Art: does authenticity matter?

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In Egypt, they’re all set to open an exact replica of the tomb of Tutankhamen. Fears about the tomb’s deteriorating condition have led authorities to create what is not a reconstruction of what it might have once looked like, but a copy of what it looks like now. Instinctively, I feel like there’s something wrong with this. If I’m visiting the tomb of Tutankhamen, I expect to stand in the exact place where the young king of Egypt was laid to rest. But it’s not like this is the only example.
The general reasons for using unauthentic copies for display – preservation of the original and/or lack of availability – seem perfectly reasonable, so why do I still feel like I’m being in some way cheated out of ‘the real experience’?

Think about other forms of culture. We still set great store by things like Shakespeare’s original manuscripts, which are on display in the British Museum, even though one might think that it’s really just the words that matter. Original Beatles vinyl records sell online for as much as £1,250, and sometimes even more; the new, remastered versions might sound ‘technically’ better, but they don’t provide the same air of authenticity.
This is because what we’re really looking for in our experience and reception of culture is something human. When I’m visiting the tomb of Tutankhamen, I’m not just looking at a nice piece of art, I’m experiencing an important moment in human history in the best way that I can. Studying cultural history can very easily remind us of how distant we actually are to these things. Reading an ancient Greek tragedy cannot tell us what it was like to watch it performed. That’s why we want to have a ‘real’ experience. We want to stroll through the actual streets of actual Pompeii, treading in the footsteps of people whose lives are incomprehensibly different to our own. When we experience culture through a copy or replica, we’re getting that much further from the art itself.

But how much does authenticity really matter? Clearly, we care about it deeply while we’re being offered the choice between a replica or the real thing, but what if we didn’t know? Pictures of the Tutankhamen replica, when placed alongside the original, show that there is little if any discernible difference between the two. If I were to visit, I’m sure I’d think I could tell the difference, but this would probably just be my imagination running away with me.

Let’s say that I think I’m standing outside the Pallazo della Signoria, looking at a lump of stone which a twenty-six-year-old Michaelangelo once carved into the Renaissance masterpiece which was, and is, the statue of David. Unfortunately, I’m unaware that it was replaced by a replica, and am therefore imagining myself to be experiencing all the culture and history of this magnificent work of art. It seems then that reasonably, authenticity doesn’t matter after all, as long as the viewer is unaware.

But in matters of culture, reason is surely a secondary issue. Even if I don’t know what the problem is while I look at this fake statue of David, the fact remains that from an outsider’s perspective there is a problem. Beyond thought and beyond reason, we care about authenticity. I can’t explain why it matters, but it really does.

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