Art History is Pseudoscience?

So argues Jonathan Jones in a provocative article in the Guardian.  He says “the fear of fakes does far more harm than forgery itself”.  Art authentication is more art than science.  I’ve argued something similar with respect to the antiquities trade.  The impetus for Jones’ rebuke to art history is the recent criticism of the newfound “lost archive” of Frida Kahlo’s works soon to be published by Princeton Architectural Press.  Critics claim many of the works in the book are forgeries, and that causes Jones to ask if they know what they are speaking about.  As he says:      

Today’s art experts marshal techniques such as infrared photography to make their knowledge seem all the more scientific. This makes it harder than ever to question the voice from above. But when writing and thinking about art gets reduced to a lofty denunciation of fakes and the tedious analysis of provenance that is art scholarship’s meat and drink it just fills ordinary visitors to museums with fear and insecurity. Do I actually know enough to look at this painting, you might ask yourself in front of a Rembrandt? Am I qualified to see it? The general answer implied by modern art history from Berenson to his spectroscopically equipped modern successors is a chilly “No”.
The consolation is that secretly the fake-busters are going mad. An academic once told me he’d been called to an antiques shop to examine a drawing by the artist he specialises in. He judged it a fake and suspected he’d been deliberately set up by one of his rivals who hoped to catch him out. What a world. It seems like a scene from a strange Nabokovian novel.

There is a lot of interesting food for thought here.  He concludes his piece by arguing the he would rather be fooled by a few fakes than reduce art to such “pedantry”.  In fact he argues “many people who spend their lives studying art in depth — and pride themselves on never being taken in by fakes fooled — find it all less rewarding than the visitor to da Vinci’s Last Supper whose only background reading is Dan Brown.”

Strong criticism indeed.  I wonder if much of the difficulty can be traced to efforts to equate the quality of a work of art with its monetary value?  Has all this money made us lose sight of the aesthetic experience?  I think the best way to answer that is with Orson Welles rhetorical question in “F for Fake”:

 

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

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