Thursday, July 13, 2006


As my loyal readers have undoubtedly noticed, it has been a while since my last entry. Actually, I am out of town presently and will not be able to return to a regular writing schedule until early August. Good luck until then.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Author or Forger? Sherrie Levine and the Shackles of Innovation

I have received several e-mails challenging my very project: the search for the relation of works of art to artistic truth. I was surprised to find that on a few occasions, the specter of appropriation art was invoked, apparently in the hope that I would reject the artist’s role as author and look elsewhere for an explanation of an artwork’s ontological status. I must admit that appropriation has tempted me to draw this conclusion numerous times before and it was only from fear of its consequences that I resisted. For this reason, I was happy to run across Sherri Irvin’s article in the April 2005 issue of the British Journal of Aesthetics entitled “Appropriation and Authorship in Contemporary Art.”

First of all, I should explain my previous position vis a vis appropriation. Let us distinguish (as is conventionally done) between the use of readymades (as with Duchamp’s Fountain) and the creation of appropriation works such as Sherrie Levine’s photographic reproductions of works by Walter Evans. In order to avoid the odious consequences of death-of-the-author-ism, I once simply concluded that the latter kind of appropriation is a form of charlatanism and, at best, second-rate work. In other words, I held that it didn’t really qualify as art at all. But Irvin quickly disabused me of this quaint notion:

“One common-sense reaction to this work would be to deny that it is, in any meaningful sense, Levine’s work and thus to deny that she is, by virtue of making it, an artist. But it’s a bit late for that. The work of the most radical appropriation artists has been accepted as art, and they have been accepted as artists, receiving every form of recognition for which artists and artworks are eligible: Levine has works in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Glenn Brown has been short-listed for the Turner Prize, the appropriation artists have been discussed in Artforum, Art in America, Flash Art and other major art criticism venues, and so on. Moreover, the kind of recognition the artists have received suggests that the art world takes them seriously as the authors of their work. If Brown were not considered responsible for his works, however derivative from Dali and John Martin, what would be the point of considering him for a prestigious award? If Levine were not taken seriously as an author, what would be the point of interviewing her in major art magazines?”1

In my muddled thinking, constrained by the fear that art might turn out to be little more than an empty concept, I had overlooked these undeniable facts. But Irvin does not leave us with an authorless world. Rather, she goes quite far in establishing the surprising claim that even in appropriation (which we must now accept as genuine art), the artist is author. If I were an artist, then if I were to take a photograph of Dali’s The Persistence of Memory, it would not be a mere forgery. Indeed, the process by which I produced my work (let’s call it The Persistence of Dali’s Persistence of Memory) would be quite different from that of Dali himself. But these considerations are not sufficient to establish my authorship, as they apply equally to forgery. Irvin solves the puzzle by turning to the appropriation artist’s relationship to the conventional understanding of innovation in art:

“While they have often been seen as challenging or undermining notions of artistic authorship, the appropriation artists in fact accomplished something quite different, wittingly or not. By refusing the demands of originality and innovation that had come to seem criterial for art by the mid-twentieth century, these artists demonstrated that even originality and innovation are expendable: there is nothing in the nature of art or of the artist’s role that obligates the artist to produce innovative works. The demand for originality is an extrinsic pressure directed at the artist by society, rather than a constraint that is internal to the very concept of art. As a result, it is up to the artist to decide whether to acquiesce in this demand or not. By revealing this, far from throwing off the mantle of authorship, these artists have actually reaffirmed the artist’s
ultimate authorial status.”2

From this, we are forced to conclude that The Persistence of Dali’s Persistence of Memory is no work of art at all. I had hypothetically set out to create a generic work of appropriation art and had never considered challenging the indispensability of originality and innovation. Nor had I considered society’s role in forcing these criteria upon the artist from without. But then, I never claimed to actually be an artist. The fact that I apparently cannot even create art hypothetically underscores the wisdom of my reluctance in doing so in reality. Let us leave art to actual artists like Sherrie Levine and rest assured that the artist can still legitimately lay claim to the authorship of his or her work.

1-2: Irvin, Sherri, “Appropriation and Authorship in Contemporary Art,” British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 45, No. 2, April 2005.