Nan Stalnaker:  Fakes and Forgeries

In Berys Gaut and Dominic Lopes, The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics (2001) 


This document is a summary of Stalnaker. 
My personal comments are in red. 
These comments have been added to help students understand her arguments.

CENTRAL ISSUE: If two works are indiscernible, and one is the original and the second is a fake or copy, why should we prefer to view the original?  ("indiscernible" = an exact copy or something identical in appearance)

The Formalist View 

A work and an exact copy must have the same aesthetic value. If one subscribes to the view that the value of a work of art is determined by its appearance (sensory aspects, including form), then there is no reason to prefer the original to a copy. A beautiful painting is a beautiful painting, and that's all there is to the value of a painting. [For a defense of the strong formalism that supports this argument, see Clive Bell's essay on art.] [This view is also known as aestheticism.]

 If originality is an aesthetic property [the presence of creative imagination] then the original does have an aesthetic property that the fake does not have, so the original is better.

Furthermore, not every forgery is an exact copy, and not every copy is a forgery. Some forgeries mimic the style of a famous artist, but in doing so they involve some degree of originality. These paintings may be originals, but they lack the originality and creativity that we regard as the value of an "original" work of art.

The Contextualist View

But not everyone adopts the formalist position. Contextualist maintain that both the meaning and the value of a work of art are partly due to its historical and conceptual context. [This view is associated with cognitivism, which maintains the work's message is central to its value.]

On this view, a copy will sometimes be better than an "original." Many great artists have made copies of works they admire, and these copies can be more valuable than the ones they copied.

The Hybrid View

Nelson Goodman asks us to consider a painting and its indiscernible copy. Although we cannot NOW see any difference, knowledge of which one is original might allow us to notice a difference that we would otherwise overlook. The example of wine tasting supports this empirical claim: two wines might taste the same, but upon learning that they were created by different aging processes (one had oak barrels, one did not), we might look for and thus come to appreciate their difference. The van Meegeren forgeries are a real example of this with art: what initially looked like real Vermeers are now easily seen to be fakes.

Click here to learn about van Meegeren and his forged Vermeer paintings.

Taken one way, this claim is BOLD: what we know about an object changes the way it looks to us.

What if we could produce a molecule-by-molecule reproduction? Would our knowledge that one is naturally aged allow us to see it as somehow different from the one that we know to be clever engineering?

Forgery Across the Arts

Goodman notes that forgery is a question of an object's history of production. A forgery is presented with a false history of production. Based on this insight, he argues that only autographic art can be forged. In fact, the capacity to be forged defines such art. ["Autographic" = written by the hand of the artist. The question of whether a painting is an original or a forgery is built right into the kind of art that painting is. With autographic arts, artists create physical object as their works of art. With non-autographic art --i.e. allographic art-- the artist creates a score or pattern to be followed.] 

He argues that some types of art --allographic art-- don't permit of forgery. For example, every performance of a musical work, and every performance of a play, is just as "original" as every other performance that follows the score or instructions. But many contextualists think Goodman is mistaken that only some arts permit of forgeries. A musical work written today could be attributed to Mozart, making both it and its performances forgeries. So all forms of art can be forged.

Although Goodman seems incorrect about some features of his autographic/allographic distinction, it usefully calls attention to the centrality of INTENTIONS when discussing forgery. If a copy is presented as a copy, it is not a forgery. Forgery involves an intention to deceive others about a work's history.

Danto and the Appearance Theory

Arthur Danto defends contextualism by making the point that we could have two indiscernible objects, one of which IS art and one of which IS NOT art. Many properties that we'd be correct to attribute to the art would not apply in the case of the "real" or non-art object. So knowing that what we're seeing is art is essential to our response.

[A nice example is Andy Warhol's Brillo Box. Warhol made a set of these. They look very much like real boxes made by Brillo (same size, same colors, etc.), used to ship their product to stores. You could tell that these are not really shipping cartons if you picked one up, but of course you're only supposed to LOOK at it, in which case there are not supposed to be any discernible differences between Warhol's work of art and the non-art "real" carton. But we can make the same point by comparing two artworks that look the same, such as the Mona Lisa and Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q. Shaved.]

Danto's point is like Goodman's, which we now see to be ambiguous. It can be taken in three different ways:

  1. The interpretation would differ, but no perceptible difference is required.
  2. The knowledge would change the emphasis we place on different features, changing their relevance. If we know that the duck-rabbit drawing is SUPPOSED to be a drawing of a duck, we will focus our attention on the "duck features" and try to ignore the "rabbit features."
  3. The knowledge will give us access to features that we would otherwise overlook.

Here is the duck-rabbit drawing:



Notice that only #3 of the three will give us a reason to actually prefer an original over copies. #1 and #2 does not predict that we will find anything more in the original than in the copy or fake. 

Historical Authenticity

Contextualism tells us why an original might be different, but why does that show that an original is better? Psychologically, we desire the "physical link to the past" that we get from an original. It confirms that the painting we see is (adjusted for its age) what the artist wanted us to see. When we see a Rembrandt, we know that Rembrandt saw this painting, and so we are seeing what he intended us to see. We have confirmation that we are getting the visual information that the artist wants us to have. So what we KNOW about a work is relevant to our interaction with it.

Therefore we only value copies when we have no access to originals, or the originals have decayed over time. In that case, we accept the substitute.


With most works of art, there is an integration of the conceptual and the sensory, of its "ideas" and "the way it looks." Example: the contrasting blue colors of Bellini's Madonna. The quality of the work of art is generally bound to the experience that only it can offer to us.

But what if our knowledge makes NO difference in what we actually see? Kant gives the example of the nightingale. Stalnaker thinks that, upon learning the difference, we'd hear the difference.


                        Last updated April 14, 2004