The copy and authenticity

Integral to the notion of the copy are concerns about authenticity. There are fine lines in the understanding between homage and plagiarism. When does illusion (or allusion even) become deception? Copies call up the notion of ‘originality,’ which has always been a tricky debate in the art world especially since the idea of appropriation has long been legitimised (if not always wholly agreed on).

Anthony Downey’s chapter in the book Art and Authenticity (2012) discusses recently deceased artist Elaine Sturtevant (1924 – 2014), who recreated artworks by such well-known figures as Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, and Marcel Duchamp among others. Sturtevant’s work has been highly controversial and often misunderstood. She is widely thought of as being a progenitor of appropriation art, but this was a term she herself detested preferring instead to call her works ‘repetitions’. To society what Sturtevant was doing seemed like forgery, but in fact her works were never meant to pass for the originals and were “deliberately inexact” (Fox, 2014). Sturtevant reproduced the images from memory, and titled them with the original artist’s name and title, the act of signing them herself also rendered them useless as fakes; there was no subterfuge beyond the initial jolt of (mis)recognition.

Sturtevant Warhol

Elaine Sturtevant, 2004, Warhol black Marilyn. [Silksceen and acrylic on canvas, 350 x 400mm] Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London, England.

In Hillel Schwartz’s 1994 book The culture of the copy: Striking likenesses, unreasonable facsimiles he posits that a copy can be created as a re-enactment or as an appropriation: defining these as when a copy is created stroke by stroke versus when it is re created in entirety, such as when it is photographed or photocopied (p.223). Sturtevant’s art was produced as a re-enactment. But in the re-enactment a subtle transformation in meaning occurs: “This is not so much about producing objects as it is about understanding how they circulate and come into being as objects; or, more specifically, how they are produced, received and understood as art” (Downey, 2012, p. 102). The image itself was trivial compared to the true meaning of the work, which was its conceptual concerns, the questions she had: What makes an artwork? What is truth? Authenticity? Originality? Authorship? When copying someone like Warhol, what did it mean that her work was in fact a copy of a copy?

Repetition was Sturtevant’s way of thinking. The slippage in the work is not only in the inexact copy, but also in the meaning. “My work is the immediacy of the apparent content being denied” (Downey, 2012, p. 105). When Sturtevant produces her copy she is not only creating meaning (her true artwork is the thinking), but she is inevitably challenging, and perhaps irrevocably changing the perception of the meaning of the original work.

This is what copying does: it alters.

What sets apart a copy is not its similarities but its differences. Where better to examine difference than with trompe l’oeil (translated as ‘fool the eye’) as covered by Jonathan Clancy’s chapter in Art and Authenticity (2012) which analyses nineteenth century American painters William Michael Harnett (1848 – 1892) and John Haberle (1856 – 1933) whose paintings of American currency excited a debate about the possibility of counterfeiting, as well as questions around what constituted art.

Clancy explains how these paintings were linked to deception: whether it was the object itself (one critic insisted this was real currency simply given a thin top coat of paint to appear as though it were a painting), or the idea that such convincing likenesses could encourage forged bank notes. Viewers often dislike feeling fooled, however the true success of trompe l’oeil depends on the revelation of the deception, so its trickery must necessarily be short lived. Clancy describes it as a three-part behaviour on the part of the viewer:

First, one must believe (even if fleetingly) that the image is real. Second, there must be a moment of revelation, typically in which the viewer must disengage from the illusion, come to one’s senses and realise the illusion. Third, the viewer must navigate the tensions that exists in the fine line that separates the real from the represented, which ultimately leads to a heightened awareness of the artists ability.” (Clancy, 2012, p. 156)

So the copy in this instance serves to question the real versus the representational. For the viewer it means an adjustment to the initial deception: the viewer must pass from being fooled by it, to being complicit in it. Ironically, the triumph of trompe l’oeil is in the failure of the trick, but only after its initial momentary success. “It must simultaneously fool viewers while reminding them they are being fooled” (Clancy, 2012, p. 157).

John Haberle

John Haberle, c. 1889, U.S.A [Oil on Canvas, 216 x 305mm] Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, IN.

Ultimately, these works brought up questions of whether this was art or mechanical skill (Clancy, 2012, p. 158). There was an interesting twinning in the idea of value, through the debate about paper currency as a representation of wealth, and whether to value these painstakingly detailed images as artworks and their creators as artists. Habberle himself played on this debate by including a clipping of a critique of his painting Imitation (1887), calling it a clever artistic mechanism, in a number of his subsequent paintings. The idea of a clever copy being equated to “mechanical skill” is an interesting one that somewhat denies the authorship of the painter by comparing their skill to that of a machine. Does this mean that a copy that is too close is no longer art?

Schwartz suggests that copying underwrites everything that we do, right down to the biology of how we are created, and further to language as the reproduction of particular sounds, and how culture is propagated and passed on. Perhaps it could be said that it is in our DNA to copy. But inherent in all forms of copying is slippage: “Copying is ultimately imperfect, our errors eventually our heirs” (Schwartz, 1996, p. 212). Can two things ever be perfectly alike?

Extinction (disappearance) threatens anything that is one of a kind, and our panic at the risk of losing things propels us towards copies (think replicas of artifacts shown in museums, notarised copies of original documents, prints of original artworks, photographs of precious memories). To copy is to keep. Conversely: “An object uncopied is under perpetual siege, valued less for itself than for the struggle to prevent its being copied” (Schwartz, 1996, p. 212). Copying could be seen, paradoxically, to both dilute the original AND preserve it. A copy is a powerful thing, because it unsettles meaning, it threatens and protects the original in equal measures. The existence of a copy draws attention to the original, but it also opens up questions in our understanding of value and representation.

The easiest mistake to make with the copy is to see it as an inferior substitute for the original, or to assume that its purpose is to somehow be or replace the original. Repetition is not backward looking but a linear and resolute marching into the future. Copying is not a perfect art; it doesn’t pretend to be. The beauty in a copy is not that it is mistaken for the original, but that it refers to it while becoming something else.

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