the ARTistry of ARThistory occasionally done ARTfully

The Autograph and the Allograph: Forgeries and Re-enactments

Posted by gninja on July 30, 2007


(Going to the Masked Ball, John Anster Fitzgerald [or a forgery by Robert Thwaites].)


(Max Bunzel reenacting Paul Potter’s 1965 antiwar speech in Washington.)

Two unrelated items in the news today caught my eye.

The NY Time’s Art Section reports on the Port Huron Project as Giving New Life to Protests of Yore:

Mark Tribe, an artist and assistant professor of modern culture and media studies at Brown University, has organized a series of such re-enactments at sites where important speeches of the New Left originally took place, and he says his intention was precisely to create such a strange cultural and political straddle. The goal was to use the speeches not just as historical ready-mades or conceptual-art explorations of context, he said, but also maybe as a genuine form of protest, to point out with the help of art how much has changed, yet how much remains the same.

(As an aside, I’m pretty regretful that, as an undergrad, I stayed at least 10 feet away at all times from the MCM department. What a fool I was not to take advantage of that opportunity.)

From the Guardian, we read today that the notorious art forger, Robert Thwaites, is back to work, but on legitimate pieces this time:

After exposure and conviction, Thwaites, 55, went down in disgrace although even the judge hailed his “remarkably talented” work. Released on licence but under strict supervision, he is painting once more in the style of Fitzgerald. But, older, thinner and greyer, he said he now hoped to use his skills and the additional notoriety to create a legitimate career.

While the first instance is allowed the title of a work of art because it proclaims its source (which is where its status as a work of art derives– in its very repetition and recontextualization); the second incident is a crime. And rightly so, considering Thwaites willingly deceived others by passing off his own work as that of another (dead) artist. Obvious enough.

But the two unrelated items intersect at Nelson Goodman‘s distinction between the allograph and the autograph (online sources on this seem to be scare, but if you follow this link and scroll down to the highlighted bits, you’ll find a brief discussion of the allograph and the autograph). While one “piece” is allographic– that is, the piece itself can be replicated and doesn’t lose any aspect of its ‘identity’ through repetition. Goodman’s example is a piece of sheet music– Beethoven’s 9th does not require its author to play it for it to still be Beethoven’s 9th. On the other hand, painted works are autographic, valued for their uniqueness and for being the production of a particular individual (or individuals) from a distinct moment in time. Repetition (or forgeries in the case of Thwaites) negates the value of the work, no matter how utterly indistinguishable it is from the original.

Juxtaposing these two “pieces” is a neat demonstration is this distinction, but more than that I think it demonstrates how little we actually mind repetition. In fact, and I’m sure we learned this long ago from Warhol, pointed (and frank) repetition actually imbues the original with value– heaping meaning onto the piece both to serve the interests of the present as well as retroactively.

It just makes me think how much money Thwaits can make now creating”forgeries” that proclaim themselves as such.

One Response to “The Autograph and the Allograph: Forgeries and Re-enactments”

  1. […] The Autograph and the Allograph: Forgeries and Re-enactments […]

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