In China, so I’ve been told, you can buy Imperial Sung Dynasty ceramics on market stalls for a few pounds. Although they’re not authentic, they’re indistinguishable from the real thing. The Chinese attitude to authorship and authenticity is based on respect for past masters and the belief that you can never do better than them. Chinese “faking” is the reverse of plagiarism, such humility that you pretend your work was done by somebody else.
The Royal Academy exhibition of Ai Weiwei raises questions about credit, authorship and execution. There’s the photo of him dropping a Han dynasty vase, there are ancient vases crudely covered in house paint and Han vases ground to powder and put in jars. What is more valuable, the antique or its re-working by a great modern artist? Ai Weiwei is puzzled about why art is so valuable, but it’s no more a mystery than why, during the tulip craze, a single bulb could sell for hundreds of guilders. The art market is created by authenticity and value attaches to the author. (I wrote about this in my post about Rothko’s vandalized picture.) There’s a circular process in which someone who does good work is so feted that everything they do becomes good.
Charles Saatchi has been accused of thus inflating the value of artists to create a market for his collection. He replies that the value of artworks is what people pay for them. But aren’t there hidden geniuses who couldn’t get that sort of money? No, says Saatchi, genius is in such short supply that it’s impossible to hide it.
Another question about authorship is raised by Ai’s work Straight (pictured), an installation of straightened steel reinforcement rods that were collected from the Sichuan earthquake in which 69,000 people were killed, including 5,000 schoolchildren. Ai has exposed the official cover-up of the names of the victims and the corruption that produced flimsy buildings. Next to Straight is a film showing how he bought 90 tonnes of twisted bar from the earthquake site and how his team of workers laboriously straightened every piece in his factory studio.
Ai’s productivity is epic both in scale and quantity, but I want to see the names of the assistants who toil in his factory as well as those of the dead children. There was once a time when no film goer had heard of a Foley operator – now films credit the names of the last accountant and assistant hairdresser. I don’t mind Ai’s fame, but let’s have credit for all the people who make it possible.