Would Bacon’s Hamlet be Hamlet?
In the course of an interesting piece by Richard Dorment in the NY Review of Books on the authenticity or otherwise of works by Andy Warhol, I came across a striking passage
The single most important thing you can say about a work of art is that it is real, that the artist to whom it is attributed made it. Until you are certain that a work of art is authentic, it is impossible to say much else that is meaningful about it.
Is this a reasonable claim about art in general? How important is authentic attribution in, say, literature or music?
The biggest authenticity question in literature is the long-running campaign to prove that Shakespeare didn’t really write the plays attributed to him. But this is a bit of misleading example. If it turned out, say, that Francis Bacon wrote all the plays we could just say “‘Shakespeare’ was really Francis Bacon” and go on pretty much as before.
But what if Bacon wrote the tragedies and comedies, but Shakespeare wrote the history plays? At one level, it ought not to make any difference. But clearly it would. There are some good passages in the history plays, and at least one great character, but if that was all Shakespeare had written, he would probably be remembered as a Tudor propagandist of mostly historical interest, and the plays treated accordingly.
Still, unless you buy the Romantic idea of the artist as transcendent genius the question of who wrote what seems to be of secondary interest compared to the work itself. I suspect, Dorment’s claim is really one about the market for collectibles, a class that happens to include paintings.