February 19, 2006


Mind Over Splatter (DON FOSTER, 2/19/06, NY Times)

If a previously authenticated Pollock painting was actually done by a disciple, or by Norman Rockwell, or by a monkey with a paintball gun, yet looks to be authentic Pollock, so what? The look-alike might be worth less at Sotheby's, but would it be worth less as art?

At stake in such attributional debates is a question of methodology: how can experts tell the difference between the real thing and an imitation? If the qualitative judgment of Pollock or Shakespeare scholars differs from quantitative analysis of a computer-assisted study, whose verdict will carry the day? That Richard Taylor's analysis can inform us of patterns generated by Pollock much of the time provides no guarantee that Pollock reproduced those patterns all of the time. But if the Pollock canon includes a forgery, it may be that Taylor's analysis provides a more objective mode of analysis than aesthetic appreciation.

I am well acquainted with the risks of over-reliance on quantitative techniques. In 1989 I published a book proposing that the 1612 poem "A Funeral Elegy," by "W. S.," might be Shakespeare's. Seven years later, the elegy made front-page news when computer-assisted analysis, along with the opinion of other Shakespeare scholars, tended to confirm that "W. S." was indeed Shakespeare. But in 2001, a French Shakespearean, Gilles Monsarrat, proposed that W. S. was in fact Shakespeare's junior colleague, John Ford. Computer-assisted analysis confirmed that this was probably right, and the title-page initials, wrong.

In the art world, the problem of attribution is complicated by market value. Nobody made more money by including "A Funeral Elegy" in editions of Shakespeare printed from 1997 to 2001. But if you have paid, say, a half-million for a Pollock painting and some physicist and his computer say that you were hoodwinked, the question of the work's value is not wholly aesthetic.

Whether it's good art certainly remains purely aesthetic.

Meanwhile, no one has challenged Mr. Foster's analysis of the Talking Points memo, which he demnstrated could not be the work of Monica Lewinsky and/or Linda Tripp and traced to the White House.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 19, 2006 10:01 AM

Good art? bad art? Not art?

When that great day comes, a couple of hundred years down the road, when museums decide tho clean out their storage areas of junk from the 20th century, are they going need authentication before they compost the splatter paintings, color fields, dead animals in embalming fluid and sacks of trash into bio-diesel?

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at February 19, 2006 12:15 PM

I don't remember this memo you mention. Have a link?

Posted by: RC at February 19, 2006 1:34 PM

Darn it, when are you going to get your web pages fixed so that trying to select something---like a link--- doesn't select the whole page above it???

Yours is the only blog that does this.

Oh yes, I'm using IE

Posted by: ray at February 19, 2006 2:23 PM

It's punishment for MS vassals.

Posted by: oj at February 19, 2006 2:50 PM

Use the Force, Ray

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at February 19, 2006 3:44 PM

for ie users:

move the mouse cursor to a place within the url (the cursor shape will change from an arrow to an 'I' shape) press ctrl key down, then left-click. the entire url (and only the url) will be selected.

Posted by: toe at February 19, 2006 4:31 PM

Whether it's good art certainly remains purely fictional. I've seen housepainters' dropcloths with more artistic value than a Pollack.

Posted by: Noel at February 19, 2006 6:27 PM

Thank you, toe !

Posted by: Noam Chomsky at February 20, 2006 3:25 AM

toe, thanks from me too. I'm not brave enough to switch to Mozilla ... yet.

Posted by: erp at February 20, 2006 11:02 AM