Authenticity, originality, attribution: does the author matter?

If recent text coverage is to be accepted, the Renaissance canon has expanded. Again. Quite dramatically, actually.
Take, for example, the new ‘Leonardo‘.
Or the new ‘Titian’
These discoveries have generated considerable discussion, but, I note, not discussion on the images themselves, but rather on how the addition of these images to the established canon for the artists concerned alters our understanding of their work. In other words, the debates focus on authenticity and the role of the author, and this in turn assigns value to the objects.
References here of course abound, and recall seminal texts by, amongst others, Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault on the ‘Death’ -or otherwise- ‘of the Author’. Barthes and Foucault have challenged the idea that the biography of the artist is the key to unlocking the meaning of the work produced, and that maybe the authenticity and ultimately the value of a work ultimately depends on the unique and original creativity of its author. Both writers are challenging the predominance of the biographical model as a key to determining the significance of a work of art. Maybe scholars of the Renaissance may be forgiven their focus on artists; after all, it was none other than Giorgio Vasari, the ‘father of Art History’ who established the significance of the identity of the author in his seminal Lives first published in 1550 and substantially reworked for the 1568 edition, the edition we currently tend to use.
But surely, we need to recall what made the Lives so significant, and remember that Vasari had to work very hard to shift the focus of interest in an object away from its function and maybe the patron, and towards a consideration and interst in the identity of its maker? Isn’t there a case to be made that nobody was more aware than Vasari of the significance attached to the object, or the ‘stuff’, which is what I like to call the things that were being produced? Which takes us back again to the question of authenticity and originality, and these lateste discoveries of significant new works which either may- or may not!- be extending the accepted canon of works of the great Leonardo and the equally great Titian.

Or, for that matter, the canon of the gretates of them all, William Shakespeare? Authenticity as an issue is of course not at all restricted to art history; authenticity maybe never matters more as an indicator of value than when looking at literature? I would dispute this every time and say ‘ut pictura poesis’, but let’s not wander off the point, and return to Shakespeare. Again, there has been recent press coverage on a new edition of collaborative plays , with Shakespeare’s fingerprints all over, apparently. Somehow, this increases the value of these plays but maybe also distorts their meaning as we now look for ‘the Shakespeare bits’ where we should concentrate instead on what these texts actually say, maybe? This point has certainly been made, more eloquently than I ever could, by Dr Peter Kirwan (University of Nottingham) in his blog post on Shakespeare and the collaborative plays.

Herein surely lies the crux of the matter, and that is what status we ultimately assign to collaboration and whether the means of production affects the value of the object/thing produced? Is a workshop product less valuable than an autograph work by the master? The Rembrandt Research Project here offers an intersting case study into how attitudes shift, and wax and wane. One suspects that the answer on value assigned to collaboration may vary depending on where- and when?- the critic comes from. A contemporary critic writing from a current perspective may be more likely to have been conditioned to privilege the author over the product, whereas the pragmatic Renaissance critic looks for whether something is fit forpurpose first, before thinking of whether the object fits the purpose especially well. In my eyes at least, Baxandallian to my very core, Imaintain that for the Renaissance scholar, the focus has to be on ‘what’ first and only occasionally on ‘who’. There may also be space for reflection here on current models of scholarship maybe? Does authenticity matter more to the REF-conditioned Arts and Humanities scholar than to the collaborative researcher of the STEM subject because it validates our research?

Anyway, so ,what about the ‘what’ of these recent discoveries? Closest to my own interests and research is the so-called Titian. The subject is  a ‘Risen Christ’, depicting the Resurrection on Easter Sunday, dramatically placed at the very crack of dawn, with the figure of Christ dramatically rising from a classical sarciophagus with a craked lid, literally flesh breaking stone in a truly triumphant celebration of victory over death. Its a gorgeous image and what draws my eye is the tentaive dating to 1511, which seems very early for an image of this type, but maybe, just maybe, ist not at all that unexpected because for me, this image reminds me of a painter I studied for my thesis, Romanino. Romanino knew Titian, and was certainly aware of Titian, and while he was well capable of absorbing and emulating the Venetian painter, he was still definitely his own artist, with a distinctive style of his very own. The image intrigues me, because I cant make up my mind yet where its authenticity and originality ultimately lies. It keeps me guessing, it keeps me thinking, it keeps me wanting to look at it. And surely, that is the hallmark of good art.


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