Two Belgian researchers, Jan Verpooten and Sigfried Dewitte of the University of Leuven, recently published a study in the journal Human Nature examining implicit bias among art ‘experts’ by presenting a series of close-up photographic portraits to both the experts and a group of non-experts, and then asking each group to identify which ones were prized works of art and which ones were not.
The ‘real’ works of art came from MoMA’s permanent collection; the ‘fakes’ were mere passport photos. Some from each group bore the faint MoMA stamp at the bottom of the image, to see if the experts could nevertheless identify ‘art’ from decoy.
It turns out that they were just as bad at distinguishing the two as the non-experts, leading the researchers to conclude that “art experts are particularly inclined to agree with what has previously been deemed prestigious, rather than evaluating work solely on its own merits.”
As Simon Oxenham of New York Magazine’s “Science of Us” blog wrote last week, modern and contemporary art has a long history of perplexing insiders and outsiders alike. Last year, for instance, an Italian art museum’s custodial staff mistook an installation piece consisting of champagne bottles, cigarette butts and confetti — meant to be a commentary on 1980s excess — for leftover trash from a party the night before and threw the entire installation away.
The director of the museum said the installation was meant to ‘spark a debate’ about modern art. That it did, but maybe not the erudite, chin-scratching sort she envisioned. Rather, it went a little more like this:
Q: “Who threw away the art?”
Oxenham also notes that Marcel Duchamp’s infamous ‘Fountain’, the urinal he submitted to an art contest under the pseudonym R. Mutt in 1917 as a damning, albeit whimsical, commentary on the fetishization of objects in the name of ‘art’, has long since been destroyed. The urinal encased in glass at the Tate Modern in London that’s been ogled by millions and photographed ad nauseum is, in fact, a replica.
That is, a ‘fake’.
Even Michaelangelo’s ‘David’ on display in the Piazza della Signoria, in Florence, Italy, is not only a replica of the original sculpture — which is on permanent display at the Accademia a few blocks away — but is considerably smaller than the original as well. The one Michaelangelo actually touched was moved indoors in 1873, and the replica on display in the sculpture’s original location, near the Uffizi Gallery, was only installed there in 1910. But this doesn’t stop tourists from swarming the ‘fake’ David and committing it to untold Instagram feeds.
Nor should it, necessarily. If the purpose of art is to provide an aesthetic experience, then who cares if it’s ‘real’ or ‘fake’? Indeed, what do those words even mean? Was the urinal Duchamp chose to make his statement about art not ‘real’ before he scrawled ‘R. Mutt 1917’ on the side?
One way in which it absolutely matters, of course, is financially. Tom Friedman, the conceptual artist who created ‘Feces on a Pedestal’ is famous for producing works that, literally, anyone else could. In 2005, Christie’s sold one of his works that consisted of nothing but a piece of plain white paper, 12×18 inches, with a single black line squiggled on it — for $26,000.
Then there’s Damien Hirst’s notorious ‘spot’ paintings, a series he’s been working on since the 1980s that consists of so many individual paintings — some with dozens of spots, some with hundreds, some with just one — that even the artist doesn’t know which are his and which are fake. This is a pretty big deal when a single ‘spot’ painting can fetch as much as $3.4 million.
Financials and prestige aside, perhaps the director of Museion, the Italian museum that accidentally trashed an installation last fall, is onto something. A debate has indeed been sparked. The question is, are the ‘experts’ listening? Or better yet, who is an expert anyway?