stands as evidence that there may be a difference between them that I can learn to perceive, (2) assigns the present looking a role as training toward such a perceptual discrimination, and (3) makes consequent demands that modify and differentiate my present experience in looking at the two pictures. 
According to Goodman, even if the copy is better than the original, people will prefer the original. He argues that we derive more aesthetic pleasure from a work of art that we know is original. He offers the example of Rembrandt’s Lucretia—even if we have an exact molecule-for-molecule copy created by an advanced computer of the painting, we will still want to look at the original because our aesthetic need can only be quenched by looking at a painting that has been created by Rembrandt.

The history of a work of art plays an important role in the way we judge it and the pleasure that we derive from looking at it. Goodman says that “a forgery of a work of art is an object falsely purporting to have the history of production requisite for the (or an) original work of art.”

In a passage in The Critique of Judgement, Immanuel Kant offers an argument similar to Goodman’s. Kant talks about the joy of hearing the song of a nightingale on a quiet moonlit summer evening and notes that the sound may not be enjoyable if we came to know that it was being produced by a some clever, roguish boy hiding in the bushes with a reed in his mouth. “Our interest vanishes completely as soon as we realize that we have been deceived.” Therefore the history of a work of art plays an important role in the pleasure that we derive from it.

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