Lydia Pyne, Genuine Fakes: How Phony Things Teach Us About Real Stuff: How do we decide what’s real? Sometimes it’s about full disclosure of the conditions of production, as when museums make blue whale models and reconstruct parts—even significant parts—of the animal for display. Other times that’s not quite enough, as when a present-day artist uses Warhol’s acetates to create a new set of prints from the negatives by employing the same methods (inks, stretcher bars, canvas, etc.) that Warhol used to create his “originals.” The artist called the project a ‘forced collaboration’ and pointed out that Warhol himself said “ I want other people to make my paintings.” Meanwhile, the Andy Warhol Foundation and the representatives of Basquiat, Roy Lichtenstein, Keith Haring and Jackson Pollock have all dissolved their authentication boards to minimize hassle and legal risk, “rather than deal with the legal repercussions of mistakenly authenticating some work of art that later proves to be fraudulent,” and “scholarly conferences that focus on the authenticity of an artist’ s work have been cancelled, as even the merest whisper of doubt about a painting could have ramifications for its value.” In this vein, the book explores various types of historical authenticity, not just in paintings but in “fossils,” synthetic diamonds, synthetic flavors, nature films, blue whale models, and replicas of ancient art where the art itself is too physically sensitive to be exposed to tourists.
Although the book argues that some forgeries gain value with time as artifacts of their own time of production—the Spanish Forger is the prime example—that didn’t particularly convince me; the value seemed to come from being sufficiently old to tell us something about the artistic preferences of the people around at the time of creation, which is fine but not super tightly connected to the fact of being a forgery (except insofar as that fake provenance led people to notice and preserve that particular work). More convincingly to me, the book tracks shifting ideas around synthetic diamonds, which are both physically like natural diamonds and highly unlike them in conditions of production, which initially made synthetic diamonds less appealing but may now make them more so to people worried about conflict diamonds. (Although the book characterizes synthetic diamonds as physically “identical” to mined diamonds, it also says that De Beers developed technologies that could often distinguish them by looking for “an optical absorption line, found in the majority of natural diamonds but not in laboratory ones.” I would have liked more about that—first, is it a distinction without a difference? Second, that “majority” is really interesting in context: should we think of those natural diamonds without absorption lines as less “real”?)
I wasn’t as clear about the point of the chapter on synthetic flavors. You may have seen the tidbit that artificial banana flavor tastes so distinct from today’s bananas because it was based on the extinct Gros Michel banana, but there’s been a lot of effort to create synthetic flavors that would qualify as “better” than the original—super-strawberry and the like. But the book doesn’t explain much about what “better” would mean here, and the supposed reversal of valuation doesn’t seem complete without an attempt to create flavors that don’t actually have a natural referent. We haven’t seen much in the way of attempts to create “unicorn flavor,” for example, even if Jelly Belly experiments with gross flavors. Another useful factoid: telling people they were eating free-range, organic meats made the meat taste better, though they mostly can’t differentiate in blind taste tests; likewise, “oysters taste better with the sound of the seashore playing in the background.”
Because I’m interested in visual realism, I liked the chapter about how what counts as a “realistic” nature documentary has changed over time, in terms of the amount of human intervention into creating and narrating the story. Apparently, “certain kinds of artifice are necessary to create an ethical wildlife documentary,” such as splicing in footage of tame or captive animals to illustrate an otherwise unseeable part of an animal’s story. It makes sense that it’s not a great idea to get too close to wild bears, or to habituate them to humans. The blue whale chapter was similar: whale skin and bones are uniquely hard to preserve, so if you want a whale or whale skeleton that looks like the real thing (and doesn’t smell nauseating), you can’t have it made entirely or even substantially of real whales. The question then becomes what is an “authentic” model, and museum location (as opposed to sideshow appearance) as well as at least some disclosure of what happened seems to be the key here. “As whale curators and showmen have found, there’ s only so much authenticity about whales that audiences are willing to tolerate–no leaking, dripping or smelling–even if those things are just as ‘real’ as the other parts of an exhibit.”
Similarly, caves with ancient human paintings deteriorate if exposed to many humans, as discovered with Lascaux, so replicas are the only way that the art can be both visible and preserved for the future. As with the synthetic diamonds and nature documentaries, there’s a specifically ethical appeal to the artifice: using the replica keeps the original in existence.
Kathleen DuVal, Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution: A history focused on the southeastern North American colonies, from which the Revolution looked less important than the larger imperial contests of which it was a part. DuVal argues that “independence” wasn’t an important concept in the way we now understand it; instead, relationships of dependence and interaction were key to how people and peoples structured their lives.
Daniel Okrent, The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics, and the Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians, and Other European Immigrants Out of America: Intellectual history of exclusionist racism and the rise of eugenic justifications that ultimately led to the incredibly racist restrictive immigration policies of the early twentieth century, the ones that weren’t removed until the 1960s. But it was always cultural anxiety and racism, not science; the restrictionists happily borrowed from science when they could but never were bound by that.