The most recent episode of 60 Minutes caught my attention.
It was about an art forger named Wolfgang Bertracchi who paints in the style of well-known artists, not forging existing pieces, but creating new ones that the artist's might have painted if they were still alive.
The focus of the television piece was on the crime: the way it was committed, the use of materials and the backstory, but what fascinates me more than the crime is the way it calls into question our notions of art and authenticity.
Bertracchi's paintings hang in museums. They're good enough to fool art critics and collectors alike. And, most importantly, they are original works, painted in the style of the artist, but not copying another piece already in existence.
There's no question Bertracchi's talented, genius isn't a stretch for someone who can successfully paint in the style of so many varied artists and pass those pieces off as the real thing. Because they're his own creation, they ARE the real thing. But the dividing line, in my mind, between original work and forgery is that he signed other artist's names.
This makes for lots of tricky questions about the art world, specifically, and what we consider great art, in general.
The 60 Minutes pieces made me think about J.K. Rowling's recent crime fiction venture, published under the pen name Robert Galbraith. According to an article in the Huffington Post, The Cuckoo's Calling sold about 1500 copies until it's true authorship was revealed. Sales then suddenly jumped 150%.
The book didn't suddenly get better.
The only thing that changed was it became a name brand.
Not so different than a painting that's branded by the name Rembrandt or Cezanne.
Of course, J.K. Rowling already had the name to push her detective novel to higher sales. She worked hard for that name, earned it and it's hers to use. Both artists created original pieces of art.
Both artists' works have been recognized as masterpieces, celebrated in museums, feted by publishing.
The crucial difference is one artist created a legitimate name for herself that is now shorthand for "Really Amazing Book" while the other artist took advantage of established names that were previously established as shorthand for "Really Amazing Painting".
This territory between Bertracchi's forgeries and Rowling's unveiling of her authorship highlights the way we are quick to use name brand artists to classify certain work as great while others slip by in virtual anonymity.
Which brings me back to the nebulous nature of art.
No matter how hard we try to define art, measure its circumference and calculate it's area with geometric precision, it's still undefinable. The same artist has the ability to create great pieces and pieces that, given a different provenance, might lurch along in the realm of middle-tier.
The subtlety of artistic expression doesn't follow a corporate model, which is troublesome for the publishers and galleries that rely upon art to pay the bills.
In the end, I believe it's the need to define and calculate artist's work that is partially responsible for Bertracchi's success. Instead of uncertainty, he sold a name brand and for an extended period of time, everyone bought it. In much the same way as Rowling's readership jumped the minute she revealed her authorship.
It makes me wonder what we would discover if art wasn't pre-selected for us by the people who run museums, publishing houses and the entertainment industry. What kind of messy, unexpected creativity is out there right now, waiting to be discovered? The kind of thing that is undefinable, yet still undeniably great art.