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. Does it stir something in you? Move you in some way that is meaningful to you? If so, chances are it is art, whether forged, or derivative, or original inspiration by Shakespeare, Blake, or the bloke who thought blue poles was art.

    When it comes to assigning a price then other factors become important. In fact, this is a good example of how an economically precise concept of price misses by a country mile what is valuable about an object of art – the emotive aspect, the evocative and the pleasure of something sensitively created to affect the senses in a particular way, yet imparting something unique for each person.

    Consider a subject matter not usually associated with the word “art” except perhaps with a derogatory intent: mathematics. A mathematician, upon seeing what is a truly inspired proof of a famous problem, may feel moved in the same type of way that seeing a great painting, building or sculpture evokes in others (and the mathematician too, of course). While not claiming the mantle of mathematician, I have certainly felt that way upon seeing for example a bootstrap argument to establish a higher order of smoothness of something that isn’t on first appearances any more than just continuous. The feeling isn’t just the ah hah at cleverness of the idea – although that is often a part of it – but also the feeling a shift of perspective in one’s apprehension about an aspect of the world. Moving to a higher level of clarity about something. Evoked sense of aesthetic maybe. It is real yet difficult to express.

    Knowing the origins of a great work of art such as a Shakespearean play (not Baconian) is more about defining the artist than the art. In my opinion. Until you want to sell a piece of art, of course, as it then becomes one extra factor that might contribute to price.

    Attribution of art to one of the pretenders for artist might alter our historical perspective and assessment of the artist, but I don’t think it necessarily changes the art’s impact. Although, I can think of counter-examples. To take Pr Q’s example of Hamlet: if Bacon wrote the tragedies and comedies while Shakespeare did the historical plays, that would affect any secondary analysis of the tragicomedies since there wouldn’t be the tie to the historical plays through the common element of a single author. Therefore any historical reading of Bacon’s works would be absent the extra dimension afforded to them via the historical plays of Shakespeare. Then again…

  2. Hmm, silly, throwaway comment (by Richard Dorment)? It can be disproven by looking at works such as the Venus of Willendorf, or anything by the Master of Amiens, or some of the more amazing rock art here in Australia. We don’t know much (or anything) about the authors, but we can certainly know a lot about the art; and from that we can feel we know something about the artists.

  3. Having now read the essay down to the point of the quoted text Pr Q highlights, it strikes me that Richard Dorment could be so wrong. As dez sez, go have a look at some rock art – cave art too, such as the recent coastal finds – and what you see is undeniably art. No author(s) known by name (perhaps “Og” is as good a guess as any) and no indication as to whether they were part of a series or one-offs. Perhaps the cave art found of the coast (of France?) was at its time a contemporary series depicting the consumer culture of the local tribe, as seen through the eyes of a youthful immigrant (“Og”). If so, there will be a bunch of art sellers trying to have the cave art cut from the rock and up for auction (detailed by the auctioneers as ‘Og’s contemporary analysis of consumer culture of the tribe of king “Mungo”…’)

    Anyway, in spite of the factory nature of Warhol productions, the soup can print strangely resonates with me…simple it is yet it does capture essential America at that time. Or maybe I just like canned soup.

  4. It’s back to the future around here. The meaning we find in most art and reactions we have to it are culturally influenced. People are “moved” in someway by art at a physical or emotionally level, but the art is usually seen in the context of a body of work, a movement or style that is located in a particular time and place and therefore it does matter who created it, where and when.

    An interesting discussion on ABC RN’s Philosopher’s Zone “Forging ahead – the philosophy of authenticity, fakes and forgers” that is interesting in the context of this discussion.

    and of course Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

  5. “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.”

    This is precisely because the so-called ‘art’ experts are frequently unable to tell good art from bad. Their skill, especially with modern tools, is identifying the brand.
    In music, if a good songwriter writes something not so good, it doesn’t get played. Similarly, the few plays of Shakespeare that are not so good get infrequent airing. However, given that Shakespeare is so well regarded, and justly so, even his not so good gets aired to often. That said, any original item linked to someone famous tends to command a good price as the dispersal of Michael Jackson’s possessions indicates.

    The Shakespeare authorship controversy seems to me to have originated in an unwillingness to accept that genius could be present in one who was so lowly born and who had not been ‘bettered’ by further education.

  6. In 1909 it was thought that a tenth, and hitherto unsuspected, complete symphony by Beethoven had been discovered: the so-called Jena Symphony. This was recorded a number of times before World War II, and attributed unquestioningly on these 78 rpm discs to Beethoven himself.

    Alas, turns out that the piece wasn’t by Beethoven at all, but by an almost exact German contemporary called Friedrich Witt. An attribution to Haydn seems to have been equally unfounded.


    The odd thing is that even when this turkey was plausibly thought to be a Beethoven composition, it never got performed nearly as often as Beethoven’s authentic symphonies did. Presumably, then, either those in the know suspected that there might be something naff about the piece all along; or else they thought that if it was by Beethoven, it was no more first-rate Beethoven than The Two Gentlemen of Verona is first-rate Shakespeare.

    Then there was Fritz Kreisler, the great violinist, who for many years performed all sorts of pieces attributed to Couperin, Vivaldi, and other composers of the baroque. In 1935 he came clean and admitted that these pieces were in fact his own creations. Here the case is different, because unlike the Jena Symphony, Kreisler’s fakes still turn up a lot in concerts and on disc (always identified as “Couperin/Kreisler” or whatever). I think this is a case of (as Kreisler himself said) “The name changes, the value remains.”

  7. There’s a big difference between art as an aesthetic experience and art as a commodity that sometimes gets lost. In the case of singleton physical fine art objects, the commodity value can overwhelm their aesthetic function. Owners, traders, and even critics will have a powerful motive to pump their value and the key to that value the uniqueness that arises from it authenticity. These objects are, in fact, almost perfectly reproducible, both in style or as facsimiles. So while the aesthetic experience of (say) the Mona Lisa may be significant, as is it’s place in western art history, the queue at the Louvre will be largely driven a uniqueness with a realisable value of half a billion dollars (or so, I guess.)

    The situation with a Shakespeare play is opposite. If the original manuscript is lost, all we have are copies and they are easy to buy, borrow, download, or, make. There isn’t even any copyright. The value is primarily in the art, and perhaps in the authorship and history, but not in the scarcity. Anyone can own it; it’s a different game.

    So I think that Dorment is correct, but in a weird way, and really only about physical art objects. We are attracted to art but we’re also very attracted to attraction. If a Warhol work in found to be a fake it becomes equivalent to a hundred thousand other forgotten or forgettable works, no longer worth viewing or reviewing, except as a historical curiousity. A Shakespeare play, on the other hand, looses little if re-attributed to another, but clearly great, author.

  8. If you look at http://johnmcox.org/bayes_shakespeare (and no doubt many other textual analysis sites) you can see a Bayesian analysis yielding probabilities of 1 that Shakespeare (or some one person using his name) wrote the plays attributed to him. This does not answer the question about the value of authorship but perhaps helps one think that he didn’t, for example, just write the histories as a Tudor propagandist, which of course he was, inter alia.

  9. It was Woody Allen, I think, who put forward the idea that the plays were not written by William Shakespeare, but by another man with the same name.
    As an economist, mind, Quiggin should be looking more closely at the possibility of increasing Australia’s national wealth exponentially by attributing every single picture in every state and national collection to Rembrandt. Really, the relation of aesthetic value to economic value is only an extreme case of the relationship of use value to value, and that’s something the economists have been kicking around for ages. They should have some lessons for the rest of us, including the aestheticians.

    Oh, and I’d stand up for the history plays; someone who’d written up Falstaff and Richard III or done the night of battle scene from Henry 5 would be performed as long as there were actors to shine in them. And does that include the Roman plays?

  10. ChrisB, I agree about the history plays, but Shakespeare was nevertheless talking his book: say the Tudors are great and the Lord Chamberlain will like your work.
    Woody Allen was plagiarizing Mark Twain, who famously said that the Odyssey was written either by Homer or by another blind poet of the same name. No doubt Twain was plagiarizing someone else…

  11. Another instance of creative identity-fraud. About a decade ago it was almost mandatory
    at every swish church wedding to have a soprano solo called Ave Maria by Giulio Caccini, an Italian composer who died in 1618. (Charlotte Church had a CD smash hit with the piece; so, around the same time, did Andrea Bocelli; so did half a dozen others.)

    Anyway I now learn that the piece was written not by Caccini at all, but by some Russkie wholly new to me called Vladimir Vavilov, who didn’t make a cent out of it:


    Whatever differences existed between this Ave Maria and a genuine work of Caccini’s vintage were too subtle for me to discern, I must confess. And I used to have to play the piece on the organ quite often, because brides-to-be would insist on it. So perhaps I should’ve guessed that I was being sold a pup. But I didn’t.

    Frankly (and this perhaps bears directly upon Richard Dorment’s observations), the discovery that the piece is a 1970s concoction hasn’t reduced my respect for it one iota. I’d still admire the composition even if it turned out to be written by Kim Jong Il or indeed Anna Bligh.

  12. speaking of art and Kim Jong Il – if you are in Brisbane, I’d recommend the Asia Pacific Triennial – in particular the Nth Korean works which are stunning. Overall the show is okay with a few good pieces, the Nth Koreans being right up there.

  13. I have to say….I consider Warhol’s works amongst the most meaningful of this century. He captured the rise of consumerism and mass production so well….

    It reminds me of both Dali and Picasso exhinbitions I saw in London and in Germany. Dali had an exhibition where you looked through a telescope at two his works which merged into one through the viewer. Two portraits to the untelescoped eye – merged into an entirely different landscape scene when looked at through the telescope. Amazing. I dont particularly like the work of either Dali or Picasso, but can appreciate the enormous artistic genius of both.

    Picasso – started on one wall of a huge long hall with a rendition, perfectly anatomically correct of a bull. Some thirty or forty drawings later, the same perfect rendition had been reduced slowly to a three line rendition of a purely abstract bull (the same bull). From pure realism to pure abstraction – he was capable of both and all shades between.

    This is a demonstration of supreme artistic skill, regardless of whether I am fond of either artists work.

    When we consider Warhol’s brilliance at encapsulating the imagery of modern day mass production, we should also consider the brilliance of Lichtenstein who also elevated the modern day pehnonmenon of dot based newsprint comic productions to the art audience with immense artistic skill.

    Where would we be without the social commentary of artists?

  14. I suppose it might depend on the audience. If you want a vicarious connection with the context of the work of art as you imagine it to be, then a forgery is going to be a disappointment.

    If you just like its apparent properties, then it really doesn’t matter whether it is authentic or not.

  15. For an amusing variant on the title of this piece, I recommend the delightful littlye play, ,a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Beard_of_Avon”>The Beard of Avon.

  16. If in fact all of Shakespeare’s plays were written by Fred Nurk next year’s ideal Christmas gift could be The Complete Works of Nurk.

  17. I don’t care whodunnit but when I saw my first self [?] portrait by Rembrandt I stared at it for nearly an hour, when I saw Mike’s “David” my jaw dropped in amazement at the thought that someone, anyone, could make rock come to life and I always, every single time, get choked up when I hear Pavarotti sing “Nessun Dorma” and I generally divide music into two categories, Pink Floyd and other, and the paintings at Kakadu talk to my soul and I don’t even have one.
    Who cares whodunnit.

  18. I agree with Alice on the impact of Warhol, but I think Lichtenstein was an image robber who failed to attribute to his comic book and advertising photography sources. The “social commentary” aspect is relevant in this context. Was Lichtenstein a thief? or was he OK for some socially redeeming reason.
    I loved MilliVanilli and I think they wuz robbed.

  19. @Sarah Palin Fan
    Lichtenstein to me, as an artist, was fine for the incredibly accurate placement of his painted dots in some paintings on a huge scale. In another life he might have been a superb mathematician. He also reflected the social appeal of comic book imagery at that time. Many children in those days loved comics in the same way they love electronic games now.

    Ok hands up who remembers Archie and Veronica? Dont admit it here! (or Jarrah might tell you its time to take your nanna nap!)

  20. Yet no one needs Lichtensteins artistic skill now with oil and paint…Adobe photoshop can do it so much faster….heathens in that blog of yours SPF. On the subject of authenticity thats another debate..even Lichtenstein said “the closer my work is to the original (comic strip artists) the more critical it becomes.”

  21. @Sarah Palin Fan
    Lichtenstein was an image robber, but it seems rather irrelevant in an art history sense. His contribution was to blow up small comic panels to allow people to see them in a different way. From a legal point of view it would also seem irrelevant because I would see it as “fair use” social commentary, not depriving income from the originator or competing. So the only sense it is relevant is to expose pedantic modernists for who they are. I reckon there is a parallel between the Clement Greenberg school of art criticism and the Chicago school – both are absurdly reductionist.

  22. @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.

  23. @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.

  24. @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…

  25. 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.

  26. @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.?

  27. @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.

  28. 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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