Thursday, January 13, 2011

Are You Real Real or Fake Fake

Authenticity is traditionally viewed as a yes or no question based on the analysis of data that supports the authenticator’s conclusions. 
In their new book,  Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want, Joseph Pine and James Gilmore provide a broader view of authenticity that is worth consideration. These authors describe the concept of authenticity as a commodity that can apply to service, products, environments, and maybe most importantly how you present yourself to the public. Authenticity is based on experiences. To put this in their own words: “…with the experience economy, it’s about rendering authenticity. Rendering authenticity — and the keyword is “rendering.” Right? Rendering, because you have to get your consumers – as business people — to perceive your offerings as authentic.”  So it is important that your customers be they in the commercial world or in the non-profit world perceive whatever you are selling as authentic. But Gilmore and  Pine point out this is only half the equation.

“There are two dimensions to authenticity: one, being true to yourself, which is very self-directed. Two, is other-directed: being what you say you are to others. And the other dimension is: are they what they say they are to others? If not, you have, “is not true to itself,” and “is not what it says it is,” yielding a two-by-two matrix. And of course, if you are both true to yourself, and are what you say you are, then you’re real real! The opposite, of course, is — fake fake. All right, now, there is value for fake. There will always be companies around to supply the fake, because there will always be desire for the fake. Fact is, there’s a general rule: if you don’t like it, it’s fake; if you do like it, it’s faux.”

By this matrix authenticity takes on the very important distinction of being not only how you personally represent yourself but also whether you are in fact what you say you are. If for example you represent yourself as a seller of decorative African art that sells decorative African art at a fair price, then by this definition you are far more authentic than say a museum that represents that they have only museum quality art on view but knowingly has failed to remove objects that fall far short. Our authors would say this museum is “fake fake” meaning that they fail on both levels.

A major part of this discussion of authenticity is in fact the experience itself. David Philips discussed this in this book Exhibiting Authenticity in which he states: ““For a great many of us, as we casually pass by works of art, however, neither what they represent nor what they mean enter into experience much at all. All too often, as we visit a museum, neither the reality framed within much of the artwork, nor the reality indicated by the documentary frame engage us. Instead it is the everyday reality of the museum and of the incidents of the visit, the guards debating the shortcomings of the current rota regime, the eye we are keeping out for the cafe, that dominates. ..”

One museum study I recall that I think was conducted in the 1980’s revealed that the average time an individual spends in front of a work of art is 7 seconds. As museum or gallery goers we are consumed by the experience and all that has gone into creating the trappings of an environment that we can believe is authentic, we don’t pay attention.Many sellers of this experience are counting on just that.  For some museums and galleries it is far easier and politically safer to put money and time into creating the impressions of authenticity. And if you are good enough at this deception nobody will ask the important questions.

The Association of Museum Directors is guided by an ethics code that can be found at the following url:   Part of what you will read is: “The Association of Art Museum Directors believes in the power of art and the responsibility of art museums to serve and educate the public through collection, research, preservation, exhibition, and the advancement of knowledge about works of art. The AAMD is guided by a set of values that form the foundation from which its members carry out their professional responsibilities. These values are the basis for the services AAMD provides to its members and, through them, to the general public.”

During the past several years during discussions about new authentication technologies available to museums, I have been amused that on some occasions while there has been great enthusiasm for examining future objects under consideration, the curators found no need to examine objects already  accessioned and on view. I can think of one museum that has been supplied data that seriously questioned the authenticity of objects on view -  to the point that the curator even admitted the problem; but the objects remain on view.  So far, although many interested parties are aware of the situation, no one has said a thing and status quo is maintained. But it is only a matter of time before this deception is uncovered and it will be a scandal. It should be because for all the reasons stated the average museum goer that depends on the perceived authenticity of their experience will never figure it out. It is too bad that this lack of accountability has gone on for this long. It would be intellectually exciting if more museums peeled away the veneer and addressed serious questions both within their collections and in the art world in general. Unfortunately more often than not any activities that might embarrass a board of directors, a director, or curator are carefully avoided.  Ironically, once a problem is exposed the internet and google will ensure that it lives on far beyond the participants, and in the end will do a great deal more damage. And maybe that seems fair.

This bait and switch technique creates serious ethical questions for museums that are misrepresenting their collections by knowingly exhibiting fakes.  The choice is clear. Either accept the public embarrassment and the wrath of the board or take your chances with a media feeding frenzy looking for a story. Clearly the logical option is to take your hit when you can have some control over the problem. But internal pressures don’t make this process easy. In my judgment most museums don’t put themselves in this situation. However, it is surprising which institutions have failed to accept the responsibilities clearly outlined in AAM guidelines.

Sir Mark Ellis Powell Jones is a British art historian and director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. In the  New York Times, Magazine, Sunday, March 18, 2001 Jones summed up the museum’s responsibility in the following way:  "Museums act as a guarantee of the authenticity of what's on display, “If a museum contains things which are inauthentic, then what it is saying becomes a lie."

All of us – directors, curators, dealers, and appraisers should constantly be asking ourselves whether we have kept the faith with our clients and supporters.

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