Unique or Original? Life imitates Art

Channeling "Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery"​ (a 2014 documentary) I explore what it means to imitate art. After all, art has been imitating life for years.

Channeling “Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery”​ (a 2014 documentary) I explore what it means to imitate art. After all, art has been imitating life for years.

[Originally posted on LinkedIn May 20, 2022]

Ah, the LinkedIn post. My choice and chance to make an impression. Have you ever considered the phrase ‘make an impression’? A branding iron is used to burn or emboss you with some shape of my design. People defy branding when an impressor is not impressive. Are you getting the picture or are 1000 words necessary? I must write, rightly publish, for without publication I perish from your newsfeed.

It can be daunting to express something original. Expression suggests that I’m creating a product for review and critique by others. Expression as a personal mode of being provides immunity to feedback. When you search for a particular something, a yes/no, a right/wrong are sure to follow. Words and pictures are but tools in service to your construction. Before you even start, something is already complete. To be original is as easy as being comfortable with yourself.

I’ve always enjoyed self-referential art. Artwork inspired by the work of art. Stories about stories. It’s not easy to give up control, to live unmasked, naked in the mechanism behind the facade of expression. Who finds source code as elegant as the application? The untidy processes and prejudices of our mighty lives demand attention. Our humanity and the future of our species depends on it. What we cannot see is blindingly present everywhere. The ground is as much a part of making the figure.

Art endures not because of inherent quality, but inherent investment. The amount of current mining bitcoins is the embedded energy of its value. What is a NFT? A work of art or an investment? Does the distinction really matter? It does if we are to escape the tidy metaverse of relative value. A digital avatar is a chilling investment and distorts the value of our mental experiences. Did I make an investment in that idea? Do you have an investment in my point of view? The answers to these questions coin the most primordial of virtual currencies.

Is there a difference between being unique and being original? What constitutes authentic creation? It’s not unreasonable to feel confused defining special experiences in a mass-produced culture. The crime and courtroom dramas, the buddy movies, the tired plots and sequels. How many people reread newspapers or rewatch sporting events? Why read or watch them in the first place? Biology drives us to concern ourselves with outcomes. Novelty and habit keep us invested, at the tiller navigating the seas of uncertainty.

Our lives are fodder for the mundane and profane. Everyone and everything is unique. To think physically, no two atoms occupy the same place at the same time. Every moment, every breath, every experience is unique in space and time. Time is relentless. The temporal quality of life provides such a rush of unique experiences that our brains categorize them into mundane patterns, lest we go mad with possibility. What should I do/think/be now? Now? Now?

While the glow of certain experiences remain in our mind as stories of the past, we continue to be unique and have unique experiences. Our biologies are continuously energized and confronted by unique factors, the ingestion of sensory stimuli. Perhaps the difference between unique and original is “truth,” the ultimate value we seek.

The 2014 German documentary “Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery” explores the values of originality and imitation in the art world. In 2011, Wolfgang & Helene Beltracchi were convicted of forgery. Over two decades they earned millions of dollars selling artwork imitating the styles of venerable masters. The movie reveals a fascinating portrait of the forger and his wife, while considering the art market and the premium it places on authenticity and originality.

Value in originality was linked to a most human of measurements, angst, creative desperation felt by the artist. Max Ernst, in a scene from a film by Peter Schamoni included in the Beltracchi documentary, described having a ‘virginity complex’ about white canvases. He found it almost impossible to put the first stroke or dab of paint on the canvas. One day, staring at faded, worn-down wooden floorboards, the grains in the wood moved in his mind. Rubbing a pencil on paper randomly placed over the floorboards left woodgrain patterns, inviting his expression to take over, unfolding on the page.

In contrast, Wolfgang Beltracchi reverse-engineered the technique from the artwork of Ernst. He admitted that his proficiency in forging Ernst and others came without much thought, like a technician following a set of rules and motions. Beltracchi is clearly skilled, as a painter and more. The subterfuge to convince experts of the authenticity of his paintings included matching appropriate canvases and other materials. The “artistic quality” of his works of art rivaled and, arguably in some cases, exceeded the original artwork. Ultimately however, the value of his imitations was based on originality they misrepresented.

Beltracchi appropriated the style of Ernst as well as many other artists. The director Arne Birkenstock chose Ernst as a particular representative of a general quality, saying “it was important to me not to simply judge or condemn something but to see and clearly feel that art is also about searching and asking and sometimes about desperation, which often inspires innovation in art. And this is, at least regarding the process, an entirely different quality than simply piggybacking on the insight that an artist may have had 100 years ago and the answers that he may have found in the process and merely copying it, imitating it.”

If we value original expression and free will, what does this mean? Is it a rebuke of comfortable lives? Is it easier to rise with the mass-market tide, amassing a unique set of more and more posessions (all sets of atoms are unique), placating ourselves while ignoring the difficulty of being truly original? I write with a sense of angst for this affects my choices as well as yours.

In the era of “fake it until you make it” and “imposter syndrome” it’s hard enough to know the original you let alone the originality of anyone else. As the saying goes “you’re unique, just like everyone else.” Iron it on a tee shirt and wear it when you go shopping. Are you an original now? Build a company and offer the tee shirts in many fonts, sizes and colors. Are you an original now? Forget the tee shirt, forget the saying and sit quietly meditating on your atoms and molecules: they are constantly hungry and needy. Are you getting there now?

It sounds good anyway. Am I faking it? I’ll finish with a few practical bits of imagination. I don’t know what nourishes me, but that doesn’t stop me from eating. When I embrace experience, I find nutrition I was deficient in without realizing it. I’m responsible for my boredom and irresponsible for my distraction. When I sit down with a pencil and blank paper, there are no wrong answers, wrong scribbles, wrong formats, or wrong doodles. Type a random word into your web browser with a .com or other suffix and see what pops up. Just start: writing, drawing, sketching, fetching, caring, staring, winking, linking, scanning, planning, moving, making, stand up, shake out, take care, leave better, win together, laugh with, think small, breathe deep, think big, pursue, imbue, entertain, amuse, hum calypsos, use ellipses…

About Peter

As a consulting professional in the Internet industry, I have helped small- and medium-sized businesses and community organizations effectively design and deploy web services and information. Years of hands-on design and project management experience for this market have inspired me to post my ideas and insights on a public forum -- blog.collab.us.
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