The Value of Authenticity and Irreplaceability



Should we value something just because it is authentic or irreplaceable?

In his recent post “Does it Matter If a Painting is Fake,” Sam McNerney draws our attention to a new study out of Oxford University that examines subjects’ fMRI results while viewing a sequence of Rembrandt paintings. The study indicates that subjects have a characteristic response to paintings they are told are authentic, whether they are in fact viewing genuine Remrbandts or not. This fascinating data about our neural response to attributions of authenticity raises a difficult philosophical question—is our interest in authentic things justified, or do we merely possess an inherent bias in favor of the supposed Real McCoy? As McNerny notes, one of our most common attitudes toward authentic objects is that we are unwilling to accept replacements for them. How do we determine when such resistance is appropriate and when it merely harbors a bias?

The historical origin of an object is what Denis Dutton calls, in the context of artworks, the object’s nominal authenticity (this is contrasted with expressive authenticity, the “object’s character as a true expression of an individual’s or a society’s values and beliefs.”)[1] Indeed, as McNerny’s post points out, it is often the history of an object that matters to us. To McNerny’s examples (a record-breaking baseball, a child’s stuffed animal, artwork), we might add family heirlooms, historical artifacts, or even natural environments. As Dutton notes, however, whether or not something is authentic in the nominal sense depends on the context of assessment: while a Van Meegeren is not an authentic Vermeer, it is, of course, an authentic Van Meegeren.[2] Thus whether the nominal authenticity of a work grants it any special value, and hence whether it is resistant to replacement, depends on a need to articulate a context of evaluative assessment. The fact that a given Van Meegeren is an inauthentic Vermeer only has evaluative relevance if we are assessing the value of the painting as a Vermeer. Absent this context, noting that the Van Meegeren is an inauthentic Vemeer is akin to noting that a painted horse is an inauthentic zebra: it is true that they are different animals, but outside a specified evaluative context, it is unclear why this fact should matter. In historical contexts, it cannot merely be the fact that an object embodies a particular history that blocks its substitutability: after all, everything has a particular history. There is consequently some sense in which all things are resistant to replacement, but it is not obvious that there is anything significant about that.

As straightforward as this point might seem, it is essential to how we should assess the value of authentic objects. As the Oxford study suggests (and experience corroborates), people are quick to increase their valuation of a given object based on an attribution of authenticity. But the mere fact that an object is authentic should not be where the evaluative buck stops—rather, it should be where evaluative reflection begins. If not, we risk an unacceptable proliferation of objects that we believe are resistant to replacement, which can serve to erode the importance of objects that truly possess this feature. The question we must ask ourselves when confronted with an object that we initially take to be resistant to replacement is whether that object is valuable in a distinctive way. This is what renders an object resistant to replacement. In contrast, if my umbrella is stolen, a replacement is precisely what I want, and inconveniences aside, I feel no regret about this. The bulk of umbrellas are all valuable in the same way, and thus they are perfectly interchangeable.

The hoarder is an example of someone who suffers from this ailment. He believes that every object with which he has interacted (for instance) acquires a special historical significance that renders it worthy of being cherished. It is not enough for him to save a representative memento, but every associated item becomes a relic. Surely, we take hoarders to be ridiculous (as evidenced by a recent series of reality TV shows about them). If there’s anything valuable about the bulk of the things that hoarders save, they are no doubt all valuable in the same way. Hoarders mistake distinctions among objects for distinctions in value.

It is no doubt a matter for debate how we are to individuate ways of being valuable, especially when historical considerations are at play. Indeed, the contextual nature of resistance to replacement suggests that the legitimacy of claiming that an object has this feature will depend on providing a satisfying argument that it is valuable in a distinctive way. Thus the ubiquity of the phenomenon of resistance to replacement demands we take a critical and reflective attitude toward what we take to be distinctive values; our intuition that a given thing will not admit of substitutes should not be used as a flag to rally around, but as an impetus for considering whether the intuition is justified.

This can, of course, be a difficult task, but we should have no trouble steering clear of the hoarder’s mistake, and there are plenty of examples that might guide us in more challenging cases. Jack Meiland writes: “For example, each of Degas’s paintings of ballet dancers embodies the same general vision and yet each one is equally precious to us.”[3] He means this as a counterexample to Leonard Meyer’s claim that the value of art is explained by its originality, but it also serves as an illustration of how a plurality of objects might be valuable in the same way. Or take Christopher Grau’s example: “Consider the set of guitars owned by Jimi Hendrix. One might care about a particular guitar (the one played at Woodstock, for example) but then again one might not. One might instead value the entire set of guitars he played, and freely accept a substitute of one guitar for another. (This is a case where history matters, but several objects share the relevant history.)”[4] He likewise mentions the first print-run of a book. It is plausible that the books in that run all share a distinctive value, but one would be hard-pressed to explain why the value of the 412th is distinct from that of the 411th. It is not anomalous for many things to be valued for the same reason, but without proper attention, the appearance of resistance to replacement can lead us to mistakenly believe that all such objects are unique with respect to their value. But we neither need nor ought to adopt such a belief.

This is not to say that some objects that are resistant to replacement are not meaningfully unique. There is a distinction to be made between being resistant to replacement and being truly irreplaceable, but it is a practical distinction. To say that an object is resistant to replacement is to say that there is at least some respect in which it cannot be adequately replaced; if we think this respect is of great importance, we call the object irreplaceable. But this is a difference in the degree of our attitudes, not a difference in kind among the replaceability of the objects themselves. Indeed, sometimes the attitudes involved in deeming an object irreplaceable can be taken to troubling extremes. Sir Harold Nicholson writes:

I should assuredly be prepared to be shot against a wall if I were certain that by such a sacrifice I could preserve the Giotto frescoes; nor should I hesitate for an instant (where such a decision ever open to me) to save St. Mark’s even if I were aware that by so doing I should bring death to my sons… My attitude would be governed by a principle which is surely incontrovertible. The irreplaceable is more important than the replaceable, and the loss of even the most valued human life is ultimately less disastrous than the loss of something which in no circumstances can ever be created again.[5]

It is difficult to decide what is more distasteful about this statement: the cavalier assertion of the commensurability of his sons’ lives with the value of St. Mark’s, or the more general implication that human lives are “replaceable.” I would imagine that to most of us, people are paradigms of irreplaceability. It should in any event be a cautionary tale about the attitudes that are possible when we are uncritical toward our intuitions about resistance to replacement.



[1] Denis Dutton, "Authenticity in Art," in The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics, ed. Jerrold Levinson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[2] Ibid. 

[3] Jack W. Meiland, "Originals, Copies, and Aesthetic Value," in The Forger's Art: Forgery and the Philosophy of Art, ed. Denis Dutton (University of California Press, 1983), 120.

[4] Christopher Grau, "Irreplaceability and Unique Value," Philosophical Topics 32, no. 1/2 (2004): 125.

[5] Sir Harold Nicholson, “Marginal Comments” in Spectator, Feb. 5th 1944 as quoted in John Henry Merryman, "Two Ways of Thinking About Cultural Property," The American Journal of International Law 80, no. 4 (1986): 840.


Tags: art, authenticity, distinction, philosophy, psychology, society, value

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