J. P. Morgan had style. Some art historian once ran to him with information that a Byzantine chalice he'd recently bought was a fake. “Well,” snorted Morgan, ”find me the man who forged it and order a few more.” Morgan's aesthetics and investment strategies were one and the same: when in 1907 some speculators came to him with the information that there was a run on US banks, J.P. poured in his money, good after bad, to restore investor confidence, just as he'd done with the chalice.

Time was, when people trusted banks. Time was, when people trusted museums, which once were saving banks for art and have become investment banks for art. People even trusted art historians, who are the Moody's for Matisse. Time was, when people even trusted the New York Times, which acted as the cheerleader for the interests of its oligarchs, the Sulzbergers, and the social class they stand for. "Punch" Sulzberger, the patriarch of the oligarchs, was simultaneously Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Publisher of the New York Times. Morgan himself was merely the bank chairman and head of the Met: He would have drooled over the Sulzbergers' cultural cartel.

Time changes. A few years back the Times regretfully conceded that the "forces of financial ambiguity" are now fostering a "crisis of belief in the traditional ways of valuing things." Now comes another crisis of belief — a crisis of belief in the traditional way of valuing art, as evidenced by a case being brought against New York's Knoedler Gallery. As the Times reports, or rather, claims to be reporting:

The judge’s rulings may ultimately rely more on the intricacies of contract law than on determinations of authenticity. But the defendants and plaintiffs are busily assembling impressive rosters of artistic and forensic experts who hope to convince the judge that the works — purportedly by Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko — are clearly originals or obvious fakes.

As usual the Times presents the facts and inverts their logic. Defendants and plaintiffs may well be gathering their rosters of experts, but the question that judge and jury must decide is not whether the works are "authentic," but whether or not the gallery willfully misrepresented as "authentic" a number of paintings which they reasonably should have known to be forgeries. This makes the Times unhappy, as well as the whole of the Cultural Cartel comprised of the New York Times, the trustees of the major art museums, and a few others I don't particularly feel the need to mention because I don't particularly like wasting my time responding to their threats. For such people distortions in the concept of authenticity aren't an aberration, they're an operating principle. To a capitalist artworks are just another form of fictitious capital: like derivatives they have no value whatsoever apart from the value the market assigns to them. The use-value of Art consists exclusively in the creation and manipulation of a fictitious exchange-value: there's no such thing as a price that isn't right. J.P. will make damn sure of that.

"Authenticity," as Adorno pointed out, is the device by which the power to control a narrative takes precedence over the actual content of the narrative. And since fictitious capital exists only as a narrative, he who controls the narrative controls the value and he who controls the value controls the market. At least Morgan had no illusions: if authenticity can't be bought and sold, then what good is it?

Of course if you want to get philosophical, misrepresenting authenticity goes back to the first Athenian slicker to persuade the first Attican farmer that a silver coin represented the authentic value of a patch of olive trees; but art, as Adam Smith admitted, is a "special case:" Smith resented that art could not be assigned a rational value; someone should have pointed out to him that nothing that the capitalists trade in can be assigned a rational value either, but it's taken two hundred and thirty-one years for the Times to figure that out. Art, in Smith's view of things, was "a special case," and capitalists ever since have been trying to bring art in line with the hard, cold realities of the fantasy world they inhabit. Morgan paying off a forger was child play compared to this:

Legal thinking on questions of authenticity has evolved... Judges now recognize that while their word is law in the courtroom, in the art world their verdicts can be overturned by a higher authority: the market.
Now you know. There are four branches of Government: the Executive, the Judiciary, the Legislative and the Market for Art. As the Times put it earlier, on the topic of capitalism in general:
In the ideal system there's a let's pretend auctioneer.... Now, buyers and sellers are effectively boycotting the pretend auctioneer, unwilling to believe what he has to say.
As everybody knows, the Cultural Cartel is the pretend auctioneer for Art, the Sotheby's for Sotheby's, as it were. This is the sheet for whom the only auctions worth covering are those that prove that art is hugely rare, and valuable. This is the blatt that regularly runs a major obituary on an artist so minor the only person who's ever heard of him's the rich old fool who got stuck with his paintings. This is the museum where curators can be fired at the will of the board of trustees; where, as one insider told me, "everybody's always watching their own back" for fear of thinking the wrong thing about the trustees' investments. And these are the folks who want to fire, sue, silence any gallery, art historian or critic who denies their constitutional right to make a buck. Time was, the authenticity of the artwork was supposed to determine its monetary value. Now, the Times would like us to believe, it's wished-for the monetary value that's going to determine the authenticity, and the Times is down with that:
Picture yourself walking into a gallery. You ask, "Did Picasso paint that?" and the dealer says, "Yes, more likely than not." You wouldn’t buy that.... Just as a woman can’t be a little bit pregnant, a work of art can’t be a little bit real.

The critic Arthur Danto once told how he'd been poking around an Italian flea market and found a fine Etruscan piece. "È genuino?" he asked. "Genuinissimo," the man replied with a smile, which in the plodding style of the American legal system translates as: "If you're dumb enough to believe it's genuine, Signore, then for you, it will be genuine. On the other hand, if you're smart enough to make your own decisions you'll be smart enough to take responsibility for your own mistakes." American courts should reasonably assume what every serious, honest dealer, collector or critic must assume: that all determinations of "authenticity" are subjective. They might also begin to realize something that even the American People have started to figure out: that wads of money should not be enough to buy you taste, or elections, or judicial decisions. From such a viewpoint the question to be resolved by judge or jury is not whether or not a dealer lied, but whether his lies were within the proper boundaries of art-critical subjectivity — and those boundaries are very, very broad. The "Crisis in the traditional way of valuing things" is one of these crises that the capitalist periodically bring upon themselves, because the logic they rely on, the logic of authenticity, is unworkable and always has been, inside the courthouse or out.

- PW.

[8/10/2012; revised 11/19/2012.]