Sunday, August 1, 2010


I wonder why people care if something is an original, or "authentic."

Someone says "this is authentic Sicilian music" and people are primed to think it's better. But if you wouldn't know the difference between--someone had to tell you, after all--an old Sicilian song and one written by an American last year, why would you care?

In some cases, it makes sense to say "authentic" as a signal. A pizza palor in Boston is called "New York Pizza" and I think they advertise as "authentic New York style." Why? New York Pizza is the best kind of pizza, so it's a signal the product is good. It's also a costlessly cheap signal to send, so you shouldn't trust it. But a lot of people, who wouldn't know the difference between some shit baked in New Haven and a real New York slice, would care if it was "real" New York pizza. Why?

Authenticity makes people particualrly irrational in the art world. Few people can tell the difference between an authentic Picasso and a good replica by looking at the paintings. Maybe no one can. So why doesn't any care if they're buying a forgery? If you're an investor you should. If someone finds out, that investment is going to plummet in value. But suppose you're just a collector. All you can do with a painting is look at it.

You find the same kind of irrationality with new paintings. Someone says they discovered a lost Monet. Everyone looks at it and they form their opinions about how it looks and whether it's "real." Shouldn't the painting be valued based on how it looks? What kind of nut case cares who painted it? (If you get the utility from your paintings by using them as a signal that you're rich, as a way of saying, without saying it, that "look, I'm better than you because I can buy this expensive paintings" then I understand why you care. But you've got a lot of more serious problems. And why can't you just tape diamonds on the wall next to a replica?)

Sometimes I wonder if I'm crazy for just enjoying food, songs, and paintings I like instead of using (and changing) my tastes to project an image of who I want people to think I am. It's most people's revealed preference (at least among the rich) to do the later, so there's got to be something good about it? Then again, when you mention it this behavior to people, they deny it. I guess maybe they aren't so proud of it.

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