August 3, 2011

Courtney McWhorter on the “Perception of Forgery According to the Role of Art”

by Jessica Graham Nielsen

ARCA welcomed one of the newest scholars to the field, Courtney McWhorter, as she presented her paper on the “Perception of Forgery According to the Role of Art” in the “Fresh Perspectives” panel at ARCA’s International Conference in the Study of Art Crime in Amelia, Italy, on July 10.

McWhorter described the different and changing ways we have valued art over time: from placing a high value on the aesthetic experience; to subsequently valuing its specific place in history; to the current trend of appreciating it more in economic terms. She proposed that as the perceptions of the value of art have changed, so has our acceptance and tolerance for copies and forgeries:
"I will show how art is valued today according to its historicity, rather than its aesthetic capabilities. Such a claim explains why forgeries could have once been acceptable, but now are not because they falsify history."
McWhorter explained that in the Renaissance, art was valued for the aesthetic experience it could impart. Scholars looked to the Ancients for inspiration on how to think about art and embraced Plato and Aristotle’s theories. The Greek philosophers considered art to be a mere copy of the ideal, and that its primary objective should be to evoke a feeling. Thus, when the Duke of Mantua was told that the “Raphael” he had coveted and that had been (reluctantly) given to him by Ottavio de Medici was in reality a copy by Andrea del Sarto, he reportedly said that he “valued it no less than if it were by the hand of Raphael.” In his mind the genius was in Sarto’s perfect copy – an improvement on the original. The copy had artistic merit in its own right.

McWhorter then discussed the 20th century and used Van Meegeren’s “Vermeers” as an example of how the value of art has shifted to one of historicity. Originally esteemed as some of Vermeer’s greatest masterpieces when they were “discovered,” they were disparaged by critics as worthless fakes once Van Meegeren was forced to admit (and prove) that he had actually painted them. The career of the connoisseur who had enthusiastically welcomed them as the long hoped for missing link between Vermeer’s earliest religious work and the small domestic scenes he became associated with later, was ruined. It was the great value placed on art’s historical relevance that Van Meegeren had exploited for the conception and acceptance of his Vermeer pastiches.

Lastly McWhorter turned to the current obsession of valuing art as an economic asset. She showed several images of editorial headlines proclaiming the monetary losses various collectors, including the actor Steve Martin, had suffered by being duped by fakes and forgers such as the “German Ring.” She blamed the auction houses for the current commodification of art and although she did not expand on it, she alluded to a developing phenomenon of fakes becoming just as economically valuable as some of the works they imitate.

Courtney McWhorter is currently completing her final year as an Honors student at Brigham Young University, working towards a Bachelors in Art History.