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.