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Essentialism and Art Forgery

Updated: May 17

Written by Emilia Sharples

In my final years of high school, I discovered the fascinating and fantastic world of art crime and forgeries as well as the psychology behind viewing and owning art. After reading the brilliant book 'How Pleasure Works' by Paul Bloom I was totally captivated by the concept of essentialism and how this concept could be transferred to the art world. This is an excerpt from a now quite old essay from 2017 but it marked the very beginning of my art history journey.

Essentialism is ‘the belief that things have a set of characteristics which make them what they are.’ The entire history of an object contributes towards its appreciation, including where it has been and who has touched and owned it. According to the author, Paul Bloom, humans are essentialists and so 'invest in the notion that things have an underlying reality or true nature that one cannot observe directly and it is this hidden nature that really matters.’ He explains that the pleasure from things and experiences is partly based on what is seen as their essences and we can directly relate this theory when viewing and appreciating art.

Bloom suggests that we seek out contact with special people while also believing that something that has been touched by a special person gains psychological value. This could help explain the desire to own and look at authentic paintings; there is a belief that the essence of the artist lives on within it. Considering that humans are essentialists, Bloom suggests that while having the opportunity to take in a painting’s beauty, it enables a special contact between the viewer and the artist. He also introduces the idea that ‘sensation is always coloured by our beliefs', including our beliefs about essences. If an object is believed to have belonged to a famous celebrity or a work of art to have been painted by the hand of a famous artist then it is appreciated all the more despite the fact that the same artwork may well be fake.

Bloom’s work shows how preconceived knowledge can affect taste and responses to experiences. Knowing a particular fact before being exposed to a related scenario, sets up a preconceived mind frame which will affect a person’s response. This might not change the experience but does alter the value we place on the experience as well as the way we think about it. For example, when you know the painting you are eagerly waiting in line for is the real Mona Lisa, you enter the room with higher expectations and excitement that you wouldn’t have if you were told it was actually a fake. Even if the painting turns out to be disappointing, your brain is telling you that you are viewing THE Mona Lisa!

A chimera image of a portions of a pair of Rembrandt self-portraits: one half image is from a genuine self-portrait by Rembrandt (Norton Simon Museum of Fine Art, Pasadena); the other half image is from a portrait attributed to Rembrandt. image prepared by Martin Kemp.
A chimera image of a portions of a pair of Rembrandt self-portraits

This theory was actually proven by a group of scientists at the Oxford Centre for Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Brain (FMRIB). The team included Professor Kemp, Professor Andrew Parker and Mengfei Huang of the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics, in collaboration with Dr Holly Bridge. Their research centred around studying the activities of the brain when considering portraits by Rembrandt. When the participants were informed the following image was a fake, their brain responded negatively before even being shown the piece itself. The person had made a preconceived judgement of the image. A comment made by Professor Martin Kemp of Oxford University says it shows "the way we view art is not rational".

Forgeries are commonly disliked, especially by art experts, due to the ‘humiliation of being duped.’ We don't like being deceived and rightfully so when there is so much at stake from a financial point of view. But from a purely visual aspect, when a painting is found to be a forgery or a fake it is stripped of its history and essence and so the pleasure it brings the viewer or owner is also tarnished. In other words, ‘if you put gold-coloured paint on a brick, it isn’t a gold brick.’ Bloom recognises that often there is no test that can distinguish ‘the special object from one that looks the same’, but his research has shown that a ‘special’ object gives us pleasure where a ‘duplicate would leave us cold.’ And so, when viewing a Rubens or a Picasso, we are not necessarily drawn in purely on the visual premise of the works but actually a preconceived psychological one. In fact, if many of us attended an exhibition of Ruben's great masterpieces we would be awestruck while analysing his precise brushwork. But what would we feel if upon leaving the room we were told that everything we had just seen was all a facade, produced by a contemporary artist who shares Ruben's talent? Would the experience be ruined?

Reproduction of “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” (1632), Rembrandt van Rijn:'s-Gravenhage, Mauritshuis, Netherlands.

Works referenced:

Ragai, Jehane.The Scientist and the Forger. s.l. : Imperial College Press, 2015

Thompson, Della, [ed.]. The Concise Oxford Dictionary (ninth edition).

Bloom, Paul. How Pleasure Works. s.l. : The Bodley Head, 2010

McNerney, Sam. The Psychology of Pleasure: Interview With Paul Bloom . [Online] September 17, 2011.



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