Think Piece

In the Age of the Counterfeit: Creative Reproductions in Nineteenth-Century Art Criticism

by guest contributor Laurena Tsudama

By Laurena Tsudama

It is fitting that an essay about counterfeits and reproductions should begin with an anecdote about an anecdote: this one comes from the American novelist William Gaddis’s essay “Agapē Agape: The Secret History of the Player Piano” (circa 1960s, collected in The Rush for Second Place, 2002), itself a false start to an unfinished book. The essay opens with that well-known, amusing story about a visit Oscar Wilde paid to a saloon in Leadville, Colorado, during his American speaking tour of 1882. Following the lecture he gave in town, Wilde was taken by some of the residents to a dancing saloon, where he found what he called “the only rational method of art criticism I have ever come across”: written on a sign, hung above the saloon’s piano, were the words, “PLEASE DO NOT SHOOT THE PIANIST. HE IS DOING HIS BEST” (qtd. p. 7). Wilde concludes his brief account of the sign with a characteristically pithy remark: “The mortality among pianists in that place is marvellous” (qtd. p. 8). For Gaddis, this moment in Wilde’s Impressions of America is something more than a curiosity:

[…] was it that doing his best which rankled? redolent of chance and the very immanence of human failure that that century of progress was consecrated to wiping out once for all; for if, as another mother-country throwback had it, all art does constantly aspire toward the condition of music, there in a Colorado mining-town saloon all art’s essential predicament threatened to be laid bare with the clap of a pistol shot just as deliverance was at hand […]. (p. 8)

That deliverance? The advent of the player piano, a model of how “invention was eliminating the very possibility of failure as a condition for success precisely in the arts where one’s best is never good enough” (p. 9). Struck by Wilde’s story, which gives Roland Barthes’s notion of “the death of the author” a more murderous cast, Gaddis’s anxiety reaches a fever pitch when he asks, “who, so armed, could resist the temptation to shoot the pianist if the song would play on without losing a note?” (p. 9) This essay takes another version of this question as its starting point: Who could resist the temptation to shoot the artist if art would go on without them? The answer to this question, or rather the answer to the real question that lies behind it, might be found in the notion of “counterfeit aesthetics.”

For the purpose of this essay, “counterfeit aesthetics” refers to an aesthetics of reproduction—“reproduction” meaning not only the replication of an art object but also the ekphrastic work of the critic, that is, the work of visualization undertaken by an audience of spectators, viewers, readers, etc. This idea comes in part from Hugh Kenner’s book The Counterfeiters (1968)—which borrows its title from the André Gide novel of the same name—and, more generally, from twentieth-century and twenty-first-century discourse surrounding aesthetics and the figures of the copy, the forgery, and the counterfeit. This discourse, itself part of a larger conversation concerning the failures of authenticity in our time, has appeared in much scholarship over the past three decades: books such as Abraham Drassinower’s What’s Wrong with Copying? (2015), Marcus Boon’s In Praise of Copying (2013), Paul K. Saint-Amour’s The Copywrights (2003), and Hillel Schwartz’s The Culture of the Copy (1996) debate the merits of copying, both past and present, as a creative process. Forgery has been a recurrent fascination: Jonathan Keats’s Forged (2013) and Anthony Grafton’s Forgers and Critics (1990) are two especially notable examples of wide-ranging scholarship on the subject. And many other books, including Rob Turner’s Counterfeit Culture (2019), Stephen Mihm’s A Nation of Counterfeiters (2009), and Mary McAleer Balkun’s The American Counterfeit (2006), argue that the United States of America is a country obsessed with and built upon counterfeits. It seems that today we are acutely aware of counterfeit aesthetics as a matter of theorization and a persistent topic of discussion, but the practice of counterfeit aesthetics found its origin in the nineteenth century. In the nineteenth century, industrialized and industrializing nations saw a major shift in attitudes toward acts of production in response to the increasing mechanization of manufacturing and labor. In art criticism, one form this shift took was a new emphasis on the creative and inventive capacities of figures other than the artist, such as the laborer, the imitator, and the critic: Taken together, these figures represent the possibility of a more democratic art culture in which the conventional model of art production and reception is subverted.

Nineteenth-century critics were fascinated by the subject of personality in art and, consequently, by the question of art’s reproducibility and imitability. In “The Nature of the Gothic,” a chapter of the second volume of The Stones of Venice (1851–53), John Ruskin celebrates the Gothic as a style of architecture that takes its “Form” and “Power” from the collective efforts and feelings of artisans and laborers. Unlikely as it may seem, “The Nature of the Gothic” also offers a treatise on the reformation of English manufacturing:  “And the great cry that rises from all our manufacturing cities, louder than their furnace blast, is all in very deed for this,—that we manufacture everything there except men; we blanch cotton, and strengthen steel, and refine sugar, and shape pottery; but to brighten, to strengthen, to refine, or to form a single living spirit, never enters into our estimate of advantages” (p. 196). Evidently, while Ruskin elsewhere in the chapter decries the transformation of the laborer into a “machine” (p. 192, 194, 199), the metaphor of manufacturing a soul was too irresistible to pass up. Behind this metaphor lies a deeper meaning too: Ruskin does not advocate for the laborer as artist but as artisan. Although he scorns mass production’s demand for unnecessary polish in the manufacturing of an endless number of “perfectnesses” (p. 193), Ruskin asks not that the laborer be honored as though he were a singular artist but that we, the consumers, look for the quality of “invention” hidden within the otherwise anonymous laborer’s artistic production. Ultimately, what Ruskin is after is a balancing act: personality in art without an individually identifiable personality—an aim that is, in essence, the goal of a counterfeit.

One of Ruskin’s successors, Walter Pater argues in The Renaissance (1873/1893) that criticism is both a form of astute observation and an experience of intense feeling. In his preface, Pater offers a rejoinder to Matthew Arnold’s oft-quoted assertion that the aim of criticism is “to see the object as in itself it really is” (qtd. p. xix), proposing that the critic’s true task is “to know one’s own impression as it really is” (p. xix). In Pater’s view, however, one’s impression, linked closely with one’s personality, is no more easily captured than one’s object. The complexity of Pater’s understanding of personality is made especially apparent in his less-studied essay “The School of Giorgione,” which argues for the inherent value of imitative works of art. Pater was prompted to reflect on this value by his discussion of recent developments in the reception of the Venetian painter Giorgione, whose body of authenticated works shrank in the nineteenth century with the revelation that several paintings previously attributed to the artist were, in fact, painted by his followers. In recovering these counterfeits, Pater makes a compelling case for the ability of the supposed inauthentic work of art to illuminate qualities of the authentic work it imitates:

[…] for, in what is connected with a great name, much that is not real is often very stimulating; and, for the aesthetic philosopher, over and above the real Giorgione and his authentic extant works, there remains the Giorgionesque also—an influence, a spirit or type in art, active in men so different as those to whom many of his supposed works are really assignable—a veritable school, which grew together out of all those fascinating works rightly or wrongly attributed to him; out of many copies from, or variations on him, by unknown or uncertain workmen, whose drawings and designs were, for various reasons, prized as his; out of the immediate impression he made upon his contemporaries, and with which he continued in men’s minds; out of many traditions of subject and treatment, which really descend from him to our own time, and by retracing which we fill out the original image; Giorgione thus becoming a sort of impersonation of Venice itself, its projected reflex or ideal, all that was intense or desirable in it thus crystallising about the memory of this wonderful young man. (pp. 116–17)

By sketching the concept of the “school” and articulating how seeing the “Giorgionesque” allows one to get closer to the “real Giorgione,” Pater traces a lineage of influence that culminates in realization that Giorgione too is “an impersonation,” specifically an impersonation of the city with which his paintings are so closely associated. In this manner, Pater turns the question of artistic authority on its head, suggesting that locating the origin of a work of art involves far more than authentication—it is a pursuit that quite possibly has no end.

Of the three critics featured in this essay, Oscar Wilde is the most famous for his writing on the subjects of inauthenticity and imitation. While his essays “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” (1891) and “The Rise of Historical Criticism” (1879), address more directly the themes pursued by Ruskin (the possibility of aesthetic pleasure in the labor of the masses) and Pater (the notion of personality as an historicized object of criticism), his dialogue-essay “The Decay of Lying,” collected in Intentions (1891), is worth turning to instead for its more developed (and shocking) revelations about art- and self-making. In this essay, Wilde presents a startling revaluation of “lying” and its conventional counterpart, “truth,” relocating lying from the moral to the aesthetic realm. Vivian, the primary speaker in Wilde’s essay, explains what he sees as the artistic value of lying to his listener, Cyril (both were named for Wilde’s children). Vivian asserts that “the true liar”—a paradoxical phrase in itself—is distinguished by “his healthy, natural disdain of proof of any kind” and that “a fine lie” is “that which is its own evidence” (p. 5). Essentially, what distinguishes lying is its self-referential nature: it requires no referent outside itself, inventing fiction not grounded in reality. As such, lying is creative in the most fundamental sense of the word, for it exists within the realm of action in a way truth, which by definition simply is, cannot. Lying, therefore, is the ultimate subjective act as it expressly flouts objectivity. For Wilde, the liar is an artist and lying is a way to become art, to live through art: “the true disciples of the great artist are not his studio-imitators, but those who become like his works of art, be they plastic as in Greek days, or pictorial as in modern times; in a word, Life is Art’s best, Art’s only pupil” (pp. 27–28). Wilde’s paradoxical argument turns lying into art, counterfeit into original, making possible an extreme version of the self-fashioned, manufactured man, or what Kenner calls “the counterfeitable man.”

To conclude, let’s go forward (or back, if you like) to the twentieth century again. In his lecture “The Origin of the Work of Art” (collected in Basic Writings, 2008) given on multiple occasions in 1935 and 1936 (the latter being the same year in which Walter Benjamin wrote “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility”), Martin Heidegger describes “great art” as a kind of collapsing tunnel: “It is precisely in great art […] that the artist remains inconsequential as compared with the work, almost like a passageway that destroys itself in the creative process for the work to emerge” (p. 166). This image is emblematic of what drives counterfeit aesthetics as well, and the work of nineteenth-century critics such as Ruskin, Pater, and Wilde can help us understand how artwork and counterfeit exist along continuums other than that between real and fake. These critics’ persistent questioning of aesthetic hierarchies and their theorizations of how authority and personality shape and reshape these hierarchies attest to the fact that the nineteenth century saw new categories of authorship and artmaking, as well as new ways of being in the world, arise alongside new economic and technological developments. As we move ever further into the “information age,” these critics’ questions remain no less relevant, although the forms they take may be different. With the possibility of the most extreme form of art without personality—art without artist—becoming more concrete, returning to the thought of the nineteenth century allows us to rethink art and aesthetics in our own time.  

Laurena Tsudama is a Ph.D. student at Rutgers University. Her research spans the history of the novel, with a focus on the nineteenth century, as guided by her interests in realism, form, aesthetics, and the relationship between literature and other media.

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