Originals, Fakes, and Copies: Reductionism and Anti-Reductionism About Painting

I’m re-reading Ayn Rand’s Romantic Manifesto for an upcoming seminar on the topic, so my mind is on art and aesthetics. In that spirit, Robert Campbell, Stephen Boydstun, and I just revived a four-year-old conversation on Rand’s aesthetics, and I’ve been going back and forth with Anoop Verma on Facebook on the supposed aesthetic superiority of  original paintings to their “exact” copies. For whatever it’s worth, I thought I’d reproduce some of that discussion here, in case it was of general interest.

As it happens, I read Verma’s posts on Facebook and responded to them without reading the fuller versions posted on his blog. After I read the fuller blog version, it occurred to me that the response I’d given Verma was very similar to the account of Nelson Goodman’s that Verma himself had quoted in the original post. Great minds thinking alike? Or fools of a feather flocking together? You decide. 

Verma, in a Facebook post not reproduced on his blog, quoting Aline B. Saarinen:

The most tantalizing question of all: If a fake is so expert that even after the most thorough and trustworthy examination its authenticity is still open to doubt, is it or is it not as satisfactory a work of art as if it were unequivocally genuine?

My response:

If the authenticity of a painting is still “open to doubt,” it’s also open to doubt that a great original is aesthetically identical to a copy. “Open to doubt” means, precisely, that it can’t be known whether the original and the copy are the same. But if we’re dealing with aesthetic genius, it’s legitimate to consider the possibility that the artist’s genius exceeds the capacities of the “most thorough and trustworthy examination.” It’s therefore rational to prefer the original to the copy on the hypothesis that the original exceeds the aesthetic merits of the copy.

Here’s a snippet from Verma’s later blog post on the subject. But read the whole post in its original form (along with the synopsis of Goodman’s views), as well as Verma’s interesting discussion of Foucault’s analysis of Velasquez’s “Las Meninas”:

Why do people prefer an original work of art to an exact-copy of it when they cannot tell the difference between the two? It cannot be due to aesthetic reasons because the two look similar. It is possible that if the copy which looks like the original is a counterfeit, we will be averse to it for purely moral reasons, just as we are averse to any act of fraud.

My response:

Isn’t the difference that the copy derives from the original but the original derives from the sheer creativity of the artist? So even if the two paintings are indistinguishable at first, the fact remains that they are different, and it is reasonable for the owner to surmise that a discernible difference will reveal itself through patient study over time.

I have listened to the same piece of music for decades and not noticed subtleties until an expert or specialist brought them to my attention. The same reasoning could apply here, with appropriate adjustments.


That is a fine point. But the question is that why do people prefer to look at the original instead of an exact-copy. In many cases, the exact-copy is better than the original — because the original may be too old and it can show signs of aging, whereas the exact-copy will depict the painting or sculpture as it was when the artist created it. There is no extra aesthetic value to be derived from looking at the original. The aesthetic value of the copy is better than the original, and yet people want to see the original and not the copy. And this is mostly due to human psychology — people want to look at the original because they get a feeling of being in touch with a great mind who initially created the work.


Whether rightly or wrongly, I think people doubt that an “exact copy” is literally exact in every detail. The reason I gave is a reason for thinking it may not be. It may appear that way at first, but the initial appearance is likely to be wrong. The assumption is one about artistic genius: the artist has made subtle decisions that will not be captured by a copy-maker, no matter how highly skilled. Apparent exactitude is bound to be revealed as an error or illusion. That at any rate is the most plausible rationale; it may itself be in error.

Note that the rationale I’ve given is purely aesthetic, even if mistaken.


I think it is correct that no exact-copy can be an exact replica of the original. However, here we are not looking at being an exact-copy in the metaphysical sense–we are looking at it in a philosophical sense.

In a philosophical sense, the exact-copy is so perfect that there is not even a difference of a molecule, atom or an electron between it and the original. They are completely alike, down to every atom and electron that they contain.

So what happens in such situation? If such a perfect exact copy is hanging alongside the original in the museum which one will people prefer to see. I think people will still prefer to stand in a queue before the original.

This is because they are filled with the desire of not only looking at a masterpiece, but to look at masterpiece that has been created by a legendary master who lived decades or even centuries ago. An original work of art has an aesthetic value as well as a historical, contextual, financial and psychological value.


I don’t really understand the distinctions you’re making, or how they respond to what I said. If the copy is not an exact replica of the original, how can it be so perfectly similar that there is not a molecule or atom’s difference between the two?

My point is that the assumption you’re making about originals and copies is either very unlikely to be true, or very unlikely to be knowable, or simply not widely known. It is unlikely that copies are really exact replicas of originals. If they are, it is going to be very difficult to prove that. And even if it’s provable, many people will be unfamiliar with the proof. Either of those three possibilities (or the combination) leads away from your highly reductive assumption: that there are no rational reasons for preferring originals to copies, even when the two look “the same.”

When it comes to works of artistic genius, looking the same and being the same are not the same thing. There are irrational reasons for preferring an original to a copy, but one perfectly justifiable reason is the (justifiable) assumption that the original has aesthetic qualities missing in the copy, whether or not those qualities are readily apparent at first, even to experts. If we are dealing with a Vermeer or a Rembrandt, it is more rational to assume that the aesthetic qualities of the original exceed what a copiest could produce than to assume that an expert’s verdict on the exactness of the copy is true. It is much more obvious that Vermeer is an artistic super-genius than that any expert’s testimony on originals versus copies should be trusted. You’re relying on a very artificial thought experiment that presupposes exactly what needs to be demonstrated–that originals and copies can be literally identical. The best reason to prefer an original to a copy is a person’s justifiable doubt that originals and copies really are identical.

I was gratified to be in agreement with the one art historian, Wayne Dynes, who was party to the discussion: Dynes argued that there is no such thing as an “exact copy” of a master work of painting. My defense of Dynes’s position:

Take an original Vermeer in excellent condition versus a copied Vermeer in excellent condition. Wayne’s point about these two items is hard to dispute: it is not plausible to claim that a copied Vermeer will literally be identical to an original. It may look that way at first, but over time, the differences will start to become apparent, at least to an educated viewer. But even if no differences do become apparent, it is rational think that some might become apparent, and that possibility supplies a purely aesthetic reason to prefer the original to any copy, at least in cases like this. In other cases, different considerations will apply. Maybe a copy is better to look at than a Vermeer in poor condition, but that is a special case that doesn’t really deal with the crux of the issue. The real question is whether copies can really capture the aesthetic qualities of originals, and the vast, vast majority of copies do not–not even if they seem to, at first. Given that overwhelming evidence, apparent to expert and non-expert alike, you face a huge burden of proof in asserting that originals and copies can be aesthetically identical, so that the preference for the original is non-aesthetic or irrational.
Though I didn’t realize it at the time, this turns out to be Goodman’s view, as well.
Verma’s response:

It is a philosophical question — why do people like the original when an exact-copy is available? In a philosophical sense we can assume that the exact copy is complete exact.

Let’s say there is an original Vermeer and its exact copy. The critics and the public are told that the exact copy is the original and the original is the exact copy. Where will they queue up? Obviously they will queue up before the exact copy, because they think this is the original.

So the question is basically psychological and philosophical in nature, and the idea is to find out why people prefer to look at an original even when they do not derive any aesthetic advantage from it.

Two points, in parting. First, it seems to me that the second sentence in the passage above begs the question: what’s in dispute is precisely whether we can assume that exact copies of great paintings are completely exact. I doubt that they can be. (I can’t really define “great painting” off the top of my head, but for a sample of what I mean, consider the paintings discussed in this book a representative sample.)
Second, it seems to me that Verma’s question is misformulated at the outset. The philosophical issue is not why people will prefer an original to a copy for works of art (without restrictions on whether the reasons in question are good or bad, and whether the works themselves are good or bad), but whether there is a rational, aesthetically-driven reason to prefer an original to a copy of an indisputably great work of art in cases where it is difficult to tell the original apart from the copy.
I saw myself as addressing the latter, not the former question. Yes, people will prefer an original to a copy of a piece of crap for all kinds of silly reasons, but those reasons have no important bearing on whether there are justifiable reasons to prefer an original Vermeer to a copied Vermeer in cases where someone has pronounced the original “indistinguishable” from the copy. What makes Vermeer indisputably great is that it would be facile to assume that there are no differences between an original Vermeer and a supposedly “exact” copy. Maybe there aren’t, but I wouldn’t bet my condo on that proposition–a claim I can authentically make now that I own one.
So I remain unmoved by Verma’s arguments, but not so immovable that I couldn’t be moved by anyone else’s.
[Apologies for the ugly spacing in the latter part of this post.]

12 thoughts on “Originals, Fakes, and Copies: Reductionism and Anti-Reductionism About Painting

  1. An original painting is original only at the time when the painter creates it. We can compare a painting with a new born child. The child grows up and there comes a time when he is old and he dies. The same applies to a painting.

    When one is looking at a 300 year old painting, one is looking at a *resemblance* of a painting that a painter created 300 years ago. An exact copy of the painting created in a more recent period may have more resemblance to the original as it was at the time when the painter created it than the painting which exists today.

    Yet, people will prefer to look at the damaged original than the exact-copy which offers a better depiction of the painter’s creation. So the point is that our psychology has a role to play in the deciding which works of art we will appreciate to what degree.



    • It seems to me that an original painting remains original for as long as it exists, barring the possibility of substantial damage or changes to it. There’s no real analogy between a child and a painting. A child goes through biological and psychological states of development involving radical change; a painting does not. Yes, paintings age, but age by itself doesn’t turn an original into a non-original. There are expert renovators who can touch up a painting to mitigate the effects of age while making minimal alterations to the painting itself. In other cases, paintings are well enough maintained so as not to age too drastically. So barring unusual cases, I don’t see that someone who views a masterpiece 300 years after its having been painted is viewing a mere resemblance of the original. He’s viewing the original. (Incidentally, even if we accepted the analogy to a child, the child remains the same person in old age as she was at birth.)

      It’s true that there are cases in which non-aesthetic reasons play a role in explaining people’s apparently aesthetic preferences. But I would still insist that in many cases, there are good aesthetic reasons to prefer the original of a masterpiece to a copy.


  2. Cool flick – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w4nWgtXB51o

    I have a comment here in step with Goodman perhaps, though not about purely esthetic grounds of appreciation. Also, I don’t know if it is appropriate to describe this as rational.

    I have kept a shirt of my deceased first lover (d. 1990). I would not care about a copy. I like having this very one. Similarly, to see in person an instrument certified to have been one that Newton made with his own hands is an experience for me, with my somewhat involved acquaintance with his scientific works, that is more than experience of a replica or photograph of the instrument. Again, we have oil paintings in our house we purchased from the artist, who is a personal friend of ours. Replicas would be far less valuable and connective for us.

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    • I’ll have to put that film on my list. Looks interesting. I generally like (but don’t love) Abbas Kiarostami. I saw “Taste of Cherry” and “The Wind Will Carry Us,” but nothing since then.

      I certainly relate to the experiences you’re describing, but I think they raise different issues than the aesthetic ones. The difference is that in your examples the difference between original and copy is purely causal or etiological: your first lover’s shirt was worn by him and came to you from him; the copy didn’t. As you describe it, the same is true of the oil paintings purchased from your friend the artist. But that exhausts the value of the original qua original, possibly even in the latter case (unless the friend is so original an artist that his style can’t easily be replicated); obviously, the value of the original has nothing to do with the intrinsic features of the shirt, and more to do with the provenance or history of this particular shirt. Whereas in the aesthetic case, everything turns on the assumption that a Rembrandt or Vermeer very likely has intrinsic aesthetic features that no copy is likely to have. So they’re similar but significantly different cases.

      Actually, Rand has one intriguing, perceptive comment to offer that’s potentially relevant at least to the shirt case. There’s a passage near the end of “Philosophy and Sense of Life” where she’s talking about the connection between sense of life and romantic love:

      One falls in love with the embodiment of the values that formed a person’s character, which are reflected in his widest goals or smallest gestures, which create the style of his soul–the individual style of a unique, unrepeatable, irreplaceable consciousness (Romantic Manifesto, p. 32)

      The claim is easily misinterpreted or misunderstood, but read charitably, I think it expresses something profoundly right. The relevant point is that we’re often attracted to, and fixate on our lovers’ “smallest gestures,” even when they take forms that strike other people as trivial, insignificant, frivolous, or just neutral. Some of these are highly gendered and sexual-orientation-specific. So a guy will fall for a gal based on the way she brushes back her hair when she speaks. I have this thing about the way Alison talks to her cats, etc. In “Sexual Perversion,” Thomas Nagel develops an extended thought-experiment (intended to illustrate “normal” sexual attraction) in which this idea plays an important role: a man and a woman are courting each other, and the man falls for the “diffidence with which she sips her martini” (p. 11).

      In some cases, a “small gesture” can, for whatever reason, come to be associated with a physical object–an item of clothing, say. The reason why the original item has the personal significance lacking in the copy is that it not only evokes the “smallest gestures” of the absent person, but does so in part because it was literally part of their very enactment of those gestures. It’s as though one wants the person back, with all his gestures, and the artifact becomes a proxy for doing so: the physical item becomes the closest one can get to the absent person. I suspect that an exact copy would have some value, just not the same value. An exact copy of the shirt would evoke the person’s gestures (e.g., how he wore it, when and where he wore it), but one’s response to it would be somewhat diluted or “cut short” by the realization that the copy-shirt wasn’t literally part of the gestures of the absent person.

      That said, the preceding doesn’t really justify the attitude in question–I may just be re-stating the problem or stating the obvious–but I’m reluctant to conclude that the attitude you’re describing must be irrational.

      Since we’re more or less just recording relevant experiences, here is another set: one’s reaction to places with great historical significance.

      In some cases, it seems to matter a great deal (to me) that I’m standing on the very spot where, say, the Revolutionary Army crossed the Delaware to attack Trenton on Christmas Day in 1776; in other cases, it doesn’t really matter all that much that I’m looking at mere replicas of the log cabin huts the soldiers lived in at Jockey Hollow during that dreadful winter of 1779-80.

      Again, it matters that the Wounded Knee Massacre took place in a certain specific meadow on Pine Ridge Reservation that both you and I have visited (and not some other one); it doesn’t matter at all that the overpriced beaded necklace I bought there was almost certainly a fake, or that there’s a parking lot there that wasn’t there before, or that my self-appointed Lakota tour guide wasn’t really a Lakota at all.

      When you walk through the “Old City” of Jerusalem, what’s funny is that much of the so-called Old City is new, but it seems to matter that the parts preserved as “originals” genuinely are the old parts they claim to be. (There are two rival locations in Jerusalem contending for the title of “the place of Jesus’s burial”–the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the so-called Garden Tomb. It would bother me a great deal if the real one turned out to be fake, and the fake one turned out to be real.)

      Having reported all this, I can’t really account for the differences involved. My reactions may well be ad hoc, inconsistent, and idiosyncratic. But I’m intrigued by the possibility that they may not be.

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  3. This is interesting. Initially I thought I understood Verma’s position and that it seemed right, though in light of further remarks I’m not sure what I have in mind is quite what he has in mind (it certainly seems not to be all of what he has in mind). You (Irfan) distinguish the question you were trying to address from one that Verma was trying to address, and it seems clear that there are at least two different questions here. But here’s the basic question I thought Verma was posing, which seems like neither of the questions you distinguished:

    Given the choice between an original and a copy that they themselves cannot distinguish perceptually from the original, many people will nonetheless prefer the original. Because their perceptual experience of it reveals no differences between it and the copy, the preference seems not to rest on aesthetic grounds at all. We could, for instance, lie to such people and tell them that the copy is the original and vice versa; their preference would follow what they think is the original, not anything about the actual original. The question, then, is this: their preference cannot depend on any aesthetic properties of the objects, so what rational grounds can there be for the preference, if not aesthetic grounds or reasons?

    Your remarks give us some genuine aesthetic considerations that could answer that question: we can’t perceptually discriminate between these two works of art right now, but perhaps with time we will, and since there’s good reason to believe that the copy isn’t exact, we have good grounds for preferring the original, and these are straightforwardly aesthetic grounds. Now, as you say, you’re approaching the question not as one about how to explain people’s actual preferences, but about whether there are good aesthetic reasons for the preference. It may be that Verma is asking a more straightforwardly psychological question, and if so then your considerations won’t answer his question because it doesn’t plausibly identify the motives that normally lead most people to have such a preference, but that’s not a problem for your answer, since it’s not trying to identify those motives. But, as I said, I didn’t take the question to be an empirical psychological one, either, but I also didn’t take it your way. I took the question to be: what aesthetic grounds or reasons can there be for such a preference? I took the thought experiment to be intended to show that there can’t be any such reasons. So interpreted, that’s not quite your question, since bad aesthetic reasons would answer my question just as well as good ones. Still, your answer to your question could provide an answer to mine, because, well, good aesthetic reasons are aesthetic reasons.

    I’m not sure your answer works, though, and not because the reasons you cite are non-aesthetic ones. Rather, it seems to me that they’re not reasons for the preference as I understood it. Though I didn’t recognize it until reflecting on your answer, I was tacitly assuming that the sort of preference we’re talking about is not just a reasoned preference for spending time with this work rather than that copy (on the grounds that it will probably eventually yield greater aesthetic rewards), but rather something internal to the response one has to a work taken to be an original rather than a copy. I don’t just prefer to focus on the original rather than the copy because it will probably turn out to be better; I experience the original as better right now. But to me, it’s perceptually indiscriminable from the copy, and I could even be fooled into taking the copy for the original. So whatever grounds I do or could have for this internal-to-the-experience preference can’t be aesthetic. At least they can’t be the grounds you identify, because those aren’t internal to my experience and they don’t justify or explain the different sort of response people have to originals over copies. The sorts of grounds Verma identifies — historical, contextual, etc. — are more plausible candidates for that role, but they’re non-aesthetic grounds.

    I wonder, though, whether a better approach to the question as I understood it is to allow that there is much more to aesthetic experience than what is available in perception as such, and hence there can be and are aesthetic reasons or considerations that transcend the immediately perceptible properties of objects or the possibly perceptible properties of objects in the future when I enhance my perceptual discriminations. In my own limited experience, there’s often a felt difference between encountering the real original painting and encountering a very good replica, and it isn’t because they look different to me, but because when confronted with the former I feel as though I’m more directly connected to the artist, who physically touched this thing and made it with his hands and so on and so forth. I’ve been suspicious of that feeling about as often as I’ve felt it; perhaps it’s really just illusion or sentimental projection, and I’d probably be feeling it even if I were being lied to about this object. Even if we shouldn’t dismiss that feeling as sentimental projection or the like, it might not be right to regard it as aesthetic; it seems like the same feeling you can have when you, say, visit the archives of your favorite author and get to see and maybe even touch the hand-written early drafts of books you admire, and even if that’s not sentimental projection it would seem odd to treat it as an aspect of your aesthetic experience of the book. But paintings, say, seem different from literary works in that they’re more particular, or at least frequently taken as such; we’re not inclined to say that we haven’t actually read a book because we’ve only read a copy, but we talk that way about paintings.

    My ruminations here aren’t meant to resolve any disagreements between you and Verma, and ultimately I do not have any attachment to any notion of ‘the aesthetic’ such that it has to include or exclude this or that; like ‘morality,’ I doubt that it really picks out a unified and distinct notion or that we need it to say what needs to be said about the things we try to use the concept to talk about. Still, it strikes me that there’s a kind of response internal to the experience of works regarded as originals, and while I don’t know whether we should think of it as aesthetic or non-aesthetic, it isn’t a matter of the work’s perceptible properties, or even of any properties somehow grounded in or supervenient on (or whatever) its perceptible properties.

    So long as the art doesn’t lie about the gods, I’m set.

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    • I don’t disagree with that. I wrote my response to Stephen Boydstun above (August 26, 6:04 pm) before I read your comment, and it seems to me that what I say there coheres with what you say just above. (As I said, I hadn’t read the excerpt from Goodman when I wrote the original post, either.)

      I guess the lesson here is that there are lots of related by different questions out there worth asking. I took Verma to be asking (with respect to painting):

      1. Why, in general, do people prefer originals to copies?

      That strikes me as too broad a question to be usefully pursued. So I changed it to:

      2. What justifiable aesthetic reason could someone have or give for preferring the original of a masterpiece to a copy of that masterpiece?

      Your question may capture the intentions behind Verma’s original question, but it’s not the question he was actually asking:

      3. What rational grounds can there be for preferring an original to a copy in cases where the viewer cannot (confesses to not being able to) distinguish the original from the copy?

      In other words, the idea distinctive to (3) is the persistence with which the person prefers the original to the copy regardless of perceptual differences between the two. I guess this is what Verma was trying to insist on in saying that we could conceivably compare an original Vermeer with an “exact copy” Vermeer. Perhaps the discussion got sidetracked (in some sense) by my insistence that it’s question-begging to assume that there is such a thing as an exact copy Vermeer, but if we change the example and keep your explanation in mind, we can sidestep that. The precise thought I was trying to factor out was this one:

      I don’t just prefer to focus on the original rather than the copy because it will probably turn out to be better; I experience the original as better right now.

      As I was thinking about it, that is not clearly a rationally justifiable thought. I wasn’t denying (and wouldn’t deny) that people have it, but I was specifically trying to steer around it, because if the preceding thought is your target analysandum, it seems to me very possible that the preference turns out to be non-aesthetic and non-rational. In my view, you probably shouldn’t prefer to focus on the original rather than the copy unless there is a good reason to think that the original is better than any possible copy–a condition satsified (in my view) in the case of grand masters like Vermeer, Rembrandt, etc.

      In other words, the case I had in mind (and was discussing) is what I took to be the best case for the phenomenon I took Verma to be discussing: you confront an original Vermeer and a copy Vermeer; you can’t tell them apart, but you operate on the justifiable hypothesis that the original is better than the copy, not just because Vermeer is better than almost any copiest, but because he’s so much better than that, that your inability to tell the difference between original and copy reveals a failure in your capacities for discrimination, not the exactness of the copy. (It complicates things if the exact copy was made by a master painter herself.)

      But you’re right to say that people do in fact prefer originals to copies simply qua originals, and I agree with your account of the phenomenology involved. In fact, I agree with just about everything you’re saying in your fifth paragraph–including the claim that while it might be sentimental projection, it need not be; and that the thought involved (experience enhanced by direct connection with an artist or historical actor) is not paradigmatically aesthetic. I think the agreement implicitly comes out in my 8/26, 6:04 response to Boydstun. Actually, it’s revealing that I had to change the examples in my response from great paintings to historical monuments.

      I don’t have any particular response to original manuscripts (but then, I haven’t seen very many), but I do have a powerful response (for lack of a better phrase) to places of historical significance (which is a bit of a personal obsession). My reason is similar to, but slightly different from yours:

      I feel as though I’m more directly connected to the artist, who physically touched this thing and made it with his hands and so on and so forth

      I find it easier to imagine what it would have been like to have enacted or experienced a historical event if I have perceptual contact with it. I’ve been to Washington’s Crossing dozens of times (often late at night, and often in cold weather). When I go, I find myself imaginatively reconstructing the crossing so as to imagine what it was really like. Given that aim, it matters that I’m standing in the right place when I do it. The river varies in width and depth up and down its length, and it matters to my imaginative reconstruction of the event precisely how wide it was when Washington et al made their crossing.

      When I visited the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre, I had to work a bit to imagine a massacre taking place at that site; ludicrous as it sounds, the site looks too “peaceful” to have been the site of a massacre. But somehow, it matters to me that the massacre took place in the specific meadow where it’s said to have taken place. I’d be disappointed if it actually took place a mile down the road.

      Meanwhile, I’ve been to Lazarus’s Tomb in Bethany, but I can’t say it mattered to me that the tomb had been reconstructed, partly because I don’t believe that the supernatural event associated with the tomb really happened. Because the event didn’t really happen, there’s nothing to imagine. Because there’s nothing to imagine, it doesn’t matter that I lack contact with the “original” denizen of the tomb. I was eager to go in and spend some time all the way at the bottom of the tomb, but mostly for amusement value (the graffiti down there was pretty funny). (Sorry if this offends anyone.)

      A friend of mine is buried in a cemetery in Portland, Oregon. The funeral was a traumatic experience, and I vividly remember the spot at which the coffin was lowered into the ground: it’s a memory that will stay with me for the rest of my life. But when I visited the cemetery a decade after the funeral, I was disappointed to discover that my friend’s headstone was installed in a location several hundred yards from the exact spot where he was buried. (My first inclination was to whip out my phone and tell him.) The disappointment seems silly; he’d been dead ten years, so what difference did it make whether his bones were next to that grove of trees, or in the middle of this field of grass? And yet it did matter somehow, I’m not sure why.

      So I’d say that there is a response internal to the experience both of works of art as originals, and of connection to important historical events (where the criterion of “importance” is supplied by the person having the experience). I think the “two” responses are really different versions of the same response, but I can’t say that I have a good account of what’s going on in either case.

      One last point:

      there is much more to aesthetic experience than what is available in perception as such, and hence there can be and are aesthetic reasons or considerations that transcend the immediately perceptible properties of objects or the possibly perceptible properties of objects in the future when I enhance my perceptual discriminations

      I agree with the spirit but not the letter of that comment. There’s a view associated with the cognitive psychologist James Gibson that takes perceptual experience to be “content rich”: we take in far more than we realize in a given perceptual experience. So what I would say is that there is much more to any given perceptual experience than what the perceiver takes herself to be available to perception at the time; hence there can be and are aesthetic reasons or considerations that transcend that agent’s occurrent beliefs about the perceptible properties of objects. But the perceptual information that the perceiver has transcends our outstrips those occurrent beliefs. My quibble here is with the phrase “transcend the immediately perceptible properties.”

      Put another way: When you look at a Vermeer, you’re taking in more than you can possibly register at first contact. But you’ve still taken it in. When you come to notice things “you’d never seen before,” that’s potentially misleading. You probably had seen them before. You just didn’t realize you had. We see more (a lot more) than we realize we see. This hit me in a very vivid way when I saw an exhibit of Vermeer’s paintings at the Met sometime in the 2000s. I was suitably impressed, but didn’t quite realize what I had seen until I started dreaming Vermeers. Then I went back and realized that I had seen more than I thought I had. I later read something by Colin McGinn on Vermeer (I forget where) that reported a similar experience. That was the point at which it dawned on me that Vermeer was a mind-blowingly great painter–one of maybe five aesthetic judgments of Ayn Rand’s that I happen to agree with.

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      • That’s helpful.

        Another way of putting the nascent thought I’m trying to have might be as follows. I share the broadly Gibsonian view of perception as ‘content rich,’ in part because I think we need something like it to account for how we can come to notice things that we hadn’t noticed before but that are perceptible (the “small gestures” you mention in your response to Stephen are one good example, but there are more mundane ones too; I am especially sensitive to this phenomenon because I am so often visually oblivious until people point details out to me about things that I’m looking straight at and paying attention to). I don’t know what the best way to cash it all out would be, but it doesn’t matter for present purposes, because what a broadly Gibsonian view gives us is the idea that there is more to perceptual content than we can always articulate, conceptualize, or even just notice — that more is there and it’s a perceptible property of the object, and so it is “available in perception as such.” But even on this sort of view, it is not a perceptible property of a painting that it is Vermeer’s original rather than a copy, or that it was painted in Chile, or that it was painted while the artist was in the midst of grief at the death of his first child, and so on. In some cases, perhaps we could infer some of these from perceptible properties of the painting — that it is an original and not a copy, or a copy and not an original, or whatever — but those facts about the painting are causal or etiological, as you put it, and not perceptible properties of it. My still-forming thought is: why suppose that aesthetic experience must be limited to the perceptible instead of also encompassing such relational properties?

        Here’s a consideration in favor of broadening our view of the aesthetic along those lines. We seem to allow facts external to (and even non-causally/etiologically related to) the perceptible properties of artistic works to influence, even decisively, our understanding and interpretation of those works, and more generally our experience and response to them. I don’t mean to endorse or reject this sort of thing, but simply to note that it’s something that many of us do: songs, poems, novels, films, and paintings can come to have special significance for us, and to move us in the ways they do, because they bear certain relationships to things outside of them: maybe a certain actor’s performance moves us because we know it was his last, maybe a certain novel is especially meaningful to us because it shed light on certain of our own experiences that we needed to understand more clearly at the time of our lives when we first read it, maybe a certain painting moves us in a distinctive way because we know that the artist suffered from terrible depressive episodes and was working through one when he created this painting. These facts — external to the works themselves and sometimes not even causally or etiologically related to them — have an effect on how we experience the works and the kind of impact they have on us. But the aesthetic seems to be just a matter of how we experience works of art and the kind of impact they have on us. So why exclude facts like these, and the experiences or responses they help shape, from the realm of the aesthetic?

        I can think of some reasons why one might want to criticize that sort of engagement with art in favor of some more detached, ‘disinterested’ engagement. I’m not very sympathetic to views of that sort, but I can imagine some reasons to want to head in that direction. But those seem like reasons to reject a certain kind of aesthetic engagement or interpretation, not reasons to think that they’re not aesthetic in the first place, but something else instead.

        I’ve thought about this now for about 36 minutes of my life, though, so I’m fully expecting that there’s quite a bit to be said here. In other words, this is a genuine question, not a view packaged as a question.

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        • Will respond when I get a chance, but thought I’d mention that PoT does have something of a resident expert on this topic, or at least on a closely related one. I haven’t actually read Potts’s dissertation (where the hell has he been, anyway?), so I don’t know how closely it intersects with anything we’re talking about, but thought I’d throw it out there anyway, in case you had the spare time to work through 400+ pages of epistemology and cognitive science and report back on the results. You do, don’t you? Who doesn’t?


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          • I suspect that answering the question I’m posing has more to do with the concept of ‘the aesthetic’ than with exactly how we should understand perceptual awareness, but I’m actually kinda more interested in theories of perceptual awareness, and I can’t imagine how aesthetics could be hurt by more focus on what perception is — after all, one of the things I always point out to beginning students asking about ‘areas of philosophy’ is that ‘aesthetics’ is kinda a weird area historically in part because for the entire pre-modern period the word ‘aesthetics’ would have suggested the study of perception rather than the study of art or the experience of art. So I’m all for the unity of aesthetics and aisthesis.

            Potts, presumably, has been more focused than I have, and though he’s written here less lately, he has contributed no less of substance in that time.

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        • Now that I’ve had the chance to think about your comment, I see what you mean that your question is more about the concept of the aesthetic than any conception of visual or other perception. I worked out an answer, which took me far more than 36 minutes, but still ends up being more of a series of relevant observations than a single clear-cut, fully coherent answer to your question. Won’t have a chance to post here until maybe Friday, and will probably do so in a separate post of its own, as it becomes increasingly difficult to carry on a conversation in the combox, and it’s really a new topic anyway.


          • Incidentally, the preceding comment of mine raises the question: what if, in the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant had discussed, not lying promises, but promises whose promised effectuation is so deferred in time that, for all practical purposes, they almost amount to lying promises, but don’t quite? If I promise to do X a really long time from now, is that even a promise at all? Future circumstances are so uncertain that who knows what unpredictable circumstances will intervene to make the “promise” impossible, unfeasible, or pointless. And who doesn’t know what when he issues such a “promise”? So how is that a promise?

            Discuss–until Friday, which is when I’ll respond. Promise.

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