Kiarostami and Goodman on the value of copies
Questions of forgery and authenticity abound in Abbas Kiarostami’s film Certified Copy. As a way of getting at these issues, I want to consider aspects of Goodman’s discussion of art and authenticity, found in his book Languages of Art. (Advance note: there will be spoilers.)
I do not wish to recreate the whole of Goodman’s discussion, for that would be tedious. I do wish to isolate a few core ideas from his discussion. Goodman begins by considering forgeries of paintings, and asks: can a difference between an original and a forgery that cannot be seen by a normal observer merely by looking make an aesthetic difference? More loosely: if you can’t tell the difference between two paintings just by looking at them, can they still be of different aesthetic value? (Goodman actually puts the question somewhat differently, since he is sensitive to complicating factors that aren’t relevant here.)
Goodman argues that “unobservable” differences can make an aesthetic difference. The cornerstone of his argument is that there are no clear bounds on what can be seen “just by looking”—not within observers and certainly not across them. He is right in both cases: were Goodman and I to look at the same painting, he would undoubtedly see a great deal more than I—hence what can be seen varies across observers. But, further, I could learn to see the painting as richly as Goodman does by learning to become sensitive to its aesthetically relevant features—hence what can be seen varies within observers over time.
It is the second case that is particularly crucial to Goodman’s argument. Two importance aspects of within-observer variation in what can be seen are pertinent. First, one learns how to see a painting, learns what is relevant, and this is a process. Further, as with any pedagogical matters, there are more than one ways to learn, and not all will be equally effective. Second, this process is always ongoing; it never comes to a definite end. No one reaches a point where she can see all there is to see, and in principle she can always develop her sensitivity further. One reason for this is that there simply is no definitive list of what a particular painting says. A painting may be truly seen and truly described in many ways (Goodman would add that these ways might even contradict one another), and there is no totality of the ways it can be truly described. (It is better to see this not as there being an infinity of ways to truly describe it, but rather as there being an indefinite number of ways to truly describe it.) Thus there is always open-endedness when it comes to seeing a painting, i.e. there is always the possibility of coming to see more.
These points can be augmented by recognition of the point that not only does one learn how to see paintings in general, one also learns to see particular paintings and styles of painting. Revolutionary art is revolutionary precisely because it upsets old ways of seeing and forces people to adjust to the new standards for seeing it sets. (This also explains why, once people have become inured to the new standards, the painting can cease to seem revolutionary.)
Keeping in mind that learning to see paintings is an open-ended process that applies both at a general level and to individual paintings, we can see why Goodman thinks that it makes an aesthetic difference whether or not a painting is a forgery. Knowing of two paintings that one is an original and one is a forgery matters because it tells one how to look at the paintings, provides information useful for knowing what to look for. Goodman’s fleshes out this idea (Languages of Art, 105):
In short, although I cannot tell the pictures apart merely by looking at them now, the fact that the left-hand one is the original and the right-hand one a forgery constitutes an aesthetic difference between them for me now because knowledge of this fact (1) stands as evidence that there may be a difference between them that I can learn to perceive, (2) assigns the present looking a role as training toward such a perceptual discrimination, and (3) makes consequent demands that modify and differentiate my present experience in looking at the two pictures.
Note that Goodman is not saying that the original is automatically better than the forgery—it might not be.
I have thus far followed Goodman in talking about painting, but it is worth noting that the above points about learning to experience a work of art apply to all art forms. There are, however, differences. In a certain sense, while one might forge a copy of a painting, one cannot forge a copy of, say, Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Why not? Goodman introduces a distinction between autographic and allographic art. Autographic art is that which permits of forgeries. There can only be one original Mona Lisa; all others are fakes of one sort or another. Allographic art, on the other hand, cannot be forged. I own Certified Copy on Blu-ray, as do many other people, and each of us is watching the original film. None of us are watching mere copies. Likewise, Gould and Perahia’s performances of Bach’s Goldberg Variations are performances of the same work—neither is in any sense a forgery.
What distinguishes autographic from allographic art, according to Goodman, is that for allographic art forms there exist definitive tests that will distinguish an original from a copy. A copy of a painting might get taken for the original (no definitive test exists unless you already know which one is the original), but a performance that is not of the Goldberg Variations is always easy to spot: it doesn’t follow the score. This hits on what Goodman thinks is the crucial difference between allographic and autographic art: allographic art involves some form of notation that will allow one to establish a definitive test of authenticity: faithfulness to what is notated.
Before moving away from Goodman and toward Kiarostami, I want to focus on one last case that Goodman discusses. Goodman does not think that the distinction between autographic and allographic art is hard and fast. Because allography depends upon notation, and because it is possible to develop a notation for an art form that lacks it, an autographic art may eventually become allographic. In this capacity, Goodman discusses dance, which might seem to be an autographic art, but for which several people have attempted to develop notation systems (indeed, the cover of Languages of Art is just such a notation). So dance exists on the border between autography and allography.
I bring up dance because it allows me to make a brief detour through Nietzsche (I can’t resist) and in so doing effect the transition between Goodman’s philosophy and Kiarostami’s film. Nietzsche is relevant because he often describes life in terms reminiscent of works of art—especially dance. In Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche claims, “High culture will resemble a daring dance, thus, requiring, as we said, much strength and flexibility” (§278, Faber translation). And in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he is even bolder: “I would only believe in a God who could dance.” Life, for Nietzsche, is substantially like dance.
If I may imaginatively extend Nietzsche in light of the discussion of Goodman, we might see Nietzsche’s critique of morality as a critique of attempts to develop a notation for human life: just follow this script, and you will be a good human being. Of course, as with a music score, the script leaves a great deal of room for how it is to be followed, and these differences of performance may be tremendously important, but the notation system nonetheless isolates a single set of aspects of human life as essential, and in this way makes all people performances of the same work (if they live up to the “score” at all).
Against this, Nietzsche urges that every detail of a person’s life is essential. On one reading of his doctrine of the eternal recurrence (a reading I rather favor), one lesson it teaches is that were one’s life to be repeated with even the slightest difference in detail is not to repeat it at all—it becomes someone else’s life. Hence to affirm even one moment of one’s life is to affirm every moment. You cannot just affirm the beautiful and despise the ugly and evil, for each is necessary. Indeed, that is why Nietzsche in other places (I forget where specifically) talks about learning to see what is beautiful in what is necessary, which for him amounts to making what is necessary beautiful. One instance of this comes in The Gay Science: “Pardon me, my friends, I have ventured to paint my happiness on the wall” (§56, Hollingdale translation).
Life, then, is autographic. Certified Copy makes this point vividly, and in a way that multiplies the complexities of distinguishing originals and copies. Goodman, in his discussion, starts from the assumption that we have a determinate original and a determinate copy, and works from there. In Certified Copy, there is a world of copies, with the originals always out of sight. But, I want to suggest, Certified Copy is equally a world of originals—indeed precisely the theme of the film that I wish to explore is that the boundary between originals and copies is not at all a hard and fast one. Goodman’s discussion takes place with a static view: here is a painting, and here is a copy of it. They are extended in space, but not time. The copies in Certified Copy are extended in time, however, and that makes all the difference.
Certified Copy is a rich, complex film, and I will not do it justice. I am isolating only one strand of it, albeit a major one. Because it is such a complex film, I don’t know how clear I can make the following discussion to those who have not seen it. Nevertheless, I will attempt a basic summary that will orient the reader to the overarching structure of the film. James Miller has written a book called Certified Copy, in which he suggests that copies are worth every bit as much as originals. The film opens by showing him giving a talk in Italy, which is attended most importantly by a woman and her son, Julien. (The woman never gets a name, so I will henceforth call her ‘the mother’.) The mother runs a shop that sells copies of antiques, and this seems to be the pretense for her meeting James at some time after the lecture. (Her son suggests that the real reason is that she wishes to fall in love with James.) They end up spending the afternoon together, visiting a small town in Italy. In a scene in a café, the waitress mistakes James for the mother’s husband, and the mother plays along. From this point onward, the straightforward narrative of the film becomes warped, and going forward the film proceeds with James and the mother increasingly acting like a married couple—not playacting, mind; it seems that somehow things have changed and they in fact are married.
This deliberate ambiguity about what is real I do not intend to deal with, on the grounds that I do not yet fully understand it. Instead, I want to focus on what is constant in the film: its exploration of the question of the value of originals and copies. The film never answers the question; rather, I suggest that it reveals the question to be on some deep level misguided. This has to do, as mentioned above, with the fact that entities and events are extended in time and not just space, so you cannot get a static vision: here is the original, here is the copy. Originals and copies take on different histories and so accrue different values.
There is an explicit example of this just before the major shift-point of the film. The mother has taken James to this small town to show him a famous painting in a museum. The painting was for centuries renowned as an original, but, 50 years before when the film is set, was discovered to be a copy. Nevertheless, after the discovery, it remains displayed in the museum, remains the one of the prides of this town. Though it is a copy, its centuries of association with the town make it as valuable to them as an original. In an interesting exchange, James gets frustrated with a tour guide who is explaining the history of the painting—James thinks he need not have mentioned that it is a copy. The mother thinks people have to know (presumably so that, following Goodman, they know how to look at the painting properly), but James thinks it a matter of total indifference. The painting has, in his view, taken on a life of its own, independent of the history of its origins. It speaks for itself and has its own value, independent of the painting of which it is (or once was?) a copy.
This is the simplest example in the film, dealing still with paintings. It is possible to take a static view of paintings, even if perhaps one ought not. With life itself, though, things are more complicated, and it is life that is the real context in which the film’s central question is posed. Life, by definition, is animate, is always moving and changing. At one point James suggests that promises are foolish precisely because they attempt to impose some constancy on this flux, a flux that soon leaves the conditions in which the promise was made behind, and hence leaves the promise looking ridiculous and effete.
The connection between copies, originals, and life itself is made right at the start of the film, as we see James giving his lecture. He discusses an etymological connection between our word ‘original’ and a Latin root connected to giving birth. Creation of an original is an act like that of giving birth, he suggests. But what is it we give birth to? The metaphorical treatment of creating an original as akin to giving birth draws a connection between the artistic process and childbirth, and in this context James suggests that, at least in some sense, children are copies. Namely, they are DNA copies of their parents. Not exact copies, to be sure, but all of the genetic material that so thoroughly determines goes into “building” a child is copied from two people.
This thought that children are copies of their parents recurs later in the film, when the mother says (to James) that Julien is the spitting image of his father. (“Spitting image” is the phrase of the subtitle, but the mother is in fact speaking Italian and uses the phrase “copia conforme”. The translation thus fails to capture the explicit connection with the title of the film.) This occurs just after the café scene, and so at this point James “is” her husband, and hence by implication is Julien’s father. Her annoyance with her son mirrors an annoyance with James of a moment before, so I think it is clear that she is comparing Julien to James. So Julien is a copy of his father, yet he is also an original human being. A fairly trivial point in itself, but an illustration of the fuzzy line between originals and copies. (I also suspect that there are a great number of ways that Julien and James mirror one another in their relationships to the mother, and that studying these is crucial to understanding the film as a whole. But that is a task outside my concerns here, and outside my current comprehension of the film regardless.)
The final example that I want to discuss, though not the final example in the film by any means, is the most central. It is also more speculative, but I think the clues are solid enough to establish that I am at least moving in the right direction. As James and the mother drive to the museum, the mother asks James to sign some books, including one for her sister Marie. In the ensuing discussion, it comes out that Marie agrees with James that copies are just as good as the originals—James applauds her ability to believe it without any complexities, whereas he had to write a book to convince himself of the idea. Marie’s husband, it turns out, stutters, and Marie considers his stammer of her name (“M-M-M-M-Marie”) to be a sort of love poem. In one of the film’s final moments, well after James and the mother have “become” a married couple, they are visiting the hotel where they stayed on their marriage night 15 years ago. The mother lies on the bed, looks at James, and says, “J-J-J-James.” My interpretation of these correspondences is that they suggest that James and the mother are, in an odd way, a kind of copy of Marie and her husband. (It is worth noting that Marie’s husband, like the mother, never is named.)
These three examples are hardly the only copies we see in the film. I think, however, that they are sufficient to draw a couple of conclusions about the nature and value of copies. As stressed above, every copy and every original has a history, and no copy can share the same history as the original it is copied from. Because historical details matter, an original and a copy can never be evaluated solely as original and as copy. What starts out as a copy immediately begins to diverge, immediately begins to become an original. The painting in the museum is an example of this: over time it accrued a significance that the original lacks, and hence, despite being a copy, it is still displayed. Julien provides an even clearer example: he is a “certified copy” of his father, but he is shaped by a distinct set of experiences and is certainly not the same person by any means. The world of Kiarostami’s film is a world of copies becoming originals.
What is particularly interesting about this aspect of the film is that this divergence always takes place in the absence of the original. The painting was initially thought to be an original, and was only later discovered to be a copy. Had it been known to be a copy from the start, it never would have had the chance to gain the significance it did (this, at least, is the implication). Further, by all appearances, Julien’s mother is a single mother—and even when she and James become a couple later, their interactions make it apparent that James has been frequently absent over the past 15 years. So Julien, too, has grown up apart from the original from whom he was copied. Likewise, Marie and her husband are never seen, only described. There are no originals in Certified Copy, only copies. The suggestion, I think, is that we can be so star struck by an original that tmight never give its copy the time of day. Since the film indicates at multiple points the importance of perception for the value of a work, ignoring a copy (or only ever seeing it as merely a copy) is as good as consigning it to always remain a copy.
The second conclusion has to do with the intriguing issue of simplicity and complexity. James may be a copy of Marie, but it is noteworthy that he is much more complex. Marie thinks only fools work hard in life; James has to work hard just to come to believe an opinion that Marie holds simply. What this suggests that it is in some sense easier to start out as an original: then one simply need not work to become an original. If, however, one begins as a copy, then it is a constant struggle to become original. In showing us a world only of copies engaged in this struggle, with originals appearing only in stories, as if they were mythical creatures, Kiarostami suggests that copies, like turtles, go all the way down. There are no originals, and hence there is no way of avoiding the difficult process of changing from copy to original.
Goodman, then, is right so far as he goes: no copy is identical to an original, so knowing that something is a copy rather than an original can be important in learning to spot those differences. But precisely because it changes how we perceive the copy, this knowledge is a double-edged sword. It can prevent us from ever giving the copy its due. Goodman’s emphasis on knowing what is an original and what is a copy seems much more important on a static view of things, whereas Kiarostami suggests that it is the historical view that matters most. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine which of the two is right.