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January 2004
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Even Better Than the Real Thing

As I noted before, in addition to his invaluable work overseeing Arts & Letters Daily, Denis Dutton maintains a personal site with access to his own writings. Among the recent highlights is a link to his entry on Forgery and Plagiarism for the Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics. Here is the conclusion, charting the relative impact of plagiarism and forgery on the historical record:

The situation with regard to historical understanding and plagiarism is different. Since forgery is usually attributed to a historically important figure, forgery distorts and falsifies our understanding of art history. The historical damage of plagiarism, on the other hand, is normally minimal because the plagiarist is stealing contemporary work for his own designs, to help his own reputation. The successful forger, in contrast, affects our view of historically important artists and creators.

For some cynics, the only real damage done by forgers is what they inflict on the bank accounts of rich art investors. However, it is a mistake to see forgery in this way. Art is not just about beautiful things, it is about the visions of the world recorded in centuries past. The illustrated record of those visions can be corrupted by the skill and subterfuge of a contemporary faker. The extent to which this subtly distorts our grasp of our forebears’ understanding of their world remains to be seen. But the skilled handiwork of people like [forgers] van Meegeren and Hebborn, when it succeeds, will distort our understanding of the history of graphic representation just as surely as a document forger’s skill might alter our understanding the the history of ideas. Forgery is not a victimless crime, even if the forger is successful and 'no one knows.' For the real victim is then our general understanding of the history of art and of human vision. As noted earlier, many forgeries are recognized for what they are by later generations. But is a perfect, undetectable forgery possible? We can never be certain. The perfect forgeries existing among us are unknown, undetected aliens.

Of related interest: Dutton's article on Authenticity in Art for the Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics.

My favorite fictional consideration of fine art forgery is the late Robertson Davies' What's Bred in the Bone, in which Davies' protagonist Francis Cornish finds the truest expression of his own artistic impulses and comes to terms with his personal history through the creation of "perfect" forgeries of the work of previously unknown anonymous medieval masters.

The question of plagiarism and "fair use" of copyrighted material is apparently a hot topic among crafters of haiku. Haiku being so short by definition, it has been suggested in some quarters that to quote any portion of the poem constitutes a copyright violation. A related phenomenon is so-called "deja-ku" in which haiku by different authors bear close resemblance to one another. David Giacalone (who just keeps reappearing in these pre-posted posts) combines his interests in law, ethics and haiku in this essay: Haiku and the Fair Use Doctrine.

Poet Lawreates

Very nearly the last e-mail that I read before heading out the door for this away-week was a message from David Giacalone who combines his interests in legal ethics, client-focused practices and haiku at his weblog, ethicalEsq & haikuEsq..., calling my attention to the efforts of Professor James Elkins of the College of Law at West Virginia University, in particular this site -- Strangers to Us All: Lawyers and Poetry -- a most impressive compilation of lawyer-poets and poet-lawyers both contemporary and not. The familiar suspects are represented -- Wallace Stevens, Archibald MacLeish, even Francis Scott Key [whose poetry we learn was edited after his death by U.S> Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney] -- as are many more obscure figures. I can see that I'm likely to lose significant amounts of time in exploring Professor Elkins' site on my return, and I commend it to you in my absence.

Professor Elkins has an array of other material posted dealing with the intersection of law and Culture. I'm particularly curious about his discussions of Lawyers and Mythology. A thorough directory of the professor's online offerings can be found here.

Post Mortem on the Big Bowl of Super Survivors

Congratulations to [insert team name here] on their [stunning/impressive/tedious/angst-ridden/last-minute] victory in the Super Bowl. Few of us will forget the [insert or invent surprising incident here] that made this such a memorable game. And how about those commercials, eh? Eh? Heh.

Oh joy! Now it's time for Survivor All Stars! My money's on [insert player name here] to win, though [insert name of another player here] will have to be watched.

(Just because I'm on the road and not watching the game doesn't mean the posts here can't be timely and topical.)