Ansel Adams And the Art World Name Game

This has been a summer of discovery. Every other week, it seems, someone has come forward with lost works of famous artists.

At the beginning of July, curators at the Yale University Art Gallery announced that a battered canvas that had been gathering dust in the museum’s basement for the better part of a century had been painted by a young Diego Velázquez, the greatest artist of the Spanish Baroque. A few weeks later, the Vatican’s paper of record, L’Osservatore Romano, proclaimed that a painting that had languished in an obscure church in Rome appeared to be by none other than the early 17th century Italian master Caravaggio.

Only a chiaroscuro.

And late last month, Rick Norsigian held a press conference in Beverly Hills to announce that he owned lost images shot by the eminent American landscape photographer Ansel Adams. Mr. Norsigian had bought a shoebox-full of glass negatives for $45 at a yard sale in Fresno 10 years ago. An appraiser he used claims the trove is worth an (improbable) $200 million.

Yale’s Velázquez seems to be holding up without controversy, but the same can’t be said for the “Caravaggio” canvas or the “Adams” negatives. It only took a few days for the director of the Vatican Museums, Antonio Paolucci, to put the kibosh on the Caravaggio talk. Writing in the same newspaper that had floated the idea in the first place, he dismissed as “modest” the obscure bit of chiaroscuro.

Back in California, meanwhile, an elderly woman who saw the lost-and-found “Adams” photos featured on the local news came forward to say that she had seen some of them before. She said she recognized them as a few of the pretty pictures taken over the years by her Uncle Earl, a hobbyist. She even has a drawer-full of his prints that may help bear out her attribution.

Even before Uncle Earl’s name made the scene, the claim that the negatives were Adams masterworks had produced an ugly brawl. William Turnage, managing trustee of the Ansel Adams Trust, was indelicate in describing the yard-sale treasure hunters: “A bunch of crooks,” he sneered, “pulling a big con job.” Mr. Norsigian’s lawyer fired back, denouncing the “shameful and pointless disparagement of the professional reputations of some of the top leaders in their respective fields.” The photos may not bring millions, but you can bet there will be plenty of seven-figure lawsuits around them.

Still, the controversy raises a perplexing question: Why is a set of photos worth millions if they were shot by Ansel Adams, and next to nothing if the photographer depressing the plunger was a nobody? After all, the images remain the same. To the extent that art is about appreciating aesthetic objects for their own sake, is it right to put so much stake in the question of who did the drawing or painting or snapping?

The basic market definition of value is perfectly reasonable: A work is worth what someone will give you for it—an amount usually determined by the intersection of desirability, scarcity and the expectation that there will be someone down the line willing to pay even more. But isn’t art supposed to have value that transcends the market—something inherent in the object itself?

We seem to treat paintings like Abe Lincoln’s hat, valuing them for their association with great men and historical events. Take a moth-eaten stovepipe: If it came from Abe’s White House closet it’s a priceless artifact; if not, it’s just a worthless old topper. Which is to say, the hat itself, as a hat, isn’t a thing of any value. But shouldn’t art be something more; something that has intrinsic worth based on aesthetic merit? And so why base so much of its value on who made it?

There can be very good reasons to judge art by who made it rather than by merely appreciating the thing itself. Take two indistinguishable cubist paintings. “We might think they must have exactly the same aesthetic features and value,” and yet we would be wrong, says Matthew Kieran, professor of philosophy and the arts at the University of Leeds, in England. “One work was produced by Picasso and was the first cubist art work, the other was produced by me last year. Only the Picasso is original, brave, daring and revolutionary, whereas mine is at best an academic pastiche.”

No doubt. But it’s also worth imagining what would happen if Vincent van Gogh had died an utter unknown, without any of his paintings ever having been seen or saved. A hundred years later “The Starry Night” turns up at a yard sale, a grimy orphan. Would it be recognized as a masterpiece?

The answer is, regrettably, probably no. Even so, it isn’t unreasonable to put so much stock in the reputations of artists, says Jonathan Gilmore, an art critic who teaches philosophy at Yale: “If we don’t have enough time or attention to look at every painting, it’s better to invest what time and attention we have in considering the work of recognized masters.” To that practical reason he adds an aesthetic one: “Our interest in the work by a great artist reflects a relatively justified approach by which we deal with our uncertainty about what is a great work of art.”

Given that uncertainty, we might want to be more open-minded when we encounter art of dubious provenance, allowing ourselves to judge and appreciate works for their quality rather than their attribution. Who knows, maybe Uncle Earl was an artist with something to say.

Eric Felten, Wall Street Journal


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