In January and February of this year the Victoria and Albert Museum ran the Metropolitan Police Service’s Investigation of Fakes and Forgeries exhibition that showcased around 100 forged paintings and sculptures. The most infamous works on the display were those of Shaun Greenhalgh who is currently serving a four year eight month prison sentence for forging works over a 17 year period from 1989 to 2006. Among the many works that Greenhalgh created and sold was a small alabaster statue named the Armana Princess which was sold for £440,000 to the Bolton Museum. The museum believed the statue to be an authentic Egyptian art piece from the reign of Akhenaten (ca. 1352-1336 BC). Another prominent fake is The Faun (pictured above) which was attributed to Gauguin and purchased by the Art Institute of Chicago from a private dealer who also believed the piece to be authentic.
While Greenhalgh has obviously fallen foul of the law he does have a number of fans who highlight the artistic merit of this self-taught forger’s works and who seem more upset at the gullibility of the art experts who originally authenticated the pieces. Since Greenhalgh’s sentencing there have been opinion pieces in support of his talents and even a Facebook page created to campaign for his freedom. The question that arises is, given that Greenhalgh’s pieces obviously do have some artistic merit, what aesthetic (or artistic) properties does a forgery lack that the genuine article would have?
Alfred Lessing, in a 1965 article, claimed that forgeries do not lack the aesthetic properties that original have. This is because, on his account, the various aspects of production of the work are irrelevant in relation to the aesthetic experience that the work can provide. For this reason he praises such forgeries as Van Meegeren’s painting The Disciples at Emmaus as a monument to the artistic talents of Vermeer (who Van Meegeren was imitating) as much as Vermeer’s own talents.
Lessing’s view takes a rather restricted notion of aesthetic properties that includes only what can be perceived in the work. More recent views have either included artistic properties (including aspects related to the art-historical circumstances in which the work was created as contributing to the appreciation of art) alongside aesthetic properties or else broadened their usage of “aesthetic” to include these aspects. Taking into consideration the tradition within which the piece was created and its impact on our assessment of the skill employed by the artist as well as the level of originality and creativity in relation to other works of that kind at that time means that that fact that a work is a forgery does impact our appreciation of the work. The problem as Mark Sagoff (1976) points out is that a deceptive forgery is placed in the wrong category for art evaluation. The kinds of features that are typically appreciated in one style of art are not necessarily appropriate in assessing the works of another style. Based on this the exhibition mentioned above that groups all of these fakes together provides a forum where these kinds of works can be appreciated for their own peculiar artistic merits.
Aesthetic Experience and Aesthetic Value
By Robert Stecker, Central Michigan University
(Vol. 1, February 2006)