Verisimilitude

Reflection

Looking back over this paper, this is the kind of work that I could be truly proud of in philosophy. It really checked all of my boxes for what I liked in philosophical writing. It works through the problems in another philosopher's work, but builds on it as well; it advances a novel concept, in this case a new kind of verisimilitude than what we talk about in logic; and it has a sort of comical readability in forming intuitive examples.

Philosophy can be dry but really good papers in philosophy will find a weirdly intuitive, even gripping readability. When I was trying to write good philosophy I was always working on performing that aspect of philosophy in my writing. This was one of my last papers in philosophy and, like a lot of the writing I did at the very end of my philosophical career finally hit the mark I was aiming at for years in the discipline.


In the issue of the aesthetic values of copies and originals there may be differences between the aesthetic properties of originals and perfect copies which bear on an artwork’s overall value. Against Meiland, I believe it is faulty and less descriptive to give an account of copies where there is not some kind of difference about aesthetic properties compared to originals, but one which cannot be detected by whatever our aesthetic sense is. Carving out originality as a property the way that Meiland does is problematic. He does not recognize originality as an integral part of an artwork, and as being peculiar to original works. I will describe verisimilitude as an aesthetic property of copies distinct from originals. I should like to make it clear that I am not using verisimilitude in the traditional way--I mean verisimilitude in the sense of appearing authentic or as the genuine article. But I feel that ‘verisimilitude’ carries a weight which mere ‘likeness’ or ‘similarity’ may lack. In short, I agree with Meiland’s conclusions about aesthetic values being maintained but I argue that there are aesthetic properties which need further description in cases of copies. There are differences in aesthetic properties between originals and perfect copies. I will provide an account of how the difference can exist and be imperceptible, but it does not mean that the aesthetic value between originals and perfect copies is different. In certain contexts the difference between originals and copies will be only uncanny.

Meiland asks if copies have less aesthetic value than originals.[1] He finds the answer to be no, because perfect copies differ in no way from originals and therefore express the same work.[2] But copies do differ from originals in the way that they are not original, and originality is a property of artworks. Meiland gives some short shrift to originality despite identifying it. He explains that perfect copies express the originality of the original works, distinct from the creativity of the artist. So originality is determined to be this property of the work which is closely tied with the artists vision and even how we come to understand the importance of a work over time.[3] But for him it is a property which is equally expressible in copies. To give this account of originality is a mistake. 

If originality is a property of the work it results from the formal characteristics that an artwork has. So originality is the result of putting e.g. these colors and shapes together on a canvas in this particular novel way which has not been done before. If the colors and shapes have not been put together this way before, then the work has the property of being “original” along with the other properties associated with aesthetic judgements like “elegant,” or “well composed,” and so forth.[4] We could even say of color field paintings that their form has not been produced before which makes them original despite their simplicity. I would not want to move past originality at this point to talk about the contexts artworks exist in when dealing with copies though because it strikes me that there is some intrinsic difference between the aesthetic properties of the original and that of the copy. It will only be in untangling originality from verisimilitude that we will have to look at external conditions.

I believe that a perfect copy does not express originality at all. How could it. A perfect copy cannot express originality lest it become an original of some sort, and copies do not strike me as instances of the original artwork. Instead copies have the property of being like an original in place of originality. In a copy there are formal characteristics in the same distribution as in the original, but the aesthetic properties are not all the same. Where we would point to a red shape in an original we could equally point to a red shape in a copy; where we would understand that shape to have originality in the original we could only understand it to have verisimilitude in the copy. The relation between copies and originals is not aesthetic in nature, but the copy has its formal characteristics in virtue of the original.[5] The aesthetic properties of a work are oneway dependent upon the point by point distribution of formal properties of the work; so where there is a difference in the distribution of formal properties of two works there is room for originality, where there is no difference in formal properties a work, viz. a copy, demonstrates verisimilitude. So verisimilitude supervenes on the originality properties of a work. This peculiar feature of copies is demonstrated by any sort of comparison between an original and a copy; the perfect copy is in no way original but it looks very like the original. Formal properties are distributed between original and exact copy the same way, but the aesthetic properties would differ because a copy does not have the property of being original.

I think that the details of Meiland’s examples and intermediate conclusions, thus, need to be changed. For instance we can make changes to a thought experiment where a copy of a work is made and the original is immediately destroyed. Meiland concludes that “the copy embodies the very same work of art as the original.”[6] He sees this as a reason that such a copy would be valued highly, which may be the case. But I think that Meiland misses the point that this whole situation, if discovered, would also be seen as something of a tragedy; we lost the original work. Further, although this strange copy would probably be valued very highly, it would not be seen as expressing originality. We could only say of that copy “thank heavens we have this copy from which we can make informed aesthetic judgement because it is very like the original in every way except originality.”

But there must be some kind of functional account to be given about how exact copies work so that they might dupe one into thinking they are the original. People, apparently, are adept aesthetic sensors, they are capable of aesthetic judgement and experience. The mechanism of this ability is not well understood, but it works. As we are taking in aesthetic properties such as elegance, drama, and, intuitively, originality or verisimilitude, we might say that these aesthetic properties innervate parts of our aesthetic sense. But like certain drugs do with receptors in our brain, verisimilitude binds to some originality receptor of the aesthetic sense. We experience originality when what we are getting is verisimilitude. But we can in some way be made aware of this feature in aesthetic experience much the same way one might stand back from his drug induced state. Much the way we can tell that we are restless as a result of the caffeine and not natural wakefulness we can tell that we are experiencing the aesthetic properties of an artwork but not the originality of it when we take in an exact copy. We could also be duped into making the wrong assumptions about a work by acknowledging verisimilitude as originality. If the above is the case then there is a difference in aesthetic properties without a difference in aesthetic judgement or even experience. If what we can glean about the work is the same in a copy as in the original, then it makes sense to say that experiencing the original and experiencing a copy have the same values. I can just as easily hold forth about Mona Lisa’s coy smile based on the copies I have seen as I could with the original work.

These characteristics of artworks and copies are seen in the real world. Considering the ways we could identify actual excellent copies validates that verisimilitude is this stand-in property for originality; in some cases we may not be able to just tell if a work is a copy or not. In actual copies we might be able to identify a small discrepancy where the copyist instanced something original. But in cases of forgery so good as to escape the charges of demonstrating any originality, there might be scientific evidence--carbon dating, fingerprints, pollen samples--which prove even such a good copy to be a fake. Surely these are not aesthetic properties and are not detectable by an audience. With advantages we might stand back with both copy and original and say "ah, I can see the differences now, the sheen on this one is different than on that one--clearly the result of synthetic paints--still if you stand back the copyist truly did capture the original, why from here the difference is almost uncanny, I've dropped my monocle!" Such information would, however, lead one to understanding that he was experiencing verisimilitude and not originality.

This account, where verisimilitude plays the same role as originality in the aesthetic sense and can be unraveled only in these specialized ways, might go a long way in explaining that experience of uncanniness about certain copies or forgeries or mechanical reproductions. But much like Meiland’s account, I think that we can protect the notion that there may be different significances and economic values applied to even exact copies but it is because they have this aesthetic property which we can determine but does not significantly impede our aesthetic valuation of artworks.


Endnotes

  1.  “Originals, Copies, and Aesthetic Value,” Meiland, Jack W. (Berkeley, 1983), (375).

  2.  Ibid, 382.

  3.  Ibid, 378-379.

  4.  I think that we can look at Frank Sibley’s “Aesthetic Concepts” as giving an account of properties a work has which nonetheless require aesthetic judgement to parse out (131). Formal properties, then aesthetic properties on top of them.

  5.  There is perhaps a hypothetical case where an artist replicates a work without knowing that he is doing so. I am not going to discuss such problems but I think that the connection between artist and artwork may hold a causal answer which Meiland would demure.

  6.  Meiland, 378.