Tuesday, July 3, 2007

The authenticity challenge

I recently bought a work by the American sculptor Dan Flavin. For most of his life, Flavin made sculptures out of fluorescent tubes. His combinations of different lengths and colors of everyday light fittings made him one of the most interesting artists of his time. His work is much sought after but, as is the case with many art works these days, Flavin’s sculptures come with their own issues.

Many of the lighting tubes that Flavin used are no longer available. So for people who own his work, a big question looms when you run out of the kind of tubes Flavin used: can you replace them with another type, or is the work irreparably damaged? Does a Flavin sculpture with a tube that was not specifically chosen by Flavin retain its authenticity? I have heard that technicians who have looked after Flavin’s work since his death in 1996 have assembled a large stockpile of Flavin-approved spare tubes. That’s reassuring for those of us who own Flavin’s work, but the bigger challenge remains.

To what degree does authenticity matter, not only in art, but in the market? Authenticity is a hot topic at the moment and to me the Flavin debate points out something crucial. Scarcity makes objects and experiences feel more authentic to us, and the closer we get, the more minute degrees of authenticity become. Concern about the exact color and brightness of a Flavin tube comes from the same emotional response as fans pursuing every last episode of Star Trek or every bootleg record of Leonard Cohen. We fans sense authenticity instantly and that’s what attracts us. Finding it at a level that satisfies us is never easy because it comes from the heart, but this challenge is what we relish. Such unreasonable desire can never be wrestled from the rational mind.


Susan956 said...

To add to the questions - and assuming it is possible and not contravening emerging enviro laws re lighting, if a company now made/offered lighting tubes that were the 'same' essentially as Flavin's, how would they position?

I note you say there is a stockpile but imagine the stockpile is exhausted - would a company that strove to replicate the tubes as closely as possible be 'reasonable' for the collector or would many collectors prefer to leave their Flavin unlit and perhaps allow other lighting to simply focus on it - using the parallel to speak differently about the work?

The term authentic, to me, has differing meanings depending on the field under discussion. I have been interested to watch some of the antique shows where the public can sometimes be advised NOT to have something repaired because the repair will actually devalue the object. When to repair and when not to? Clearly the closely to the original an item is the more authentic it is considered.

If you pick up generic magazines (I am avoiding saying trash :) ) you find regular articles showing the authentic bags, shoes, jewelery etc worn by public notables and then their more common replicants or 'close-to's'. In 30 years no doubt some of these will form a kitch/cult interest just like certain cheaper items from the 70's have done. Fashions and what is considered intriguing and desirable alters.

True authentic collectables are probably more a domain these days for those in higher socio-economic brackets than not. Either this or people become a slave to their collection.

Does scarcity of itself make an item more authentic per se or more valuable and desirable? Perhaps a mix.

There is of course a fine line in terms of obsession about collections of certain items. I cannot care less about 100 things others may but I cannot stand buying a book that has even a small bend on the cover. I will look through 30 books on a shelf in a store and buy the one that is the most pristine. I could probably analyse this but as it's one of my few obsessions I leave it alone.

Is such unreasonable desire reflective of a rational mind?

Doesn't the term unreasonable already comment?


Kempton said...

Hello Kevin,

I wasn't go to comment on this entry as I thought I don't have anything to add. After some research, my stupidity gets to me and I want to add my 2 cents. (smile)

Before I did my research of Dan Flavin as an artist, and thinking as an art collector that wants to protect my investment, I was going to say all the replacement parts have to be "Flavin approved" in the exact same model, colour, etc. even if the replacements have to be custom made, etc.

After a quick research and reading from National Gallery of Art website that states,
"Beginning in 1963, Flavin adopted commercially available fluorescent light as the primary medium for his art. Notably, he preferred standardized, utilitarian fluorescent light to custom-designed, showy neon. He confined himself to a limited palette (red, blue, green, pink, yellow, ultraviolet, and four different whites) and form (straight two-, four-, six-, and eight-foot tubes, and, beginning in 1972, circles). Within this restricted visual vocabulary he began a decades-long investigation into the behavior of light."

To me, the operative words (and making what Kevin implied explicit) are "commercially available fluorescent light", "preferred standardized, utilitarian fluorescent light to custom-designed, showy neon", "limited palette", and "form (straight two-, four-, six-, and eight-foot tubes, ...)".

Here is what I think (warning: I am speaking way beyond my core competency). I think matching Flavin's specified colours may be visually appealing to the collectors and almost everyone. But if the collectors need to go to extreme means (I am leaving this vague) to get the "Flavin's specified colours" and tubes, etc., then I argue that these kind of actions will be totally against the original Flavin's artistic intention and vision of making something extraordinary beautiful from something extremely standardized and utilitarian.

Of course, I am also aware that once a work of art leaves the hands of the artist, the art has a strange way becoming its own and the artists have little or no control of how it is going to be viewed or treated (except for moral rights in Canada a la Michael Snow's Canada Geese)

So in the case of Flavin, except is being sold, I like to think that

Best Regards (and I know I am speaking out of my depth here),

P.S. Just for fun. Quoting an online page about moral rights in Canada which I know the facts match pretty well what I remember, "In Snow v. The Eaton Centre Ltd. et al. (1982), 70 C.P.R. (2d) 105 (Ont. H.C.J.), Michael Snow, the artist who created the “flight stop” sculpture in Toronto's Eaton Centre featuring 60 geese sued the shopping mall after ribbons had been placed around the neck of each goose in time for a Christmas display. The artist argued that the integrity of “flight stop” as a naturalistic composition was infringed by the “ridiculous” addition of the ribbons, and sought an injunction for the removal of the ribbons. "

Jim Rait said...

Sounds like the Cutty Sark Problem!
When we replace vast quantities of wood which is not the original teak that is unavailable now. There is something about intent... so a halogen spot would not be the artist's intent but a more modern tube is probably ok. It is not converting the original into a Skeuomorph is it?

Susan956 said...

Jim, If I may, good point about intent. I guess in this case that intent is fairly obvious. It would be intriguing to see an artist put in their will and testament "I hereby request any person with one of my works regularly airs and waters it after I am gone and my advice and response to losses or defects or unplanned inability to replace parts, is to have your way with the item as you will". :)

And no, it isn't (to your question).