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Does It Matter If a Painting is Fake? Why Origins Matter

People care about origins. A lot. The difference between a baseball used to break a record and an ordinary baseball is millions, an authentic painting and a forgery tens of millions. And your original stuffed animal versus a replacement, well, that’s priceless.

This is why Todd McFarlane paid 3 million dollars for Mark McGwire’s home run ball, why Han van Meegeren’s forgery of Vermeer’s Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery hangs in a small gallery in Greenwich Connecticut and why two year-olds erupt into tantrums when mom tries convincing them that their new snuffed animal is same as their old one.

It also helps us explain the power of labels. People prefer Perrier and expensive bottles of wine even though studies show that most people cannot to identify tap water from Perrier water or 10 dollar wine from 90 dollar wine in blind taste tests. One experiment even showed that kids prefer carrots from McDonald’s bags. How we taste greatly depends on what we think we’re tasting and where we think it came from.

We care about origins because we are essentialists. We pay special attention to the history of an object – who touched it, where it has been and what its purpose was, its essence. We subscribe to, as Paul Bloom explains, “the notion that things have an underlying reality or true nature that one cannot observe directly and it is this hidden nature that really matters.”

Bloom tells the dark story of the art collector and Nazi Hermann Goering. Goering’s prized possession was Johannes Vermeer’s Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery, which he acquired in exchange for 137 paintings worth about $10 million (in today’s dollars). Unfortunately, Goering discovered at the Nuremberg trails that his Vermeer was actually a forgery done by Dutch painter Han van Meegeren. Upon hearing the news Goering’s biographer said he looked, “as if for the first time he had discovered there was evil in the world.”

This brings me to a new study out of Oxford University by Mengfei Huang, Holly Bridge, Martin Kemp and Andrew Parker. Their experiment was simple enough: 14 subjects were placed in an fMRI machine and given the following instructions:

In this experiment you will see a sequence of 50 Rembrandt paintings. Before each image appears, an audio prompt will announce whether the upcoming painting is ‘authentic’ or a ‘copy’ (Please see background for further information on copies). A blank screen will appear for a few seconds after each image to allow you to relax your gaze.

Here was the catch. Half of the participants were told that the authentic Rembrandts were actually forgeries and vice versa. The swap was designed to give scientists an opportunity to distinguish neural responses generated by the art itself and the attribution of the art.

I’ll leave it to Jonah Lehrer to explain the results.

The first thing the researchers discovered is that there was no detectable difference in the response of visual areas to Rembrandt and “school of Rembrandt” works of art… it’s not exactly surprising that such similar paintings would elicit virtually identical sensory responses. It takes years of training before critics can reliably discern real Rembrandt from copies. And even then there is often extensive disagreement, as the 1995 Metropolitan show demonstrates.

However, the scientists did locate a pattern of activity that appeared whenever a painting was deemed to be authentic, regardless of whether or not it was actually “real.” In such instances, subjects showed a spike in activity in the orbitofrontal cortex, a chunk of brain just behind the eyes that is often associated with perceptions of reward, pleasure and monetary gain. (According to the scientists, this activation reflects “the increase in the perceived value of the artwork.”) Interestingly, there was no difference in orbitofrontal response when the stamp of authenticity was applied to a fake Rembrandt, as the brain area responded just as robustly. The quality of art seemed to be irrelevant.

We want to believe, as Lehrer concludes, that pleasure is simple but there is obviously much more to it than that. The brain is a myriad of neural connections, most of which are unconscious, and a full neurological description of how something like a Rembrandt gives us pleasure is a long way off.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Is it because we are essentialists? I make a distinction between the act of creation and the act of copying. Summed up by the line in Spinal Tap: “Jimmy Page was 25 when we wrote Stairway. I was 16 when I learned it. I think that says something.”

    That Rembrandt self-portrait is one of my favourite paintings. It hangs in the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, and I saw it only a couple of weeks ago. It’s not just a good painting. It’s the creative act of someone who not only executed the brush strokes but had to compose the paining mentally before hand. While I probably could not tell a fake from the original, I like to honour the act of creation of something new. Whereas copying is a skill, it’s not creative.

    Is that still essentialism?

    December 24, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      I’m not sure what you are explain. Maybe you could say more about the relationship between essentialism and creating/copying?

      December 24, 2011
  2. rickballance #

    Essentialism is a very nice example of human irrationality.

    Humans insist that the history of an object matters even in cases where it clearly doesn’t. Imagine a scenario where we could push an artwork into a perfect replicator that can copy everything down to absolute atomic precision. You would have two completely identical objects.

    People would insist that there is a difference, but is it a difference that really matters? Imagine that the person who was in charge of copying the paintings puts them next to each other into a storage room and somehow gets killed afterwards…
    let’s say there is no way to reconstruct even for specialists where he put each pictures. And there is no way to tell from looking at the pictures, because there is absolutely no difference between atoms of the same element, they are completely identical. So what made one of the paintings the original and the other one the copy if they are completely identical?

    The history of the objects apparently, and the knowledge of which was which was saved in only one human brain that died and it would remain a mystery forever which is the original…. so why does it matter to anyone which would be the original in that scenario? Should it? I think it is irrational to ask oneself that question in the perfect-replication scenario. It’s a vestigial psychological reflex that is useful in many situation, but in the one I described it would be wholly misplaced.

    December 27, 2011

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