Students as Scholars

Sacha Crowther writes about her first Students as Scholars event

Author: Sacha Crowther, is a level 3 undergraduate in the School of English, University of Leeds and a participant in the Students as Scholars program 2014-15. This is her first article.

Editor: Camille Laporte, PhD Candidate, School of English and Students as Scholars mentor

Once I had overcome the initial confusion of finding the Leeds Humanities Research Institute itself, and the lingering nervousness that I was quite distinctly the youngest (and least qualified) person in the room, I found myself ensconced in the interesting and enthusiastic new realms of Experimental Philosophical Aesthetics. This was namely the ‘Authenticity and Art’ workshop, held by Aaron Meskin, on November the 12th. 

The speakers were George Newman, of Yale University, and Gregory Currie, who works in researching arts and cognition at the University of York. Newman’s main interests lie in researching ‘basic cognitive processes, such as categorization and causal reasoning, to consumer behaviour’.

George kicked proceedings off by posing the question: WHY do we value authenticity? This particularly struck me, perhaps because I am amongst the uninformed ‘lay people’ of Newman’s hypothesis who simply take the value of authenticity for granted. It is taken as a given that an original piece of artwork is worth more than a copy or a ‘knock-off’. He talked us through various studies that he had conducted on his group of ‘lay people’. The running theme of all the experiments (presumably executed through distributing questionnaires- he didn’t specify) was repeatedly asking his subjects to put a value on pieces. He varied aspects such as: whether these pieces were artwork or something more practical, like furniture; whether they were reproduced by the same artist or by someone completely different; whether the ‘copy’ was created as a purposeful forgery or was a total coincidence.

The two main explanations that his research explored/ highlighted were:

  • Contagion theory- i.e. the belief that an artist leaves his essence on a piece through his repeated contact with it, thus making the original, authentic piece worth more than a copy, simply by virtue of its associated celebrity status.
  • Assessment of performance- he asserted that we, the lay people, value effort; thus if we can tell someone has worked hard on something, it becomes valuable. (It was later brought up in discussion that surely a master forger has just as much, if not greater, mechanical skill in order to recreate an original work of art. The rebuttal to this being that we value artistic brilliance as effort: an original thought behind a piece impresses us.)

Greg Currie proceeded to evaluate the redundancy of the word ‘authentic’ and focused on challenging Newman’s ‘Contagion theory’. He claimed that artists are rarely more than a paintbrush length from their work, thus the irrational, magical ‘essence’ of contagion was irrelevant. He argued that negative contagion (i.e. less interest in purchasing the belongings of a serial killer than Marilyn Monroe) didn’t stand up to scrutiny, as people still want a famous murderer’s belongings over those of any Tom, Dick or Harry from the street. His most lasting image was that of Picasso draped in a canvas for warmth during winter, claiming that, despite his obvious proximity to said piece, that canvas would certainly not be worth more than ‘an authentic Picasso’. However, whilst critiquing the theory, he didn’t entirely write it off. By questioning whether it was rational to value authenticity at all, it seemed that perhaps the ‘irrational’ theory of contagion wasn’t so ridiculous after all; rather that it fit well within the framework of this intangible philosophical discussion.

Whilst the scarcely populated timetable of an English undergrad hardly prepares you to remain focused on a single topic in a single room for nearing three hours, this seminar was particularly informative and engaging for me. Admittedly I sat timidly at the back of the room, but this doesn’t mean my mind wasn’t brimming with new ideas. The general discussion during the workshop started to branch out, questioning other mediums of art and literature, which prodded my mind toward my dissertation topic. Whilst I’m focusing on performing arts, the discussion led me to get quite overexcited by the potential links to my study on the sincerity and authenticity of performance. A whole new strand of questioning was unlocked for me from the very opening of George’s key enquiry: WHY?! Whilst I may have begun as one of the ‘lay people’, through exploring Newman’s research, and Currie’s analysis of it, I felt a touch more enlightened and perhaps less likely to just blindly value what is culturally assumed to be worthy. Plus I feel like, now I am less of a novice, regarding both philosophical aesthetics and research events in general, I would be more comfortable asking my own questions next time around.

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