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Are Works Of Art Relics?

"Untitled" by Mark Rothko, on display before auction at Sotheby's, New York, in May. Does its value stem from its pedigree? Or is it valuable because of its contribution to the ongoing dialog that is human expression through the ages? Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

"Untitled" by Mark Rothko, on display before auction at Sotheby's, New York, in May. Does its value stem from its pedigree? Or is it valuable because of its contribution to the ongoing dialog that is human expression through the ages?

Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

In an essay just published in The Brooklyn Rail, NYU art historian Alexander Nagel argues that it's time to move beyond the relic-cult model of artworks that, he believes, has influenced our attitudes to art since about 1700.

His essay appears in a series of articles in The Rail — the Held Essays on Visual Art, edited by JDT Neil — which includes thematically related contributions by art critic Blake Gopnik and others (including me).

Members of a religious cult cherish and venerate a tunic not because there's anything special about the ratty old garment, but because, so they believe, the garment was once worn (let's say) by a saint. Whether something is a relic, therefore, is not the sort of thing you can see, just as you can't see, by looking at a person, that he or she woke up in New York City this morning. Of course, there may very well be visible clues about a would-be relic's origins. Following up on these, and authenticating the relic, is a job for the historian, or the scientist, or, perhaps, the detective.

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And so, according to Nagel, we have come to think of works of art as valuable because of who made them, or when, or under what conditions (or at least, according to Nagel, this is one idea shaping our attitudes to art and its value). A Pollock may be worth millions. But a copy, one that was not made by his hand, even one that fools the experts, is worth nothing.

Commenting on the recent Abstract Expressionism forgery scandal, (see also my discussion here), Nagel suggests that Abstract Expressionism may be particularly vulnerable to copying. Not because the paintings in question are easier to copy than paintings in other styles, but rather because the Abstract Expressionists, at least by the lights of their champions, so rigorously adhere to the relic conception. They are invested in the idea that the works were themselves the unmediated, direct, pure expression of the creative hand of the artist.

The idea that our attitudes to art are shaped by a relic model makes sense of the fact that we value originals more than copies. It also makes sense of a certain way of thinking of the connoisseur — this is point that is made by Gopnik — according to which the basic job of the connoisseur is to pursue traces left on a canvass back to its historical origin, just as a detective follows up on fingerprints. If we think of artworks as relics, it's difficult to see what other job connoisseurs could have. We want to know whether there is evidence that this artwork was made by this person, just as we might want to know whether this tunic was worn by this person. Whatever intrinsic properties or qualities the painting or tunic may have, on the relic conception, can only be irrelevant to the question of its status and ultimately its worth.

And finally, as Nagel discusses, the relic-cult model explains why, as a culture, we are so anxious about art forgery.

It was not always so, he explains. In the Renaissance, for example, before the supposed advent of the relic model, it was widely supposed that excellent copies inherited the quality of their originals. In this setting, copying was not a crime and forgery not really even possible. Nagel tells how one collector, when asked by a friend for a painting in her possession, responds that she will give it gladly once she's had a chance to get a copy made for herself. And religious icons are, precisely, copies whose manner of reproduction licenses putting them to use in the service of religious practice. An appropriately reproduced icon is an icon, just as an appropriately copied chess set is a chess set.

I find Nagel's reasoning compelling and his discussion illuminating. But I wonder if he's right that we are in the grip of the relic-cult conception. As I am sure Nagel would gladly admit, there is much in our attitudes to artworks that doesn't quite fit with the relic conception. Sure, we care who made a work, when, and under what conditions. But when we care about art we also care about the works themselves, their look and their meaning. We engage with them, we contemplate them, we think about them. The problem is, none of that really makes any sense on the relic conception.

By the same token, to return to Gopnik's point about connoisseurs, it seems somehow untrue to think of connoisseurs as if they were measuring instruments for determining what a work is by tracing it back to its historical origin. Connoisseurs, on a natural understanding of that term, look, evaluate and seek to find the words to describe what they see. The seek to explain why they judge as they do and, so, they aim to persuade others to see things as they do. They are educators. If they are interested in origins — as they surely may be — this is not because a thing's value is exhausted relic-style by the facts of its origin, but because the facts of its origin belong to making a thing the kind of thing it is is (as being caused by the sun makes a sunburn the kind of thing it is).

Do we need to suppose that we are in the grip of a relic model of art to explain our attitudes about forgery and our resistance to the value of copies? I think not.

Instead of the relic model, maybe our attitudes to works of art are shaped by what you might call the conversation model. According to the conversation model, works of art are regarded as gestures, or utterances, or moves in an ongoing dialog or conversation. The value of a work consists, then, in the originality of its contribution, or perhaps, just, in the wit with which it takes up the play of ideas. The work is valuable, on this view, because it is, after all, a datable foray into an ongoing and historically changing conversation.

The conversation model lets us make sense of the advent of forgery. Passing off of a copied work of art as an original, on the conversation model, is like passing off a fake bank check. A bank check is only authentic if it bears a valid signature. But this doesn't mean that the check stands to the signatory in the relation of the tunic to the saint. That is, we don't need to think of check writing according to the relic model to make sense of this. It is, rather, that it is only if they were signed in the right way by the right person that the check constitutes a commitment to make payment.

And so with works of art: regardless of what the painting appears to say or mean, it fails to say or mean anything if, in fact, no one ever really put it forward, in the right time and place, as a proposition.

And that's true even if, as a matter of fact, there is no way to tell, by looking, whether the painting is in fact an original. Art forgeries are not sham relics (objects with falsified pedigrees), they are sham communications or expressions or declarations. This is something, it seems to me, that the conversational model, but not the relic conception, can explain.

And it is something that sheds light on the distinctive way that art matters to us. The power of a work of art is not like that of a tunic. Not even a tunic worn by a holy person.

You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe