Phenomenological Psychology

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The Being of a Thing that Has Being only by Virtue of Some Other Thing’s Being

August 20th, 2007 by David Kronemyer · No Comments

No, this is not going to be a long-winded essay on the meaning of being, or the being of things. Rather, let us envision two completely separate objects, with no cause-effect relationship, or spatio-temporal proximity. Under what circumstances can the being of one of them be said to depend wholly upon the being of the other? And, if (or to the extent) it does, what is the being-nature of the dependent thing?

Let’s rule out the interesting but un-troubling issue of sub-components, that is, items of equipment assembled together so as to comprise an integral whole, or that depend on each other for functionality, or as aspects of a process. For example, it might be said that an electrical appliance cannot be used for its intended application, absent a power cord; or, that a billiard ball comes into its own, only by virtue of its relationship with the cue. Even so, no one doubts what either “is.”

What I particularly am concerned with is the provenance of a work of art – not a “work of art,” as Heidegger defines it, but rather, what we might call an “ordinary” work of art, that is, one lacking culture-transforming significance. We might think, for example, that a painting is valuable, because it was painted by a particular famous painter. This not only assigns it a monetary price in the commercial marketplace, but also validates its being. “It is a painting by Van Gogh.” It is, in other words, what it purports to be.

Let us imagine, though, that it is missing that provenance, or, even worse, it has been mis-attributed. Not only will the painting’s value plummet, but the nature of its being also will be revised. No longer, for instance, might it be held in high regard. Rather, it might be considered as imitative, or, at worst, a forgery. Its stature has been reduced to that of a mere aesthetic object with, say, a pleasing combination of colors, if it has one. Heidegger, for instance, never would have written about the Van Gogh painting of peasant shoes, had it not been by Van Gogh.

This happens with greater frequency than you might think. For example, experts recently concluded that a painting entitled “Head of a Man,” ostensibly by Van Gogh, was not in fact painted by him. Rather, it was a reproduction, painted by a contemporary. “It was purchased as a Van Gogh work, and had been accepted as a Van Gogh for more than a decade before the (gallery’s) purchase,” the gallery’s director said, in a statement. He stressed the painting simply had been misattributed to Van Gogh.

“It is very important to make the point that it’s not a forgery,” he told reporters. “There is no evidence to suggest that someone produced this picture … to pass it off as a work by Van Gogh.” As a Van Gogh, the painting had been valued at around $21 million. Now, its worth is nil, “Original Van Gogh Found; 70-Year-Old Misattribution Uncovered,” Associated Press (Aug. 3, 2007).

Jackson Pollock drawings seem to incur a similar malaise. Two years ago, “the discovery of a trove of small drip paintings thought to be the work of Jackson Pollock set off an uproar in the world of art scholarship that has yet to die down. The paintings have been scrutinized by connoisseurs, been subjected to computerized pattern tests, undergone chemical analysis at Harvard and elsewhere, and deeply divided a group of once-united Pollock experts,” Kennedy, R., “Provenance Still Unclear, Possible Pollocks Have Been Sold,” New York Times (Apr. 3, 2007); see also Kennedy, R., “Computer Analysis Suggests Paintings Are Not Pollocks,” New York Times (Feb. 9, 2006); and Kennedy, R., “Is This a Real Jackson Pollock?” New York Times (May 29, 2005).

Evidently, the owner of the paintings actually threatened litigation against a foundation responsible for administering the Pollock Estate’s interests. The owner believed “the foundation might be acting in a ‘prejudicial manner’ toward the works. He wrote that a ‘controversial cloud’ hung over the paintings, but that the foundation could ‘help [name omitted] correct the record’ by publicly reaffirming that the foundation is simply awaiting the outcome of a consensus which is currently being formed by the experts.” The foundation replied that, based on evidence it had seen up to that point, it had “good reasons for profound doubts about these works,” going so far as to deny copyright permission for the owner of the disputed works to reproduce images of authentic Pollock works, Kennedy, op. cit.

In the meanwhile, the Hollywood entertainment magnate David Geffen sold a classic drip painting by Pollock (evidently there were no doubts as to its attribution) for about $140 million – if nothing else, illustrating the controversy’s stakes, Vogel, C., “A Pollock Is Sold, Possibly for a Record Price,” New York Times (Nov. 2, 2006).

In addition to invaluable items becoming worthless, worthless items also can become invaluable. Following the actor’s death, Marlon Brando’s estate auctioned off 320 lots of various stage, screen and personal objects, including a plastic bagel that, when lifted, revealed a large plastic cockroach; and, a fake finger, bloodied at one end. “There is nothing exquisite, and certainly nothing that says ’movie star’ about the furniture removed from Brando’s house on Mulholland Drive after he died last year at 80. It includes an ordinary brown leather couch and some weathered wooden garden chairs,” James, C., “The Outtakes of Brando’s Large Life,” New York Times (Jun. 24, 2005); see also Goolsbee, A., “An Offer You Should Refuse – Sure, celebrity auctions are fun, but is Marlon Brando’s bathroom scale really worth $600?” New York Times (Jun. 29, 2005). The auction grossed $2.4 million, over twice the pre-sale estimate, http://www.cbc.ca/arts/story/2005/07/01/brandoauction070105.html (2007).

These examples implicate Dasein’s activity of conferring meaning on things. Which also runs the gamut – from making a religious icon out of a piece of wood, to Michelangelo carving the Pieta, to more mundane items such as college diplomas, lottery tickets, traffic signs and tarot cards. In each case, only because of Dasein’s intervention, the thing becomes transformed into something far more significant.

In the examples we considered, it’s highly likely there were “intervening” things between Dasein and the work of art, such as, for example, photographs, or correspondence, all of which carried Dasein’s imprimatur. Can we refine our hypothetical even further, though, to where it is not Dasein conferring meaning on a thing, but rather a thing conferring meaning on a thing? Even if the predicate thing itself is a Dasein creation.

A final example suggests this possibility. The discount chain Costco recently sold a crayon drawing, allegedly by Picasso, for $39,999.99. The work, “Drawing Arles,” depicted a faun. It came ready-to-hang in a gold frame; the store even provided a photographic “certificate of authenticity,” allegedly signed by Picasso’s daughter, Maya Widmaier-Picasso. Costco offered (but did not sell) another drawing, “Picador in a Bullfight,” for $145,999.99. It too came with an accompanying “authentication certificate.”

As it transpires, both drawings, and their “certificates,” were fake. Costco averred it had the Picassos independently authenticated by a respected art appraiser. That appraiser, though, claimed “he provided documentation stating only that the certificates were consistent with others issued by” Ms. Widmaier-Picasso (emphasis added), King, C., “It’s Costco, but Is It Picasso? Art Sale in Doubt,” New York Times (Mar. 16, 2006). In other words, he had not undertaken to verify the attribution of the drawings; but rather, only of the certificates, leaving the ontological status of the drawings themselves, in doubt.

Therefore, we might say, that the authenticity of the drawings depended wholly upon the accompanying certificates. But since the certificates themselves were fake, ipso facto, the drawings themselves were fake. It would not even be necessary to inspect the drawings, in order to draw such a conclusion; rather, only the certificates.

This conclusion is fortified by remarks made by Ms. Maya Widmaier-Picasso:

“Still, in reviewing the certificates in her apartment on the Quai Voltaire, she was emphatic about their falsity. She described the wording on the bullfight certificate, for instance, as strangely unfamiliar. ‘I would have said, “In my opinion, I can certify that this drawing in pencil on paper measuring 12 by 24 centimeters representing a scene from a bullfight” – I would put in more details concerning what’s on the actual drawing – “is a work in the hand of my father.” On the same line, I would have written, for example, “Paris, le 14 mars,” and I spell out the month. My lines always run from the far left to the far right, and there is no break between paragraphs.’ On the back of the certificate, Ms. Widmaier-Picasso applies a sticker marked with one or more of her fingerprints. ‘I could also use my entire hand if I wanted to,’ she said. She then applies an embossed seal over the sticker and staples the sticker to the photograph. She said she always keeps a record of which finger she used for each authentication. Of Mr. Knickerbocker’s certificate, she said: ‘I never, ever, ever write a date this way, with slashes, I don’t even know how to! And I always spell the month out in letters, never in numbers.” Ms. Widmaier-Picasso also chuckled at the misspellings – ‘soussigné,’ the masculine form of ‘undersigned,’ instead of the feminine ‘soussignée,’ and ‘cette dessin,’ rather than the correct ‘ce dessin.’ (‘Dessin,’ the French word for drawing, is masculine.)”

King, op. cit. What is so extremely interesting about this paragraph is, never once does Ms. Widmaier-Picasso address the authenticity, or lack thereof, of the drawing. Rather, she is concerned solely with the authenticity, or lack thereof, of the certificate. For all we know, the drawing itself is perfectly authentic – but for the fact that its thing-being appears to depend wholly upon the thing-being of the certificate.