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.

36 thoughts on “Would Bacon’s Hamlet be Hamlet?

  1. @Michael
    Having said that, I’m not a huge fan of pop-art and the role the fine art of any kind plays in society and culture seems a diminishing one.

  2. @Michael
    In some ways you could see in music the decline of folk art through it’s replacement by a simplified musical stimulus. But I still think fine art has a huge influence on symbolic representations – the crossover from fine art into advertising, both visually and to a lesser extent musically, is extensive via the art schools within which preople receive their training. One area that seems to receive little visual input from the fine arts is games – in the main they still languish at the panel van art level of imagery. Games (as visual input) can be seen in a similar light to commercial pop music – a sort of dumbed down experience. In terms of gameplay, games can be very sophisticated, just the visuals lack creativity. Game sound design can also be quite sophisticated, although the music tends to be pretty conservative ie acts as a conventionalised trigger for a limited set of emotional states.

  3. @Alice
    Indeed. Only an idiot or a lawyer would believe that artwork can always and should always be generated without reference to anyone else’s work. Of course there are shades of grey and outright plagiarism. Although I don’t think much is advanced by equating pop art to theft.

    When I wrote the comment above I was thinking along the lines of the “Fine Art” industry with all it’s cliques and fetishised envelope pushing – not the study of art history. I just think it has run out of steam and is morphing into parody (especially the lesser practitioners of Damien Hurst like art). Art and design aren’t diminishing in influence, if anything modern life is almost saturated in it, and there is much to marvel at in game design, movies and graphic design – getting seriously off topic here….

    I’m not against government subsidies per se but I’m also not convinced that the funding the arts randomly instead of through earnest committees wouldn’t produce more relevant work – but now I’m veering off into the danger zone…

  4. The true nature of art appreciation was exposed long ago in the story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Combine this with the mentality of the avid collector and the greed of the speculator and we have the modern ‘art’market. When a painting, attributed to an old master, is demonstrated scientifically to have been painted by someone else it might lose 99% of its value even though for 400 years art experts fawned over it and couldn’t tell it from the ‘genuine’ article.
    The statement seems more a consideration of celebrity status than art.

  5. @Michael
    Except in the case of those master forgers who even forge the signature of the original artist….but even then then must have artistic skill to be able to do it well………and when an old master fetches a ransomable fortune you can see the incentives for black market art forgeries and then there is the antiques forgeries also.
    Dont forget designer clothes also…the copies are beng whipped up on the sewing machines in Asia when the models are still stalking the catwalk…who knows whether the designer gets a commission for early release cheaper versions with favoured manufacturers? Who can tell the difference in art and forgeries…sometimes not even the experts. Perhaps there is a lesson in all of this…dont get too carried away with status symbols.?

  6. @Russell W

    When a painting, attributed to an old master, is demonstrated scientifically to have been painted by someone else it might lose 99% of its value even though for 400 years art experts fawned over it and couldn’t tell it from the ‘genuine’ article.

    Well duh, it’s the “utility” you get from knowing that you own the genuine article! (the economics profession seems to think this type of tautological “explanation” actually means something).

    Reminds me of a passage in Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class about indistinguishable silver spoons, one handcrafted and one machine produced.

  7. At the risk of repeating the gist of many comments above, Dorment’s comment is only true when art is being considered as a commodity in general and as a commodity to follow the (aristocratic?) laws of inheritance in particular. Dorment attaches critical importance to knowing that attribution is correct. To simplify, he wants to be able to draw a “genealogical” diagram that connects works to an author as children are connected to a parent. Thus a work inherits special (monetary) value from the author-parent if that author-parent has already been already elevated to the artistic aristocracy.

    It is a simplistic and legalistic definition of “knowing” an author and knowing a work in the cultural canon. An anonymous work can have great artistic value. An author’s or painter’s works can gain more in interest and value as we learn more from her/his opus and more from biography.

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