William Hazlitt on Acting

As I will be snowed under work until the 2nd  here is a really interesting excerpt by William Hazlitt concerning acting. It is in fact one of the reasons why this journal is called The Motley View – the other being a certain character in a Shakespeare play answers on a postcard. In the future I will examine “acting” and “actors” in more detail.

From: The Examiner (Jan. 5, 1817), ‘On Actors and Acting’

PLAYERS are “the abstracts and brief chronicles of the time”; the motley representatives of human nature. They are the only honest hypocrites. Their life is a voluntary dream; a studied madness. The height of their ambition is to be beside themselves. To day kings, to morrow beggars, it is only when they are themselves, that they are nothing. Made up of mimic laughter and tears, passing from the extremes of joy or woe at the prompter’s call, they wear the livery of other men’s fortunes; their very thoughts are not their own. They are, as it were, train-bearers in the pageant of life, and hold a glass up to humanity, frailer than itself. We see ourselves at second-hand in them: they shew us all that we are, all that we wish to be, and all that we dread to be. The stage is an epitome, a bettered likeness of the world, with the dull part left out: and, indeed, with this omission, it is nearly big enough to hold all the rest. What brings the resemblance nearer is, that, as they imitate us, we, in our turn, imitate them. How many fine gentlemen do we owe to the stage? How many romantic lovers are mere Romeos in masquerade? How many soft bosoms have heaved with Juliet’s sighs? They teach us when to laugh and when to weep, when to love and when to hate, upon principle and with a good grace! Wherever there is a playhouse, the world will go on not amiss. The stage not only refines the manners, but it is the best teacher of morals, for it is the truest and most intelligible picture of life. It stamps the image of virtue on the mind by first softening the rude materials of which it is composed, by a sense of pleasure. It regulates the passions by giving a loose to the imagination. It points out the selfish and depraved to our detestation; the amiable and generous to our admiration; and if it clothes the more seductive vices with the borrowed graces of wit and fancy, even those graces operate as a diversion to the coarser poison of experience and bad example, and often prevent or carry off the infection by inoculating the mind with a certain taste and elegance.

Culture/Cultivate

Culture is the cultivation of organisms for study and use.  And the product or growth resulting from such cultivation.

To grow (organisms) in or on a controlled or defined medium; Artist/Actor/Director.

To subject to culture; to introduce (living material) into a cultural medium; The Viewer/Audience/Consumer.

If no one can tell two works of art apart, can there be an aesthetic difference between them?

The remit of this journal will be expanding slightly to include the disciplines Aesthetics, Art, Critical Theory – although this will still be primarily a film journal, the odd article and analysis of Art and other cultural texts will be included. This expansion is added because it allows me to add my work concerning the institutional theory of art that i will concentrating on in the summer and to provide a forum in which to work through this – as well as other articles.

In this article I will attempt to answer the proposed question by exploring whether an identical forgery shares the shame aesthetic properties as an original. I will answer the question in the negative and argue that there cannot be an aesthetic difference between two visually identical pieces of art. I will indicate that this is not necessarily a negative outcome because it is an indicator that art is appreciated for more than just an artwork’s form. I will explain that art is appreciated both aesthetically and for its innovation: its position in the history of art. In this essay I will first explore N Goodman’s position that there can be an aesthetic difference between the two identical pieces of art. I will come to the conclusion that Goodman is incorrect in his belief that aesthetic appreciation is affected by knowing that an artwork is either a forgery or an unoriginal artwork produced by someone other than the artist. I will then illustrate why there is not an aesthetic difference between a forgery and an original piece of art.

Goodman proposes that there is an aesthetic difference between a forgery (B) and an original (A). The original (A) is a work of art by a historically important artist such as Henri Matisse and the forgery (B) is an identical work produced by a knowledgeable art student. Goodman contends that knowing that artwork (B) is a forgery ensures one perceives (B) differently. Goodman claims this difference to be aesthetic. In the article Art and Authenticity Goodman explains that once one is told that (B) is a forgery then ‘the pictures differ aesthetically… even if no one will ever be able to tell them apart merely by looking at them’.1 Goodman contends that being told that an artwork is a forgery affects the way we are able perceive it; he explains that knowing (B) is a forgery ‘makes consequent demands that modify and differentiate my experience’.2 Goodman believes that aesthetic appreciation is the complete experience we gain from our interaction with art and that this experience is distorted by the knowledge an artwork is a forgery. Goodman believes that although both (A) and (B) are visually identical they differ in the aesthetic experience they offer – once one is told that that (B) is a forgery.

One major problem with Goodman’s position is his understanding of the aesthetic. The aesthetic is not the whole lived experience we feel we when engage with art but an appreciation of the formal qualities of an artwork. The aesthetic experience is produced by appreciation of the art object’s intrinsic formal qualities. Goodman falsely attributes the object, artwork (B), with his knowledge that it is not artwork (A) the original. Goodman’s aesthetic difference is produced not in the art object but in the subject. If we tell Goodman that (X), A late period Picasso, is a forgery he would be forced to say that it is inferior aesthetically. However the knowledge that (X) is a forgery is external to the aesthetic nature of the work; it doesn’t affect the brush marks, colours and shapes that produced the artwork. Goodman’s understanding of the aesthetic is at odds with the way we appreciate an artwork aesthetically. The art object (B)’s colours, shapes or brush marks are not changed by the knowledge that it is a forgery; evaluation of (B)’s aesthetic quality is not affected by the knowledge it is a forgery. Goodman’s aesthetic is flawed because he asserts that anything that affects his perception of an artwork constitutes an aesthetic difference. In his article it is not clear why drunkenness, short-sightedness, colour-blindness or even racial prejudice would not entail an aesthetic flaw on the part of the artwork. It is evidently incorrect that an artwork should be seen as aesthetically inferior just because the viewer is drunk or colour-blind. Lessing explains that knowing that an artwork is a forgery ‘is a fact about the painting which stands entirely apart from it as an object for aesthetic contemplation. The knowledge of this fact can neither add anything to nor subtract anything from the aesthetic experience’.3 Knowing that artwork (B) is a forgery does not alter the form of the object; (B) still contains its original aesthetic features.

What changes when one knows an artwork is a forgery is that one approaches the artwork with a different understanding of the artwork’s place in the history of art. The knowledge that the artwork (B) is a forgery alters our perception of the artwork as a whole: it does not alter the artwork’s aesthetic features or our appreciation of them. Lessing continues to explain that ‘the fact that a work of art is a forgery is an item of information about it on a level with such information as how old the artist was when he created it, the political situation in the time and place of its creation’.4The aesthetic quality of (B) would not be said to be diminished if one gained knowledge of the place of (B)’s creation, or the political situation it was created in. The knowledge that artwork (B) is a forgery is on par with biographical and cultural information; information unimportant for appreciation of the artwork’s aesthetic qualities. The aesthetic quality of artwork (A) and (B) are equal; there is no difference between them in that category. The category which produces a different valuation between artworks (A) and (B) is the judgement made from knowledge of the historical, biographical and sociological background. As Lessing points out ‘A few authentic pen and ink scratches by Picasso are for more valuable than a fine landscape by an unknown artist’.5 Aesthetic judgement of an artwork is only one category or aspect of evaluation of art. Artworks are also valued for their historical significance, moral position, social critique and biographical matter. A painting of Descartes may be aesthetically uninteresting, however being a painting of an important historical figure the painting is valued for its historical and biographical significance. Artworks (A) and (B) contain the same aesthetic value because knowledge that artwork (B) is a forgery is not an aesthetic issue; there is not an aesthetic difference between the two identical pieces of art.

In attempting to answer the proposed question “If no one can tell two works of art apart, can there be an aesthetic difference between them?” I explored whether an identical forgery shares the shame aesthetic properties as an original. Goodman argued that they do not share the shame aesthetic properties. To Goodman the artworks (A) and (B) differ aesthetically because (B) is a forgery. According to Goodman’s position aesthetic appreciation is affected by the knowledge that an artwork is a forgery. I illustrated that this position is flawed. The aesthetic is not altered by knowing that artwork (B) is a forgery; the way we perceive the artwork in relation to the history of art is. Goodman’s position argues that the difference in the aesthetic valuation is because the way he experiences the aesthetic is altered by knowing that artwork (B) is a forgery. However Goodman does not make it clear why being drunk, short-sighted or colour blind would not also entail an aesthetic flaw on the part of the artwork. It is evidently false that an artwork’s aesthetic evaluation should suffer because the viewer is drunk, short-sighted, colour blind or racially prejudiced. Artworks (A) and (B) are visually identical and I illustrated that they do not differ aesthetically because (B) is a forgery; therefore there is no aesthetic difference that arises between (A) and (B). However this does not entail that we judge (A) and (B) equally as artworks. (A) would be seen as more important in regards to the history of art. In response to the proposed question there is no aesthetic difference between two visually identical pieces of art, but there may be historical, biographical, social or moral reasons why one piece of art is seen as more significant or important.

Footnotes

N, Goodman. ‘Art and Authenticity’ in N, Goodman, Languages of Art, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1976) pp. 99-112. p. 106.

N, Goodman. ‘Art and Authenticity’ p. 105.

Alfred Lessing, ‘What Is Wrong with A Forgery?’ The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 23, No. 4, (Summer, 1965), pp. 461- 471. p. 464.

Alfred Lessing, ‘What Is Wrong with A Forgery?’ p. 464.

Alfred Lessing, ‘What Is Wrong with A Forgery?’ p. 463.

  

Bibliography

Goodman, N. ‘Art and Authenticity’ in Goodman, N. Languages of Art, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1976) pp. 99-112.

Kennick, W.E. ‘Art and Inauthenticity’ The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 44, No. 1, (Autumn, 1985), pp. 3-12.

Kulka, T. ‘The Artistic and Aesthetic Status of Forgeries’ Leonardo, Vol. 15, No. 2, (Spring, 1982), pp. 115-117.

Morton, H. L. and Foster, T. R. ‘Goodman, Forgery and the Aesthetic’ The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 49, No. 2, (Spring, 1991), pp. 155- 159.

Lessing, A. ‘What Is Wrong with A Forgery?’ The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 23, No. 4, (Summer, 1965), pp. 461- 471.

Sagoff, M. ‘The Aesthetic Status of Forgeries’ The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 35, No. 2, (Winter, 1976), pp. 169- 180.

Wreen, M. ‘Goodman on Forgery’ The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 133, (Oct., 1983), pp. 340-353.