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Forgery, Reproduction, Parody, Authenticity?

Authenticity is a fraught concept. Reproduction is a significant threat to the authentic, whether it comes in the form of fakes and forgeries, or even the authorised reproduction – in the form of a print, or a recast sculpture.

Writing in the 1930’s, Walter Benjamin discusses the effect that reproduction has on art, stating that:

“Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence. This includes the changes which it may have suffered in physical condition over the years as well as the various changes in its ownership. The traces of the first can be revealed only by chemical or physical analyses which it is impossible to perform on a reproduction; changes of ownership are subject to a tradition which must be traced from the situation of the original.”

Mortimer Menpes (1860-1938), special war artist

Mortimer Menpes, 1860-1938 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In other words, a reproduction can never fully replicate the original work because any copy will lack the authenticity of the original.

A crucial question, then, is it possible for a copy to recreate any of the power of an original? The answer, always difficult, probably has to be emphatically no. But still, high-quality reproductions of famous European artworks, part of the collection of Australia, are going to be displayed in the National Library of Australia, 100 years after their creation. The paintings were created by Mortimer Menpes, who made them to provide access to the artefacts of High European Art to an Australian public which could afford neither the time, nor the fare of travel to Europe to see the originals. To the extent that there is value in displaying these replicas (fakes?) even now, suggests that even a reproduction can hold some of the cultural power and authenticity of its original.

Of course, there is also the question of undetected forgeries, which might pass for original art work. History is littered with compelling frauds, fakes and forgeries, the detection of some of which made their authors all the more interesting.

I am sure that the annals are Art History are filled with these, but I am not so familiar with the subject; literary hoaxes, on the hand, are more my game. Thomas Wise, a bibliophile, funded his collection on the sale of forgeries. Interestingly, these forgeries are now themselves the focus of many collectors, to whom the story of the fakes makes these copies as valuable as the authentic pieces they originally were purported to be. The Sokal affair demonstrated the potential for mischief in some circles of literary theory, and provides comic relief to all those crazy enough to delve into the depths of deconstruction and post-structuralism, among other evils. And in Australia, the non-poet Ern Malley proved that sometimes poets produce their best work when pretending to be someone else, out of spite.

Although reproduction, forgery and imitation is a profitable today as it ever was (think of software piracy, online streaming, multitudes of DVD fakes, knock-off Louis Vuitton and other such things), it seems to me that these days a more common mode is the parody. This, of course, is no new form, but it has reached its apotheosis in new media with tumblr and YouTube. Think, Binders Full of Women. Think, Gangnam (read: Eton) Style.

But if a reproduction can be used, on occasion, to fill a gap for those with limited means of access to the trappings of high culture, can parody be used as a vehicle for a serious political message? And if it can, is it still a parody, or some other form? I first started asking myself this when I came across this version…Freedom Style?

The video raises all kinds of other questions, not least questions of censorship and limits of freedom of information,but these are subjects for another post. But it adds to another sense the strange contradiction of the modern world.

Free Ai Wei Wei

Not quite Ai Wei Wei (Photo credit: Leung Ching Yau Alex)

Ai Wei Wei has also frequently written of the difficulty he experiences, as an artist living in China. In a particularly compelling opinion piece, published in the Guardian, he writes that living in fear is worse than losing your freedom. His fear is partly of an authoritarian state arbitrarily or maliciously taking away his freedom, or the freedom of his friends, or even friends of friends. This kind of fear, completely alien to me, throws into sharp relief the difference in scale between my own issues of authenticity, of leading a good life, and those encountered by the millions living under the heel of authoritarian regimes.

Still, it’s easy to get caught in the web of expectation. To get trapped in the net of social convention. How often have you stood, uncomfortably, as something unpleasant occurred nearby? A parent striking their child; a group bullying some hapless individual; someone making a racist or sexist joke. This becomes true in political action – when was the last time you protested against something you disagree with? When did you last write a letter expressing your displeasure with your local representative? When was the last time you asked a question in a meeting, challenged the unfair culture of an organisation?

I asked myself these things, and realised I am not meeting my own standards on too many counts. Let’s not become a generation of inaction. Facebook, and other social media are quick to take credit for their role in the Arab Spring; but perhaps Malcolm Gladwell has a more compelling point about the trend towards “clicktivism”, perhaps best exemplified by the Kony 2012 campaign. Though the video was a viral success, the follow-up protests, which called for people to make themselves physically present were somewhat underwhelming.

Given the scale of the problems we face, the challenges to liberty, to democracy, to the environment, can we afford to let our lives slip away, watching parody, uncertain of who we are, or what we really want? Is this our panem et circenses?


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