"Authenticity in Art..."

By Camille Okhio.

I have been so concerned with Authenticity recently. And sincerity. I feel that they go hand in hand, especially with an artists work. If I do not feel that there is a personal connection between the artist and his or her work, then I am uninterested. That is why minimalism is so difficult for me to grasp. It is too sterile for my taste. But something like a light room by James Turrell, that is different. There is a distinction between purity or simplicity and the abyss or lack of thought. There is a difference between aesthetically minimal works of art (which can still be theoretically complex) and simple works, which can only be simple. Not only does his work share a personal connection with its creator, but it seems to make a similar singular connection with everyone who experiences it.

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James Turrell

But I am more concerned with the ethical implications of authenticity or lack thereof in an artists work. Who actually created this work? Who’s hands constructed it? Who thought it up? And who later theorized it and applied it to their own work? I remember the day we discussed Richard Prince’s Marlboro Man in my Postmodern to Contemporary Art class in college. I stared at the piece for something like 2 full minutes. I swung back and forth between being underwhelmed and thinking Prince was admirably cheeky, and then settled in a mood of mild appreciation and a desire to see whether this artist actually had technical skill (which he does).

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“Untitled (Cowboy)”

When did “artist” outstrip “craftsman” in both meaning and relevance? When did skill fall from the list of requirements o a craftsman? And when did artist gain so many intellectual playing cards that they no longer needed to use their hands, only their mind? This is a fascinating progression and at times a troubling one.

A work of art re-appropriating an image that has already been used slightly scares me. In contemporary art, for something to be new is almost half the work of creating a relevant artwork. For something to have been done before is the death sentence to what may have been skillfully well-executed art. If only on the arguable basis that the creator’s thoughts are not true, because they are not new.

The “New” and the “Authentic” are not necessarily the same thing. A work can be new but not true to the artist, in which case it is inauthentic. And then, within authenticity, there are multiple ideologies to deconstruct. There is the authenticity which concerns honesty to other, the authenticity which concerns honesty to oneself, and the authenticity which plainly speaks to the avoidance of or partaking in bald plagiarism.

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Albrecht Durer

A traditional art historical reference to authenticity would be Warhol’s Factory. “He did it first” they say… at least in the modern arena. With his assistants constructing the works which he would dream up, Warhol was left the time to promote it. Even blatantly referencing the engineering of his artistic practice by titling his studio “Factory.” Reproduction and in-authenticity often go hand in hand. And the nature of the print or silkscreen, Warhol’s most identifiable chosen mediums, are reproduction based. But then what d we say of Albrecht Durer, who used the woodblock print during the Northern Renaissance in the 15th and 16th century, almost certainly with the helping hand of a full workshop of assistants? There is no question Durer is a master, but his brilliance has stood firm for centuries. Warhol’s only has for 50 years.

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Takashi Murakami

Takashi Murakami takes authenticity and reproduction to a whole new level. His paintings area eerie, erotic bastardizations of Disney and Manga, a Technicolor twilight zone constructed by a highly trained, seldom sleeping team. He takes the role and the constantly in flux idea of the rights of an artist into new territory. He reproduces his works in smaller scales and cheaper materials, selling them for literally a buck, to the masses. Now we must toil over what is a real Murakami? Does he decide or do we? A question that is further complicated by his massively successful collaborations with Louis Vuitton. Which leads one to ask: is this bag by Louis Vuitton or by Takashi? Am I carrying art? Or am I carrying money?

Jeff Koons is perhaps the most inflammatory example of this bending of the rules. He almost flouts the fact that he rarely ever actually paints his pieces. He constructs a work digitally and later has his assistants fill in the blanks, painting with a color-by-numbers technique. His work is extremely controversial, but he is without question a successful artist.

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Jeff Koons.

My real question is, is authenticity really relevant in the world of contemporary art? And if so how relevant? Does authenticity exist in degrees? And what relationship must an artist have with his work in order for him to be the true and complete author of it? If we are going to share the work, shall we not as well share the spoils? Does the apparent sharing, overlapping and re-appropriating that is occurring in pockets of today’s art world make for a more discursive artistic community or a masturbatory stagnant one? I suppose it is all in the intent.

Camille Okhio is contributing art writer for by such and such.