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How fake things can still help us learn

We often appreciate things that have a certain weathered look about them. From clothes to home furnishings, people find aesthetic value in the distressed, the tarnished, the antique. Yet underlying this interest in the appealing look of age is an expectation that vintage things be of their vintage. Knockoffs, fakes, and otherwise inauthentic things are quick to undermine what aesthetic investment we might have had in their aged appearance.

This response makes sense. If we value the look of age for how it embodies the passage of time, then things whose patina is fabricated rather than earned are bound to leave us disappointed. But if we elevate concern with this kind of authenticity to the primary reason for aesthetically appreciating things that recall the past, we are bound to miss out on broader opportunities for the aesthetic appreciation of history. We should not be too quick to dismiss the aesthetic promise of replicas, restorations, and other “inauthentic” things that can put us in touch with the past in ways that go beyond their simply having been there and sporting the wear and tear to prove it.

I am assuming that our aesthetic appreciation of sensory experiences (visual, auditory, tactile, etc.) can be informed by what we know. A particular painting may leave me cold at first, but learning about the artist, their technique, and the context of their work may lead to the revelation of new aesthetic merits that were obscure to me before. When I hold the fossil of a trilobite, I appreciate not only the sensuous surface of the object, but moreover, how that surface manifests geological forces acting over unfathomable millennia—the focus of my aesthetic attention is both this material object and the abstract concepts and knowledge that inform how I experience it. Compare this with philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto’s description of the battlefield at Gettysburg, mentioned in his article “Gettysburg” in the journal Grand Street in 1987:

It is always moving to visit a battlefield when the traces of war itself have been erased by nature or transfigured by art, and to stand amid memorial weapons, which grow inevitably quaint and ornamental with the evolution of armamentary technology, mellowing under patinas and used, now, to punctuate the fading thematizations of strife.

The object of Danto’s aesthetic attention is both sensory and cognitive. He is describing what I would call an aesthetic experience of history, aided by, but not reducible to, the experience of material objects. Some of those memorial weapons are authentic (they were used in the battle), but others are replicas, and it’s not clear that their lack of genuineness inhibits their ability to facilitate aesthetic appreciation that is partially focused on the history of the place itself. Once we recognize that replicas need not be a hindrance to this kind of aesthetic appreciation, we are in a position to see how they can in fact aid it.

At the Montshire Museum of Science, in Norwich, Vermont, there is an exhibit that allows visitors to press buttons to hear representations of how local birds would have sounded at different points in Vermont history. Listening to the recordings, you can appreciate this historical sonic landscape, an aesthetic experience of history akin to Danto’s experience of Gettysburg: The direct object of your attention is the birdsong, experienced with reference to its historical value, representing the local wildlife of a bygone time. But the recordings are not themselves records of the past, but fabrications of what those times would have sounded like. They are auditory replicas. But to simply dismiss them because they are inauthentic would be to foreclose on the opportunities for aesthetic connection with the past that they facilitate.

To appreciate the appearance of age because it embodies the passage of time is already to acknowledge how the past can be an object of our aesthetic attention. Replicas, restorations, models, and other objects often criticized for their inauthenticity hold the potential to augment our aesthetic appreciation of history in novel ways, sometimes granting access to truths about the past that originals can’t provide (for instance, consider replicas that reveal the polychromy of Ancient Greek and Roman statuary). Recent discussions about the repatriation of stolen art and artifacts in major institutional collections have emphasized the potential for creating replicas of the works and returning the originals. While many balk at such proposals, I have suggested there is more to gain aesthetically from these “inauthentic” things than may first meet the eye. Perhaps recognizing the overlooked aesthetic value of such replicas will in turn help museums to do the right thing with the originals.

Featured Image Credit: ‘Man’s Headbust’ by Fine Photographics . CCO public domain via Unsplash.

Recent Comments

  1. John Buxton

    Alva Museum Replicas (1948 – 1990) was very successful in the past in finding the market you suggest might exist in the future.There are many good reasons why such a market to be ready now for reproductions. As you suggest repatriation might be one; although, in my judgment financial concerns are more powerful. As an appraiser on Antiques Roadshow for twenty five years I have seen and appraised many reproductions. It is an interesting question that should be explored more thoroughly. JB

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