Detail of Salvator Mundi, a Renaissance painting of Jesus possibly by Leonardo da Vinci.

“Lennon Sings Sinatra”

In the world of art there are generally four steps:

  • Creation
  • Production
  • Distribution
  • Acquisition

The artist comes up with an idea. That idea is then manifest in some outwardly physical (and possibly) repeatable form. Then that is put out in the world in some way.

The Creation part is as easy to understand as it is difficult to do.

The Production part can take various forms. For example, for a piece of music this might be writing it down in musical notation or recording it on some form of media, whether tape (that can be used to create things like albums) or as a digital file.

Then there is the Distribution. Certainly an artist who is only interested in the Creation part might not even go to the Production step, simply having the music in her head or performing it in the world yet not capturing it so that the performance is ephemeral. But she might want to create artifacts for her own use or edification. In this case, the work of art doesn’t go out into the wider world but it still exists in a form that someone else could have it. (E.g., If Renée Fleming sings in her shower, no matter how wonderful it is, it only exists in that period of time. If she records herself singing in the shower, then that performance exists after the time of the performance.)

In the case of something that has been created and transformed into some sort of artifactual being, there is the possibility for the Acquisition by others: Someone buys the painting or downloads the music.

While this is a linear model that leads from the creator to the object and vice versa, there are situations where there is a disruption because it very well may be the creator is not the person who is thought to be the person who has created the work in question.

Generally this is an issue with the visual arts. One of the most controversially famous instances is the painting “Salvator Mundi,” which is attributed to da Vinci. It sold at auction for $450.3-million in 2017. While one would think that anyone (in this case Price Badr bin Abdullah Al Saud) would want uncontroversial proof of the authenticity of the painting, which is thought to have been painted sometime between 1499 and 1510, before spending even a fraction of that amount of money, but as Scott Reyburn wrote in The Art Newspaper last November, “the fact remains that there is no conclusive way of determining that this was a painting executed ‘in whole’ by Leonardo.”

While it could simply be thought this is something that is only relevant to things that are some 500 years old, a couple weeks back an art dealer in Palm Beach pleaded guilty in federal court to selling fake works allegedly by Warhol and other contemporaries or near-contemporaries for some serous money. As reported in ARTnews, “In their final sting, in late 2021, the Art Crime team agreed to purchase a collection of works by Basquiat, Haring, Banksy, and Georgia O’Keeffe for $22 million.” Not “Mundi” money, but still.

Consider this. In 1971, with the Beatles dissolved, John Lennon moved to New York City. Although Frank Sinatra lived in Palm Springs, the man who made the song “New York, New York” famous was born across the Hudson in Hoboken. What’s more, he owned Cole Porter’s former apartment in the Waldorf.

Lennon was still at the top of his game then and Sinatra’s pipes were still doing a fine job of spreading the news. While the two were complete ideological opposites, Lennon must have had a certain amount of positive consideration for the singer who was arguably a pop idol before Elvis. And one can imagine that Sinatra, while thinking that Lennon was probably best described with a series of expletives, also respected Lennon’s spine.

In 1970 Hendrix established Electric Lady Studios at 52 West 8th Street.

So let’s imagine that at some point the two decided to meet there and see what happened.

While this seems to defy credibility, is it really so unthinkable given that an art dealer was trying to sell a work by Basquiat, who died in 1988 and who is therefore not obscured by time, for $12 million and would have likely gotten it were the bid not placed by the FBI?

The recordings were made by Lennon and Sinatra. They went into a vault. The few people who knew about them have since died. But somehow they are rediscovered. (Seem unlikely? “Salvador Mundi” was discovered in a closet in a flat in Naples.)

What would these recordings be worth? How many millions would be made from them for the performers’ respective estates?

But what if they were fakes, what if these songs were recorded by masterful mimics of the vocal stylings of Lennon and Sinatra? Just as it can’t be absolutely refuted that the da Vinci was done by another artist or artists, would it be possible, even with the most sophisticated sonic analysis, to fully know that this isn’t the case?

And if we go back to the original point about the creation of a work of art, if the Lennon-Sinatra collaboration was a fake, yet it couldn’t be proven to be so, would what is heard be any less audibly artistic than it would be if it was authentic? Does someone looking at the “Salvador Mundi” necessarily see it as anything but a da Vinci, and what happens to that aesthetic experience if it is fully proven not to be what it was thought to be?

This consideration is being made in the realm of actual painters and musicians making counterfeit objects. It seems as though that with neural nets the ability to create works that are indiscernible from what would otherwise be “real” is going to become all the more common.

So what becomes of the perception of art?

At the end of the day, isn’t it that we all think, “All I want is the truth/Just give me some truth”?

And Keats told us what we need to know about that.

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