Authorship and Authenticity

Mamoru Samuragochi, until yesterday, was a deaf composer widely admired in Japan. It now appears he is not deaf, and most of his works were ghostwritten for two decades by Takashi Niigaki, a music teacher with no public presence at least until now. The story, including the world’s reaction to it, highlights interesting issues in aesthetic theory and the psychology of art. In particular, it is another nail in the coffin of the idea that the experience of art can be examined by attending to a score, a performance, a painting, or any other work by itself.

OK, the Samuragochis are actually Niigakis and not a note of them has changed: now what? Western critical tradition is much concerned to link works of art with the identity of the artist, so a largish industry exists to find and authenticate the authorship of paintings, music and other work. If we find out that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays we ascribe to Shakespeare, the plays won’t be any different, but people (not just English profs) really want to know the truth. This is a little odd, because we know so little about the historical Shakespeare that his biography can’t really affect our experience of the work much, but there are real insights to be gained about lots of art by knowing more about the artist and his milieu. Fritz Kreisler, whose talent as a violinist and a minor composer are not in any doubt, attributed a bunch of his small pieces to early composers like Tartini and Vivaldi, and later took credit for them unapologetically, saying they were just as good as people thought they were when mislabeled. How different did they sound after listeners knew who really wrote them? What was their “real” artistic merit before and after?

Forgery scandals are always a major embarrassment for the art world. Over more than a decade, a certain Pei-Shen Qian, who has no artistic reputation as far as I know, painted modern works that sold to sophisticated collectors and museums under the name of very well-known painters through the Knoedler Gallery, than which at the time there was no whicher. Selling them to really expert customers was a lot easier in the hushed elegant environs of Knoedler’s showroom with sherry on tap and a good rap from the dealer’s staff, because the package on offer was so much more than paint on canvas. Sorting out these fakes is still going on, and it will be hard, because they are roughly contemporaneous with the forged artists’ productive periods. As a rule, good forgeries made in the time of the putative artist are hard to pick out, but asynchronous forgeries come to light in a generation of two, and not just because of paint chemistry and carbon dating.

Han Van Meegeren so successfully forged Vermeers in the 30′s that after the war, he had to prove he had painted the one that he sold to Goering, to avoid imprisonment for trading with the enemy. Now, my arts policy (not art history, except a couple) students regularly pick out four Van Meegerens from among four real Vermeers with near-perfect accuracy, on the spot and just looking at them projected on a screen. Try it: the fakes are simply laughable. But they fooled the world’s northern Renaissance experts at the time. What’s happening here is two things. First, VM was only able to put in his Vermeers what he, seeing with the eyes of his time, could see in Vermeer, and when we look his fakes now, we don’t see a lot of what wecan see in the real thing because he couldn’t put that in. Second, VM supplied among his forgeries a painting that a particularly distinguished scholar had predicted might surface, and when the experts fell in line, everyone looking at the forgeries saw Vermeer. Set and setting, expectations and priming; context isn’t everything but there’s no way to see or hear without it.

During the early music revival of a few decades ago, orchestras rounded up or had made authentic early instruments, tuned their A down to undo a couple of centuries of “pitch inflation”, and worked hard to follow Bach’s and Schütz’ ornament and other conventions as well as musicologists could reconstruct them. Did we then really hear what Bach’s audiences heard? Not once the signal went from our auditory nerves to our brains, we didn’t, because we had heard Beethoven, Brahms, Count Basie, and for that matter a B17 and its bombs and Bach’s listeners had not. The experiment is interesting, but it’s not the experiment the performers thought they were making: the ‘time machine’ in Somewhere in Time is a fantasy.

Classical performers are wont to say that their artistic goal is to capture the real intention of the composer, that a pianist is merely the channel from Beethoven to a listener. That’s a charming modesty, but it’s at least half nonsense, an impossibility given what listeners bring with them to combine with a performance to make the art in their heads. (Interesting that jazz musicians never say anything of the kind about playing standards, and that in the 19th century, the pecking order was the opposite: Clara Schumann was the star and Robert on a distinctly lower status level.)

The comments on the NYT story are interesting; many readers are obviously puzzling about how we are supposed to take these works that we thought were by a Japanese composer we know almost nothing about, now that they are by a different Japanese composer we know even less about. The poor ice skater who set his Olympics program to one of them is perplexed, though I don’t know why it should bother him to skate to Niigata; people aren’t there for the music.

The Hiroshima Symphony #1 is on Spotify. It definitely did not speak to me when I clicked it up; sounded like forgettable romantic schmalz (YMMV), but some orchestral warhorses I used to enjoy, whose objective merit I accept on the basis of their long critical and audience approbation, no longer float my boat. If I heard it in a concert, presented with Serious Program Notes, with everyone settled in Davies Hall seats with their phones off and coughdrops handy, I would be much slower to dismiss it, and I might have a memorable musical experience. I don’t think packaging and reputation could make it an enduring piece of the musical landscape, but whom we encounter a work with, under what circumstances, with what preparation and expectations, counts for a lot. Anyone who has seen Private Lives will remember the laughter that follows the line “It’s amazing how potent cheap music is!”, right after we’ve been completely seduced by “Someday I’ll Find You” at exactly the point in the play where it is irresistible.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Michael O’Hare

Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.