Aesthetic Responsibility and
Authenticity in Art

Ami Harbin

The authenticity of a given artwork depends on the ways in which it is created, maintained and restored.  An artwork’s authenticity can be seen as necessary to that artwork, if it has any aesthetic and normative value at all.  It is thus critical that a comprehensive theory of art present the potential conditions for an artwork’s authenticity, as well as define the relevance and implications of authenticity.[1] In this paper, I aim to develop a view of authenticity in art which both applies the notion of authenticity to a wider variety of artworks than some traditional theories do, and considers the need for a robust account of the responsibilities aesthetic communities have to maintain the authenticity of artworks.  

           I begin by considering authenticity in art from two theoretical stances.  Mark Sagoff claims that the aesthetic value of a given artwork depends in part upon its authenticity, such that forgeries or otherwise inauthentic artworks cannot be valued as authentic works can.  He holds that the authenticity of an artwork is closely tied to its context of creation, and that the preservation of such an artwork involves either maintaining or damaging its original authenticity thereafter.  Contrary to Sagoff, Martin Heidegger emphasizes the authenticity of an artwork as something which importantly connects both creation and preservation; these define aspects of the artwork as an historical being.  I argue that, in light of Heidegger’s view, Sagoff’s notion of the authentic artwork is flawed, and that a synthesis of the two views can provide a more useful and convincing account of aesthetic authenticity.  While Sagoff is right to emphasize the importance of authenticity and to connect this to the social and historical contexts within which an artwork is created, I argue that we should expand this context to include the entire duration of the artwork’s life.  For as long as the artwork exists, on this view, its authenticity is dynamic.  Furthermore, I claim that Sagoff’s notion of authenticity is inadequately applied to diverse art forms, and that the approach to authenticity I present here can open up new paths for analyzing authenticity in less traditional creative contexts.  I argue further that, insofar as it relies on the artwork’s creation and preservation, an artwork’s authenticity is an issue of social responsibility.  The creators and preservers of artworks, as well as the aesthetic communities which support them, should take up the social responsibility for authenticity in art in the ways I outline here.[2]   

           In his paper, entitled “On Restoring and Reproducing Art,” Mark Sagoff discusses authenticity as necessary to an artwork’s aesthetic value.  For Sagoff, the authentic artwork is the artwork as finalized at creation. He holds that the technical and contextual characteristics of the artwork are objective insofar as they remain constant, irrespective of the observers.  For Sagoff, these are the factors that observers can use to test for authenticity in art, insofar as they can ensure the unique nature of the artwork.  If they are present, the artwork is appreciated for its authenticity, and further judgements regarding other aesthetic qualities are made.  If these factors are lacking, the work may be deemed a forgery and, in many cases, observation with the intent of finding aesthetic content stops there. 

            The authenticity of an artwork is established at the point of creation, by the work of the creator, and Sagoff insists that this act is contained within the period of creation.  Following its origins, the authenticity of an artwork remains static.  If or when it is subject to the impact of various environmental factors, it may unfortunately face necessary modification.  As it ages or undergoes travel, the authentic artwork may be subjected to the threat of change or to damages done to it.  Sagoff clearly favours making concerted efforts to avoid and prevent such impacts, with the intention of preserving the artwork’s initially created state as much as possible.  He states that audiences of artworks “value the particular, substantial, actual thing; and thus they discover that the best use of a great work of art is its preservation.”[3]  For Sagoff, the authenticity of an artwork is fully established at this initial point of existence, and nothing remains after this but to try to preserve the authentic state of the artwork in the midst of potentially dangerous external influences.  

           Martin Heidegger describes artworks differently in “The Origin of the Work of Art.”  Like Sagoff, Heidegger acknowledges the relevance of the artwork’s creation.  For Heidegger, “To create is to let something emerge as a thing that has been brought forth.  The work’s becoming a work is a way in which truth becomes and happens.”[4]  While Heidegger establishes the importance of an artwork’s creation, he differs from Sagoff in claiming that the ongoing, dynamic life of the artwork is of importance to its authenticity.  Unlike Sagoff, who considers change as an unwelcome, external, and perhaps avoidable threat to an artwork, Heidegger claims that the life of the artwork necessarily includes change, which may itself be a welcome component of the artwork’s historical life.   Immediately following the first stage of creation, the artwork’s life typically requires it to change locations, perhaps be transported to a gallery or other new venue, thus facing potential alteration as a result.  For Heidegger, “World-withdrawal and world-decay can never be undone.  The works are no longer the same as they once were.”[5]  On this view, Sagoff’s concern with preserving what the artwork is at the final moment of creation is not only exceedingly difficult, but also evidence of a denial of the temporality of the artwork.  If we see the artwork’s life as extending beyond creation, which is to say, if we see the artwork as a temporally situated object, then it seems we must admit of changes in that artwork over time.  The emergence of the artwork which occurs at its creation, according to Heidegger, is only the beginning of ongoing emergences, which will take place over the span of an artwork’s life. 

           For Heidegger, the authenticity of the artwork is related to, and affected by, its non-static nature.  The authenticity of an artwork can change over time, given the changes of the artwork itself.  That is, the authentic artwork will not always be determined by factors established at point of creation, as Sagoff holds, because the life of the artwork will have introduced new factors into its identification.  When an observer wants to investigate the authenticity of the artwork, she might look for characteristics that were not present at creation, but that have notably altered the appearance of the authentic artwork at some later date.  Concrete examples here are many.  For instance, a statue which had been stolen in ancient pillaging and recognizably damaged several years after its creation, and that still bears the mark of this history in its present location will likely grow to be recognized as the ‘authentic work’ partly due to such a change in appearance. Historical changes to the artwork alter what will be recognized as the authentic work.  For Heidegger, both the artwork and its authenticity are dynamic over time.  The creation of art engenders the historical being of art.  And, as was stated earlier, the creation of art can signify the emergence of the truth of the artwork.  Thus Heidegger says that art is “a distinctive way in which truth comes into being, that is, becomes historical.”[6]

           On Heidegger’s view, artworks, like other objects, are to be encountered by humans as ‘beings’ in the world and, as such, deserve and require specific kinds of treatment.  Especially prevalent in Heidegger’s later philosophical work, the phrase ‘Let beings be’ expresses the way in which artworks and other beings are to be engaged.  Heidegger’s view runs counter to a classical opposition of subject and object, where the human subject dictates the relevance of the non-human object by dominating and using it for human purposes.  Here, human beings are seen as ‘letting other beings be’, when this signifies an active fostering of the ways in which other beings (in this case, artworks) exist.  The role of the surrounding aesthetic communities is thus not to restrict and dominate given artworks by forcing them to exist only in ways dictated from point of creation, but rather to encourage and facilitate the artwork’s own way of being.  Thus the application of Heidegger’s claim is that letting artworks be fosters and facilitates the lives of these artworks, complete with their characteristic ongoing change. 

           This approach facilitates the development of an artwork’s authenticity over time, and is a crucial part of its ‘life’. Such a facilitation of an artwork’s authenticity is process-oriented rather than concentrated exclusively on the act of creation.  In his discussion of what it is to let the being of the artwork be, Heidegger distinguishes two kinds of being in artworks: ‘the object being’ and ‘the work being.’  He does this in order to determine which aspect of the artwork is facilitated when we ‘let the artwork be’, as well as to explain how an artwork’s authenticity can be both furthered and undermined by human action.  The ‘object being’ of the artwork refers to the characteristics of the art object at a given time.  That is, the ‘object being’ of an artwork signifies the specific properties, themes, and materials of the artwork itself, when perceived as an individual object.  Heidegger says that this aspect of an artwork is where the attention of the art industry predominantly lies.  The ‘work being’ of the artwork refers to the process of new emergences.  While ‘object being’ is described as a state of being, this ‘work being’ is more a way of being.  This process-oriented ‘work being’ refers in large part to the ongoing process of developing authenticity.  In considering the ‘work being’ of the earlier statue example, we might consider its ongoing history, beginning with its creation and elements which, at that time, might have established its authenticity (e.g., characteristic techniques of the era or artist or the geographical sources of the materials used), and continuing through to the time when it was stolen and damaged, and to what would now confirm its authenticity to its audiences (e.g., recognizable damage marks as evidence of the artwork’s history).[7] ‘Object being’ focuses on the state of the artwork, whereas ‘work being’ emphasizes the process by which the artwork and its authenticity develop. 

           Heidegger’s distinction between ‘object being’ and ‘work being’ makes possible his further claim: when considering the role of preservation, excessive focus on the object being of an artwork threatens its authenticity, while attention to the ‘work being’ of an artwork furthers it.  That is, efforts to preserve the object being of an artwork tend to result in a less authentic artwork, while preserving the artwork’s work being encourages authenticity.  Heidegger argues this in the following way: authenticity is not completely established in an artwork at one given time.  Rather, it is an ongoing process of development.  Preserving only the artwork as it is at one given time (most likely as it is at the point of creation) will restrict further developments in authenticity, thus confining the artwork to a less authentic state.  Preserving the artwork only as it stands at creation and forever trying to prevent change is a means of oppressing the artwork and its developing authenticity.  Preserving the ‘work being’ of the artwork by means of protecting the process of its development fosters authenticity.  This kind of preservation is one example of Heidegger’s ‘letting be,’ discussed earlier.  If only the ‘object being’ is preserved, the artworks are not allowed ‘to be’ at all, their lives are stunted and their authenticity oppressed.  If the ‘work being’ is preserved, the artworks and the truth involved in them emerge newly over time.  The creativity present at their origins is preserved, as is their authenticity; here ‘preserving’ means not a rigid adherence to the past, but a fruitful opening up into the future.  As Heidegger states, “Art is the creative preserving of truth in the work.  Art then is the becoming and happening of truth…Art lets truth originate.  Art, founding preserving, is the spring that leaps to the truth of beings in the work.”[8]

           Having clarified Heidegger’s view, I want to claim that Sagoff’s characterization of artworks is flawed in two related ways: first, he treats artworks as ahistorical, as bereft of temporal life.  Second, he treats artworks as strictly passive objects, as though the artwork’s development is always predetermined from the outside.  Sagoff views authentic artworks as having completed their process of development by the time the initial creative act is over.  This limits them by denying them a future development and by preventing them from existing temporally as other objects do.  Sagoff’s claim that a created artwork is to be dealt with chiefly (if not wholly) by preserving its initial state is dangerously stringent and clearly contrary to Heidegger’s view.  I would argue that the artwork is better taken as historical, and, to some extent, this means welcoming change within the artwork’s life.  Heidegger even claims that the material used in art “is all the better and more suitable the less it resists perishing.”[9]  The perishable nature of the raw materials, according to Heidegger, further expresses the historicality of the artwork.  While practical concerns might often compel us to reject Heidegger’s ‘pro-perishability’ suggestion, the historicality in question is what Sagoff problematically and unsuccessfully tries to reverse and deny. 

            Sagoff’s depiction of artworks only as mere objects incurring help or harm is troubling, especially in light of Heidegger’s claims.  Sagoff portrays artworks, from their beginnings, as created, observed, preserved, maintained or damaged by means of external force.  Heidegger’s discussion of what it is to let beings be, even when those beings are non-living, exposes Sagoff’s error here.  When artworks are taken as ‘beings’, as  clarified in Heidegger’s distinction between ‘object being’ and ‘work being,’ they are encountered more openly.  The difference between an active and a passive artwork could be understood as follows: an active artwork is viewed by the aesthetic community as having a kind of ‘life of its own’, and as such, is more likely to benefit from creative preservation, to exhibit relevant novelty, and an extended period of impact.  A passive artwork is less likely to flourish in these ways, and less likely to endure over time.  The way in which the artwork is engaged with by the aesthetic communities is significantly different depending on how the artwork is viewed, and how action taken by the surrounding communities impinges on the growth of the artwork. This is related to viewing artworks as historical; an artwork encountered as a historical being is one which is encouraged to grow in authenticity and otherwise.  An artwork encountered as an ahistorical object, in keeping with Sagoff’s suggestions, is stunted in its development, and, as such, undermined.

            Sagoff’s characterization of artworks is useful in a number of senses.  He is right to focus on the artwork’s point of creation.  Sagoff also rightly focuses on the authenticity of the artwork as necessary to an artwork’s aesthetic value; he is  correct in affirming the role of historical context in determining an artwork’s authenticity. As I have argued, however, this should not be restricted to deliberations regarding the historical context of creation, but should also extend into the ongoing life of the artwork.  Because of Sagoff’s insistence upon the authentic artwork at the point of creation, taking up his view would mean preventing rather than fostering the developing authenticity of such an historical being.

            My further claim is that the developing authenticity of historical artworks should be an issue of social responsibility.  Sagoff neither recognizes nor supports the ongoing creative preservation of artworks.  The aesthetic community should consider authenticity to be a characteristic of artworks for which it is partially responsible.  We can exercise such responsibility by taking up and encouraging projects of ‘creative preservation’.  When taken largely in Heidegger’s sense, this expression emphasizes the importance of preservation, as an ongoing creative act, and as an extension of the work begun at the point of creation. Contrary to Sagoff’s inclination to divide these stages of an artwork’s life from one another and affirm the former at the latter’s expense, my claim is that the aesthetic community should value and support both acts as they are interwoven in an artwork’s life.  Creation and preservation are importantly connected stages in the life of a developing artwork and both are relevant to an artwork’s authenticity.  The social responsibility I am proposing requires, in part, that the aesthetic community engage in acts of creative preservation and seek to clarify what such projects may entail.   

            If we view, as I argue we should, the preserving of artworks as tied up with new ways of letting the artwork emerge and (as Heidegger claims) with new acts of ‘founding’ not as a matter of strictly trying to protect the artwork as it stood at creation, then the aesthetic community must be committed to assisting those artists engaged in preservational work.[10]  The kind of work in question varies widely.  In addition to more conventional examples of preservational work, creative preservation is a term that could include such work as re-curating, re-filming, re-choreographing, re-staging, re-casting, re-translating, re-framing, re-composing, and so on.[11]  Under the expression ‘creative preservation,’ these kinds of artworks qualify and are already accepted in a variety of ways.  For instance, translation may not seem prima facie to be a task of creative preservation.  Yet it seems clear that the translation of a great work of literature from Ancient Greek into English can be seen as a way of preserving it, and that the translator is, and should be, given both license and credit for work that requires such creative skill.  The aesthetic community should be responsible for engendering this kind of work.  This is a social milieu in which useful ‘re-framings’ of artworks as a kind of preservation are highly valuable. 

           I have argued that an adequate conception of an artwork’s authenticity is one which, contra Sagoff, views such authenticity as a dynamic aspect of the artwork’s life, and that such authenticity can be an aspect of artworks from a wide variety of artforms.  Aesthetic communities should understand themselves to be responsible for the developing authenticity of artworks, and such responsibility can be exercised in part through the preservational work I have described here. 


Many thanks to Steven Burns, Carmel Forde, Jason Holt, Jocelyn Parr, members of the Dalhousie Graduate Student Publication Support Group, and to groups at the Atlantic Region Philosophers Association 2006 meeting, and the Canadian Society for Aesthetics 2008 meeting for engaging discussions and helpful suggestions. 




[1] For a selection of analyses of aesthetic authenticity, see: Denis Dutton. “Authenticity in Art.”  The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics. Ed. Jerrold Levinson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003: 258-274; Salim Kemal and Ivan Gaskell (eds.). Performance and Authenticity in the Arts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999; and S.J. Wilsmore. “Authenticity and Restoration.” British Journal of Aesthetics 26, no. 3 (1986): 228-238.  

[2] This paper is motivated in part by my interests in exploring how authenticity can be thought of within a social framework, and specifically, how fostering authenticity can be a matter of social responsibility and concern.

[3] Mark Sagoff. “On Restoring and Reproducing Art.”  The Journal of Philosophy. 75, no. 9, September 1978, 463. 

[4] Martin Heidegger. “The Origin of the Work of Art.” Basic Writings. Ed. David Farrell Krell. New York: Harper and Row, 1977, 180.

[5] Ibid, 167.

[6] Ibid, 187.

[7] It should be clear that I don’t mean to suggest that an artwork which remains tangibly unaltered from its point of creation to its present existence is somehow less authentic or possesses a lesser form of work being, merely for lack of alteration. The point here is to show that works that have been altered over time should not be taken as less authentic. Rather, their histories significantly participate in and contribute to their authenticities, whether they involve obvious change or not.     

[8] Ibid., 183, 186.

[9] Ibid., 171.

[10] This point might be further considered in light of Iris Marion Young’s analysis of preservation in “House and Home: Feminist Variations on a Theme” in Feminist Interpretations of Martin Heidegger. Eds. Nancy J. Holland and Patricia Huntington. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001, 272-276, which emphasizes the importance of preservative work in the home.    

[11] A Heideggerian emphasis upon the importance of curatorial work is apt in light of Heidegger’s own extensive analyses of care (the Latin ‘cura-’ meaning with reference to ‘care’).

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