The Painting or The Name
What makes a painting historical and canonical? In an age of branding and trademarking, the name tends to weigh more than the work. The Museum of Modern Art’s 1999 exhibition, The Museum As Muse: Artists Reflect, pretty much hit on this when they went out of their way to invite Michael Asher to participate in this exhibition. MoMA knew quite well that what they were “buying” was not only further validation of this institutional critique show, but the name “Michael Asher.” Arguably, at this point in his career, it really didn’t really matter what Asher produced, as his participation (as validation) was enough.
Barry Gewen, of the NY Times Paper Cuts Blog, reviews a book reflecting on this subject. His subject: Edward Dolnick’s, A Forger’s Spell, about Han van Meegeren, a so called “mediocre” Dutch painter but brilliant forger who, “in the 1930s and early 1940s, painted six ‘Vermeers’ that fooled practically everyone.”
Gewen notes that as soon as van Meegeren’s forgeries were discovered, they were removed from important collections and institutions. The problem however was that up until this point van Meegeren’s paintings had “fooled” quite a few historians, critics, scholars, collectors, and yes, even expert authenticators. So what, Gewen asks, do we really value, the painting or the name?
The pictures hadn’t changed, only our knowledge of them. Yet if what we prize in a painting is its intrinsic quality, why should it matter who painted it, and under what circumstances? Is the aesthetic experience any less? Must we have the validation of a famous name like Vermeer before we can admire a work of art? And in that case aren’t we behaving like the philistine tourist in a museum who has to look to see who painted a picture before deciding whether to like it or not?