Authorship and authenticity

Mamoru Samuragochi, until yesterday, was a deaf composer widely admired in Japan.  It now appears he is not deaf, and most of his works were ghostwritten for two decades by Takashi Niigaki, a music teacher with no public presence at least until now.  The story, including the world’s reaction to it, highlights interesting issues in aesthetic theory and the psychology of art.  In particular, it is another nail in the coffin of the idea that the experience of art can be examined by attending to a score, a performance, a painting, or any other work  by itself.

OK, the Samuragochis are actually Niigakis and not a note of them has changed: now what? Western critical tradition is much concerned to link works of art with the identity of the artist, so a largish industry exists to find and authenticate the authorship of paintings, music and other work.  If we find out that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays we ascribe to Shakespeare, the plays won’t be any different, but people (not just English profs) really want to know the truth. This is a little odd, because we know so little about the historical Shakespeare that his biography can’t really affect our experience of the work much, but there are real insights to be gained about lots of art by knowing more about the artist and his milieu.  Fritz Kreisler, whose talent  as a violinist and a minor composer are not in any doubt, attributed a bunch of his small pieces to early composers like Tartini and Vivaldi, and later took credit for them unapologetically, saying they were just as good as people thought they were when mislabeled. How different did they sound after listeners knew who really wrote them?  What was their “real” artistic merit before and after?

Forgery scandals are always a major embarrassment for the art world.  Over more than a decade, a certain Pei-Shen Qian, who has no artistic reputation as far as I know, painted modern works that sold to sophisticated collectors and museums under the name of very well-known painters through the Knoedler Gallery, than which at the time there was no whicher.  Selling them to really expert customers was a lot easier in the hushed elegant environs of Knoedler’s showroom with sherry on tap and a good rap from the dealer’s staff, because the package on offer was so much more than paint on canvas. Sorting out these fakes is still going on, and it will be hard, because they are roughly contemporaneous with the forged artists’ productive periods. As a rule, good forgeries made in the time of the putative artist are hard to pick out, but asynchronous forgeries come to light in a generation of two, and not just because of paint chemistry and carbon dating.

Han Van Meegeren so successfully forged Vermeers in the 30′s that after the war, he had to prove he had painted the one that he sold to Goering, to avoid imprisonment for trading with the enemy. Now, my arts policy (not art history, except a couple) students regularly pick out four Van Meegerens from among four real Vermeers with near-perfect accuracy, on the spot and just looking at them projected on a screen.  Try it: the fakes are simply laughable.  But they fooled the world’s northern Renaissance experts at the time. What’s happening here is two things.  First, VM was only able to put in his Vermeers what he, seeing with the eyes of his time, could see in Vermeer, and when we look his fakes now, we don’t see a lot of what we can see in the real thing because he couldn’t put that in.  Second, VM supplied among his forgeries a painting that a particularly distinguished scholar had predicted might surface, and when the experts fell in line, everyone looking at the forgeries saw Vermeer.  Set and setting, expectations and priming; context isn’t everything but there’s no way to see or hear without it.

During the early music revival of a few decades ago, orchestras rounded up or had made authentic early instruments, tuned their A down to undo a couple of centuries of “pitch inflation”, and worked hard to follow Bach’s and Schütz’ ornament and other conventions as well as musicologists could reconstruct them.  Did we then really hear what Bach’s audiences heard? Not once the signal went from our auditory nerves to our brains,  we didn’t, because we had heard Beethoven, Brahms, Count Basie, and for that matter a B17 and its bombs and Bach’s listeners had not.  The experiment is interesting, but it’s not the experiment the performers thought they were making: the ‘time machine’ in Somewhere in Time is a fantasy.

Classical performers are wont to say that their artistic goal is to capture the real intention of the composer, that a pianist is merely the channel from Beethoven to a listener.  That’s a charming modesty, but it’s at least half nonsense, an impossibility given what listeners bring with them to combine with a performance to make the art in their heads. (Interesting that jazz musicians never say anything of the kind about playing standards, and that in the 19th century, the pecking order was the opposite: Clara Schumann was the star and Robert on a distinctly lower status level.)

The comments on the NYT story are interesting; many readers are obviously puzzling about how we are supposed to take these works that we thought were by a Japanese composer we know almost nothing about, now that they are by a different Japanese composer we know even less about. The poor ice skater who set his Olympics program to one of them is perplexed, though I don’t know why it should bother him to skate to Niigata; people aren’t there for the music.

The Hiroshima Symphony #1 is on Spotify. It definitely did not speak to me when I clicked it up; sounded like forgettable romantic schmalz (YMMV), but some orchestral warhorses I used to enjoy, whose objective merit I accept on the basis of their long critical and audience approbation, no longer float my boat.  If I heard it in a concert, presented with Serious Program Notes, with everyone settled in Davies Hall seats with their phones off and coughdrops handy, I would be much slower to dismiss it, and I might have a memorable musical experience.  I don’t think packaging and reputation could make it an enduring piece of the musical landscape, but whom we encounter a work with, under what circumstances, with what preparation and expectations, counts for a lot. Anyone who has seen Private Lives will remember the laughter that follows the line “It’s amazing how potent cheap music is!”, right after we’ve been completely seduced by “Someday I’ll Find You” at exactly the point in the play where it is irresistible.

Comments

  1. dave schutz says

    Well my Google skills aren’t what I wish, but one of my favorite art fraud stories is of the guy who was selling his canvases under swell names to Texas millionaires, got unmasked, and most of the paintings he had sold were thrown away by embarrassed collectors. One guy, though, kept his on his walls. “I bought them because I liked them. I still like them.” is my memory of his response.

  2. Henry says

    “First, VM was only able to put in his Vermeers what he, seeing with the eyes of his time, could see in Vermeer, and when we look his fakes now, we don’t see a lot of what we can see in the real thing because he couldn’t put that in.”

    I don’t understand how we can see things that earlier people could not. Can you offer an example?

    • Henry says

      To clarify, I understand that we see the painting differently, just as we hear Bach’s music differently from the way his contemporaries did. But Bach’s contemporaries heard the same notes we do, and we see the same shapes and colors in a Vermeer as our predecessors did.

      • karl says

        These notes and colors mean nothing in and of themselves, the observer makes sense of them — and can that only within the limits of his understanding. That is, no one completely “sees” the visual forms as visual forms, he sees what they represent — and that takes place within a cultural context.

        You may want to separate what we see from what we think about what we see, but that just isn’t how we work.

      • Anonymous says

        It’s like the FedEx logo. Maybe you looked at it thousands of times and never saw the arrow. On e you see the arrow you cannot UNsee it.

        Your eyes are windows. Until your brain acknowledges something coming through those windows it is not really seen.

        I’m more of a music fan than art fan, but it happens all the time where i listen to a song I’ve know for years and notice something I’ve never heard before. I’m sure it’s the same with a painting, and therefore it would be quite plausible for a forgery to have gaps the forger was unaware of.

    • karl says

      Perhaps the most facile answer here is that when we look at Vermeer, we know about Van Meegeren as well; the connoisseurs of VM’s time, of course, did not. They did, however, know of Vermeer’s biography and canon, as well as the history of his work and of the work in question; Vermeer’s contemporaries would have known none of this and, therefore, would have seen the painting in a completely different context. It’s a bit like seeing a movie with a surprise ending for the second time: you might still enjoy it, but you won’t be surprised — because your “informational context” has widened.

    • Fred says

      There is a reportedly true account of a man living in an isolated, conservative muslim community where they lived by the letter of the law prohibiting graven images. When the man was shown a “realistic” drawing of a horse he couldn’t make any sense of it. All he could see was lines on paper.
      When we see a picture of a horse we are culturaly prepared to interpret it. We construct it in our mind. Or is it our minds?

    • Michael O'Hare says

      Well, we can see Scarlett Johansson in the “Girl With the Pearl Earring”, not to mention the whole novel and movie that were built on it.

  3. CJColucci says

    I’ve often thought that if I were ever rich I might enjoy collecting art forgeries. I can see a dealer trying to sell me an “authentic” Van Meegeren actually made by a fine arts student as an exercise. Would the forged forgery be worth more than the authentic forgery? Or less?

    • Dennis says

      I’d love to have competently done paintings “in the style of” artists whose work I like, when the artist happens to have died before I was born. Like the Impressionists… or El Greco.

      I’d rather not have a forged signature or attribution on it.

  4. RobZ says

    “If we find out that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays we ascribe to Shakespeare…

    Ain’t gonna happen. Anyone who bothers to study the era before spending any time considering that authorship issue will come to the conclusion that William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote almost everything in the Shakespeare canon.

      • Herschel says

        It’s hard to tell John Gielgud much of anything, what with his being dead and all. At any rate, are you suggesting that the three actors you mention have some kind of special authority when it comes to literary attribution?

      • RobZ says

        Gielgud signed a petition of some sort asking for a full inquiry into the topic. He also appears to have told his nephew that he personally thought the Shakespeare authorship issue was all nonsense. It doesn’t really matter in any case. None of these great actors likely spent any great time studying Elizabethan and Jacobean history before they made their minds up.

        • karl says

          RobZ and Herschel: Gielgud’s dead!!??

          Anyway, the relevant actor in the list is Rylance, who, as head of the Globe, has studied the era in order to provide “period performances.” Jacobi I’m less familiar with, scholarship-wise.

          More to the point, plenty of historians and academics (as opposed to those pesky “artistic types”) have gone down the road to Oxford. Just because you and I haven’t is no reason to pooh-pooh their argument as unthinkable — many think it.

          • RobZ says

            “RobZ and Herschel: Gielgud’s dead!!??”

            I expect you are pulling our legs now. I see he would have turned 110 this April so he did pretty well lasting as long as he did.

            “Rylance, who, as head of the Globe, has studied the era in order to provide “period performances.”

            On the other hand, I’ll bet he knows very little about how the average middle-class Elizabethan lived or what sort of Early Modern documents are likely to have survived till the present.

            “More to the point, plenty of historians and academics (as opposed to those pesky “artistic types”) have gone down the road to Oxford.”

            Plenty? There are plenty of smart people who are not orthodox in this matter but they tend to be writers, doctors, lawyers, engineers and the like, not historians.

            Interesting fact. There’s nothing at all in the extant record that directly connects Chaucer the clerk to Chaucer the poet.

      • Warren Terra says

        I can admire the ability of people to portray a dramatist’s characters without trusting them to be particularly insightful or knowledgeable about the precise identity of those characters’ author who’s been dead a few centuries.

  5. Dennis says

    A conductor friend of mine is fond of saying, “Making music requires three participants: the composer, the performer(s) and the audience.” There is much truth in the statement, although in some genres the lines separating the roles are blurred. The “Original Instruments” gang are now calling the movement “Historically Informed Performance.” And although it is true that I cannot listen to Bach outside my context that includes Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn,…, Sibelius, Berg it is also true that listening to a Bach concerto on Baroque fiddles with gut strings, lower neck angles and Baroque bows is a very different experience. Sonically, the instruments are different. Similarly, listening to Berlioz played with ophicliedes, small bore brasses and single horns is different from listening to Symphonie Fantastique played by the Los Angeles Philharmonic on modern instruments.

    Speaking of Bach (1685-1750), it’s also true that our context likely reaches farther back than JSB’s contemporaries’ context. Ours includes Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179)– I would be surprised if JSB had even heard of her.

    Pete Seeger was fond of saying that music wants to be set free. This attitude is in stark contrast to the attempts of Disney Corp (and others) to lock away elements of our shared culture apparently forever.

    On the matter of visual art, if I like it I like it. I like Impressionists. I’m not much into Modernists. I will never be able to afford a Renoir or a Manet or a Monet. I like the attitude of the Texan who left the “forgeries” on his wall. He got swindled, and that’s a shame. But he’s got paintings he likes.

  6. Ralph says

    MO’H wrote: another nail in the coffin of the idea that the experience of art can be examined by attending to a score, a performance, a painting, or any other work by itself

    How so? I do not understand your point. How does one “examine the experience of art”?

  7. Henry says

    It has been many years since I read it, but Robertson Davies’ novel, What’s Bred in the Bone, is about an artist who paints a picture in a style of centuries past, and tries to pass it as such. I believe that the novel raises the question whether that is possible, even for the most talented artist.

  8. kate says

    I suspect a third thing might be going on with asynchronus forged Vermeers, namely not leaving out aspects of current styles which are invisible to the people living with them at the time. This is frequently what happens with period costumes in movies, which seem authentic when they are produced, but are clearly recognized as products of their time a short while later.

  9. Warren Terra says

    As a rule, good forgeries made in the time of the putative artist are hard to pick out, but asynchronous forgeries come to light in a generation of two, and not just because of paint chemistry and carbon dating.

    The half-life of carbon-14 is almost 6,000 years. I get the point you’re making, but carbon dating isn’t really relevant for anything painted in the last couple of hundred years (unless for some reason the artist was supposed to have used powdered amber or something, and the forger didn’t emulate this – but this makes it more an issue of paint chemistry again).

  10. Jeffrey Kramer says

    If we find out that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays we ascribe to Shakespeare, the plays won’t be any different, but people (not just English profs) really want to know the truth. This is a little odd, because we know so little about the historical Shakespeare that his biography can’t really affect our experience of the work much….

    But if we found out that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays, we would then know that the plays were written by someone eager to hide his own identity, someone who was smuggling the children of his aristocratic brain into an arena of mass culture. Even if we knew scarcely more about the historical Oxford than about the historical Shakespeare, every reference in the plays to disguise, doubleness, hiding, the masses and many other topics would then stand out differently for us — for most of us, anyway — than they do when we assume Shakespeare's authorship.

    • Herschel says

      Given the wealth of markers pointing to Shakespeare as the author of Shakespeare's works, and they are more plentiful than for almost any other English author of his day, we're not really "assuming" Shakespeare's authorship. That we might get an extra little frisson from believing someone else wrote his works isn't a very good reason actually to believe something so far-fetched.

      P.S. What happened to all the comments that used to be attached to this post?

      • Jeffrey Kramer says

        I didn't intend to imply that there was reasonable doubt about Shakespeare's authorship, only that our response to the plays would change if our (very reasonable) assumption that Shakespeare of Stratford wrote them were overturned.

        • says

          It's nice that you recognize that our response to the plays would change if we actually understood who they were written by. As Shelldrake says, there is reasonable doubt. You may not share that doubt, but it is reasonable. If you take the time to look into it, following the links shellpup supplies, you may eventually realize that.

      • Calends says

        You should educate yourself – perhaps starting with AKA Shakespeare by Stanford prof emeritus Peter Sturrock. Sturrock calculates the probability that your guy, Stratford Will actually wrote the plays. The odds are infinitesimally small.

        Herschel should replace his name calling with learning. Take on the Stanford professor, sir!

    • shellpup225 says

      Yes, different, but with Oxford, where before certain statements and allusions were mysterious or mystifying requiring critical contortions and speculation, it all becomes clear, and someone was telling the truth about Elizabethan England if you care or dare to look deeply. Don't buy into anything traditionally said about Oxford until you've read about him widely. You will not be disappointed. And no need for "the lost years…"

  11. Herschel says

    Fair enough, and you show yourself to be a reasonable man. Many of the Oxford conspiracy enthusiasts, however, actually make the argument that the contextual enrichment they derive from their crackpot theory that Oxford wrote the works of Shakespeare is one of the stoutest arrows in their quiver.

    • JeffreyK622 says

      Ah. I didn't know I was closely mirroring an argument actually used by some Oxfordians. It's an… interesting… approach to literary scholarship. If you're going in that direction, however, you have to go with Bacon. Then, when you read 'Shakespeare', you would be in the awe-inspiring presence of far and away the greatest universal genius in human history: founder of philosophical empiricism, pioneer of the scientific method, essayist, politician, and the author of King Lear! Da Vinci would be to Bacon what a computer programmer who did some watercolor and wrote occasional fanfiction would be to Da Vinci.

      • Herschel says

        I'd prefer to believe that da Vinci wrote Shakespeare's work in Italian, and Bacon later came along and translated it into English.

      • GR Blomquist says

        JeffreyK…no need of being apologetic about (even possibly) implying that there may be "reasonable doubt" re. WHO actually authored the Shakespeare canon, because, well, you'd be in very good company. Literary giants such as Mark Twain, Henry James, Walt Whitman, and Ralph Waldo Emerson (to name but a few), expressed grave doubt about the man Will Shakspere of Stratford-on-Avon fame being the one and the same "William Shakespeare". And Herschel seriously errs when he states that there are "a wealth of markers pointing to Shakespeare as the author of Shakespeare's works", when, IN FACT, the historical records referring to the Stratford fellow (Will Shakspere) DURING HIS LIFETIME shed no light on a LITERARY CAREER of any description, whatsoever! Thus, we have the eminent 19th century American scholar, W.H. Furness, commenting, "I am one of many who is unable to bring the works of William Shakespeare within planetary space of Shaksper of Stratford's personal life. Are there any two things in the world more incongruous?" So, don't allow yourself to be brow-beaten out of exploring the Shakespeare Authorship Question (SAQ), Jeffrey, you owe it to yourself to check it on your own…and remember, "…the most fruitful lesson is the conquest of one's own error. Whoever refuses to admit error may be a great scholar, but he is not a great learner." (Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe) Do be a great learner, Jeffrey, and check out the "doubt aboutwill.org/declaration" that "shellpup" has passed along, below…it'll truly open your eyes!

        • Jeffrey Kramer says

          IN FACT, the historical records referring to the Stratford fellow (Will Shakspere) DURING HIS LIFETIME shed no light on a LITERARY CAREER of any description, whatsoever!

          Shakespeare's name appears on a the title-pages of Quartos of many of his plays published in his lifetime (like Richard II, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, King Lear); it appears on the title-page of Shakespeare's Sonnets in 1609; he is explicitly named by Francis Meres as the best author for both tragedy and comedy in England, and a dozen of his plays are named (like Midsummer Night's Dream, Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, Richard III); his name was so strongly associated with his literary career that one publisher tried to use that name during Shakespeare's lifetime in order to help sell a collection of poems he called The Passionate Pilgrime, by W. Shakspeare.

          Against this, we have… what? The fact that he doesn't refer to his literary career in his will? Who did?

  12. RobZ says

    Oxford's first published verse is his "to the Reader" verse prefaced to Bedingfield's translation printed in 1573.

    The labouring man that tills the fertile soil
    And reaps the harvest fruit hath not indeed
    The gain, but pain, and if for all his toil
    He gets the straw, the lord will have the seed.
    The manchet fine falls not unto his share,
    On coarsest cheat his hungry stomach feeds.
    The landlord doth possess the finest fare;
    He pulls the flowers, the other plucks but weeds.
    The mason poor, that builds the lordly halls,
    Dwells not in them, they are for high degree;
    His cottage is compact in paper walls,
    And not with brick or stone as others be.
    The idle drone that labours not at all
    Sucks up the sweet of honey from the bee.
    Who worketh most, to their share least doth fall;
    With due desert reward will never be.
    The swiftest hare unto the mastiff slow
    Ofttimes doth fall to him as for a prey;
    The greyhound thereby doth miss his game we know
    For which he made such speedy haste away.
    So he that takes the pain to pen the book
    Reaps not the gifts of goodly golden Muse,
    But those gain that who on the work shall look,
    And from the sour the sweet by skill doth choose.
    For he that beats the bush the bird not gets,
    But who sits still and holdeth fast the nets.

    • says

      Right. To my knowledge, this is the first statement in the English language of what is today known as "reader response theory." What was your point, exactly, in posting it? Too awful to be Shakespeare. Nice try with the cherry picking.

  13. Herschel says

    I should have anticipated that this thread would bring out the Area 51 brigade in force. I will laugh at them, but I will not engage them.

    • RobZ says

      You mean

      "For he that beats the bush the bird not gets,
      But who sits still and holdeth fast the nets."

      doesn't sound just like something Shakspear would have written when he was 21 or 22?

      My all-time favorite lines attributed to Oxford:

      "My life, through ling'ring long, is lodg'd in lair of loathsome ways"

      and

      "Thus like a woeful wight I wove the web of woe,"

      What a genius!

      • says

        RobZ,

        Here's another choice bit, written when Oxford had some experience with life:

        I hope truth is subject to know prescription, for truth is truth though never so old, and time cannot make that false which once was true.

        This is his paraphrase of the familiar lines from Troilus and Cressida, which form a very precise pun on his personal heraldic motto (vero nihil verius, "nothing truer than the truth"):

        After all comparisons of truth, as truth's authentic author to be cited.

        Or there's the version from Measure for Measure:

        For truth is truth to the end of reckoning.

        You won't get to far cherry picking your evidence that way. "Shakespeare" did not emerge full blown like the "spear-shaker" Athena from the brow of Zeus, in 1593 with *Venus and Adonis.* He had been writing for thirty years already at that point. Where is his juvenilia? Hmm….thanks for posting some of it!

        As Shellpup says, there is reasonable doubt — and *then some.*

      • GR Blomquist says

        Rob, isn't a pity dear ol' Herschel can't counter with some samples of Will Shakspere's writings as a teenager? You know, we could have a "Compare and Contrast" contest between de Vere and Shakspere…it would be fun! But, alas, as Herschel well knows (or ought to know), aside from six, shaky, illegible signatures that are "supposed" to be his (on various legal documents), NOTHING IN SHAKSPERE'S HAND – be it letters, notes, manuscripts, elegies, eulogies, poems, etc.- has ever been brought to the light of day! NOTHING! Small wonder the late and great Professor Samuel Schoenbaum (Distinguished Professor of Renaissance Studies, University of Maryland and himself, a Stratfordian) was forced to admit, "Perhaps we should despair of ever bridging the vertiginous expanse between the sublimity of the subject (Shakespeare) and the mundane inconsequence of the documentary record (of Shakspere of Stratford). (1991). Mundane, indeed!!! GB

        • RobZ says

          Oxford's first poems were published when he was in his twenties at a time when he was a most proud man. If he had better poems, he'd have published them instead of the drivel he did publish rather than be outshone by the likes of Sir Philip Sidney.

          The sort of stuff you would have from Shakespeare is quite rare and for most of Shakespeare's fellow playwrights, also no longer extant.

          Basically, what we have here is analogous to the global warming debate. It is just another amateurs vs experts argument.
          http://shakespeareauthorship.com/howdowe.html is an old site but I think it lays the orthodox case out quite well. Anyone thinking that there might be something to this Shakespeare wasn't Shakespeare nonsense, would do well to visit it *before* making up their mind.

          Good luck to all.

    • says

      Laugh all you want, the joke is on you. You don't know what you are talking about. Please do some research before continuing to throw stones from your glass house.

    • Richard Hershberger says

      "I should have anticipated that this thread would bring out the Area 51 brigade in force."

      Indeed you should. As soon as I got to that part of the OP I wondered if the writer knew what he was going to attract. I think they must constantly run a Google search for blog postings with the words "Shakespeare" and "Oxford".

      • Herschel says

        Indeed. And I think others should follow my advice and not engage these cranks. Reasoning with them is rather like trying to reason with my dog. She has a look of intelligence on her face as she listens to me, but she doesn't follow my argument.

        • says

          You're on quite a roll, Herschel. I'm really impressed with your creativity. Maybe you should quit your day job and try to earn a living writing fiction.

          But perhaps there are one or two readers at least who are willing to pause long enough over the exchange to ask what it means that one side in the discussion feels the need to stoop to such pathetic expressions of ignorant contempt, and ask the next question.

      • says

        Its interesting to note how often supporters of the orthodox view of Shakespearean authorship feel compelled to write about anyone who disagrees with them as "they" in a kind of distancing attempt. This is what Richmond Crinkley, writing in the *Shakespere Quarterly* in 1985 referred to as the "bizarre mutant racism" on which the traditional view of authorship depends. Richard, we are right here. You can talk to us, you don't have to keep pretending that we are some kind of alien species. They chief difference between us and you is that we have read something about the topic allegedly under discussion. Based on your comments, I cannot tell that you have done so, and this seems to be the explanation for the intellectual vacuousness of your self assured rhetoric. Perhaps you would care to respond to the point that has been made that the alleged comparisons between Oxford's youthful verses and the mature works of Shakespeare fail to to take into account (among other) things, the process by which a writer matures over the course of, in this case approximately forty years of development.

        Your cheap insults do not commend the viability of your belief. Shellpup posted some links. You have done little but repeat yourself.

        Best Wishes.

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