:: Article

certified copies: notes toward a theory of the knockoff

By Erik Anderson.

1. Statement of the Question

A few years ago I was having dinner with a writer who, between bites of his steak, connected his reading of Viktor Shklovsky to the chairs at our table. Shklovsky had been a revelation, he said, because he no longer had to discuss what a text meant; he could focus instead on how it had been made. Didn’t that drain reading of a certain pleasure?, I asked. He pointed to the chair I was sitting on: what did I care what the chair meant? The only thing that mattered was whether the chair worked. Could I sit on it and, maybe, was it comfortable?

I have a question about beauty that begins at IKEA, though it hardly ends there. Maybe it’s better to say I’m curious about what kind of beauty is available to someone who shops at IKEA, what kind of beauty – if that’s the right word – a shopper seeks from the store. Is it fair, I wonder, to call this beauty cheap? Meretricious? This isn’t precisely my question.

I don’t intend to denounce the big blue store here. It has free daycare, after all, a cheap restaurant, and its showroom is a bit like a corn maze. You can spend hours getting lost on a rainy day for nothing more than the cost of a meal – and that’s only if you get hungry. More to the point, you can buy hip-looking furniture at cut-rate prices, stylish pieces that often look like they came from more fashionable stores. You can have good taste here, or at least the illusion of it.

Which is to say there are also reasons not to like the big blue store. I could raise concerns about consumerism, about where all these materials are coming from and how their manufacture and distribution are wreaking havoc. There were also those horses found in its meatballs, the fecal matter in its chocolate cake. Its founder was once a Swedish Nazi, and even the company admits that in the 1980s some of its furniture was built by East German political prisoners. If none of this turns you or your stomach away, there’s always the furniture itself to dissuade you, the designs that only seem original if, like me, you don’t know much about design.

IKEA’s Poäng chair

Take IKEA’s iconic Poäng chair, for instance, the cantilevered wood frame that curves like an S with the top cut off. It’s a lovely chair, and quite comfortable, but it’s a rip-off of a design by the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, whose lounge chair 406 predates IKEA’s by four decades. The differences are in the quality of the materials and in the fact that you have to assemble IKEA’s, which somewhat undermines the fluidity you see in Aalto’s design. And there’s one other difference: you can still buy Aalto’s chair, it just comes at twenty times the cost.

So isn’t this a good thing, you might say: IKEA has brought the world of high design to the masses. We can all own a version of this paragon of style at a fraction of the price. Which brings me to the two Poäng chairs I bought one recent Saturday and assembled, beer in hand, in my living room. I had mixed feelings about buying them, and I hadn’t even learned they were knock-offs yet, although I suspected something of the sort. In the showroom I was worried they might mark me, logically enough, as the kind of person who shops at IKEA. I’ve never been fond of logos, but the more anonymous chairs I preferred were more expensive, and so my wife’s will and my own cheapness prevailed.

If the episode means anything – if our decision to buy the chairs is at all representative of the decisions that take place at IKEA every day – it may be that the kind of person who shops at IKEA is, above all else, on a budget. We are willing to privilege cost over integrity, but we prefer that style surrender nothing, or very little, to cost. We are people with some measure of taste, but not nearly enough to see how and when we’re being tasteless. We value pragmatism over originality. We are relentlessly bourgeois, and we know it.

Alvar Aalto’s 406 lounge chair

That’s one view of it, anyway. Another would note that Aalto’s chair revises an earlier version designed for a tuberculosis sanatorium in 1933, and that this chair, named the Paimio after the sanatorium itself, borrows liberally from a metal chair designed by Bauhaus member Marcel Breuer a decade earlier. Breuer, in turn, claimed to have been inspired by his bicycle. In his mind, one imagines he bent the handlebars even more, stretching and shaping them into a chair. Aalto flattened Breuer’s tubes into slats before refining further, and it was only years later when someone at IKEA figured out how to mass-produce what had initially been a bicycle and sell it for a song to people who might know the difference between a chair and a bicycle but not the difference between one iteration of an idea and the next.


2. Materials

The chair, simply put, is a marvel. What a delight to sit without supporting the weight of one’s torso, to lean back and look out the window – at the squirrels, the blue jays, the light streaming in through the branches of an oak tree. To think that for millennia the chair was a symbol of power, often carved out of marble or ivory. The muckety-mucks in their palaces had chairs, but commoners sat on stools or benches, or else on the ground. It was only during the Renaissance that people began to realize how great the chair could be, how silly that so few could sit in one. The throne gave way to the armchair, the monarchy to the assembly, and the idea of a chair you couldn’t sit in, a chair of limited utility, fell out of fashion. The meaning of the chair, withheld for so long, became meaning for the people.

A few weeks after assembling my chairs, I visited the Barnes Foundation’s new museum in downtown Philadelphia. I had been warned about the building, which paled, friends said, in comparison to the original, a peculiar mansion at the center of a twelve-acre arboretum, located in the wealthy suburb of Lower Merion. Built in the 1920s for the early pharmaceutical mogul Albert C. Barnes, the house was never meant to be lived in but to display Barnes’s wide collection of late nineteenth- and early  twentieth-century art, which is precisely what it did until, in 2002, the foundation he established to administer the collection announced plans – counter to the wishes set out in his will – to move to a new building downtown.

The new Barnes essentially replicates the old one. Even the layout on the walls reproduces Barnes’s vision for the collection: the paintings are displayed pretty much as one would have seen them fifty years earlier, albeit in a new location. But for critics of the move, that little caveat makes all the difference. Jed Perl, writing in The New Republic , claims that “a replica of a room…has an effect on a visitor that is utterly if subtly different.” “No replica of a space,” Perl continues, “no matter how exact it may be, is anything but a poor substitute—a simulacrum.” The original space, however, was no less of one: its rooms were simulacra of rooms, and I can only imagine the experience of walking through the house was “utterly if subtly different” than walking through one designed for people, not paintings.

Barnes Foundation, original location of Matisse frieze

At least the new Barnes acknowledges that it is first and foremost a museum – one that does not merely simulate the spaces of the old one but preserves them. Whatever else the new building is, its primary exhibit is the old museum. It is a museum within a museum, a simulacrum within a simulacrum, and if walking through it is a degraded experience, it is nonetheless a strange and complex one. Imagine building an exact copy of the interior of the Guggenheim within a new superstructure. What kind of experience would it be to walk the new building’s descending spiral? The copy could not help but point to the absent original, which you would nonetheless inhabit through the copy.

Something similar happens at the Barnes. The architects have designed a structure that ensures you won’t mistake the copy for the original even as it invites you to do precisely that. Approaching the building from outside, you walk along a reflecting pond before taking a sharp left towards the entrance. The door is not in front of you at this point, but on your right. Once inside, you must turn immediately to the left to enter the small first lobby, then left again into a short corridor, before finally turning once more to the right, at which point you enter the much larger lobby that serves as entrance to the collection. This zigzagging is purposefully disorienting, and in entering the building you are not simply walking through a door, you are pushing your way through the various layers that exist between the outside world and the collection – layers that include the failed lawsuits to keep the Barnes at its old location. The framing structures (the reflecting pond, the small first lobby, the larger second one, the coffee bar, the gift shop, etc.) are precisely that: they contextualize our experience. They point at the thing but are not the thing itself.

But if the old building isn’t merely being replicated in the new one, then what is? As much as I want to agree with those, like Perl, who prefer the original to the copy, the spaces that matter most in the collection, either now or then, are not the ones that surround the paintings but the ones that exist between them. Barnes arranged what he called his ensembles in terms of light and shape, but a chaste Renoir is also offset, on the opposite wall, by a salacious Courbet, a painting of a slaughtered pig by one of the crucified Christ. Barnes’s arrangements force you to focus on the images and, more importantly, the relationships between them. Withholding the usual labels that identify artists and titles is another means to the same end: without the lure of the name, you must first accept the lure of the image. That this dynamic is not only intact but arguably enlivened in the copy is a testament to its success.

Barnes Foundation, new location of Matisse frieze

As for integrity, there may be no greater argument for replication than the one made by the collection itself. Art, Barnes believed, was a matter of infinite theme and variation – a conversation about form that took place through the paintings, between artists and viewers, often over centuries and across cultures. Imagine concluding, on the basis of the Mona Lisa, that one should never paint a portrait of a woman again. I’ll grant that it isn’t precisely the same claim made by Barnes purists, but it boils down to what is, at root, a similar conservatism that insists some things cannot be improved upon, and in fact can only degrade as they depart from the original.


3. Description of the Experiment

The idea is to construct a chair using only the materials immediately available to you, those items you might find in your office or, at most, the confines of your house. The only criteria for success is whether the chair “works,” less in actuality than in theory: it doesn’t matter whether you can sit in the chair but whether someone could theoretically sit in it, regardless of how well it’s constructed and to whatever effect (e.g., the chair collapses). But this may be overstating the case, and to the degree that we want to assess the chair in vacuo – to the degree that we want to view it objectively – a successful chair may be any set of materials brought together under the rubric of chair.

Elaine Scarry argues, in On Beauty and Being Just, that beautiful objects incite, even require, their replication. Scarry is talking about more than influence here: she is talking about Matisse plagiarizing the imprint of the palm tree for a series of paintings made in Nice. Matisse’s paintings succeed, in her analysis, because of the originality of his plagiarism: he copies the beauty of the palm in ways it hasn’t been copied before. Beauty here is something inherited or derived. It is a matter of copies.

But if we follow the line of thinking far enough it isn’t long before we find ourselves in trouble, as, by Scarry’s logic, the palm tree may also be a thief, having copied its beauty from some earlier, more fundamental form. If beauty is traceable through time, if there is an original beauty from which all others – copies of copies of copies – derive, beauty becomes static, even monolithic (whereas the vicissitudes of fashion, if nothing else, would seem to indicate otherwise: one era’s fashion is rarely another’s, even if trends are recycled). If beauty were solely, or even mostly, a matter of replication, it stands to reason that the new Barnes would not be a contested site. If, on the contrary, beauty is a conversation, then the objections to the building become part of its aesthetic (dis-)pleasure.

While it’s tempting to conceive of beauty – or at least the idea of beauty – as a constant whose vestiges resound over time, beauty is also situational. It arises as conditions allow. It is difficult to imagine the experience of beauty inside a gulag, though some have certainly claimed to have found it there. But what’s beautiful in the gutter, or the gulag, is rarely the same as what’s beautiful on the terrace, and even supposing the two happen to align, they are often beautiful in different ways, for different reasons. The palm tree outside the homeless shelter may be as beautiful as the one outside the mansion across town, but how could the experience of the former possibly be of the same order as the latter, hemmed in as the shelter is by want, the mansion by plenty?

And anyway, who would say that either tree is beautiful only to the degree that it both conforms to and departs from an ideal? There are so many other factors that go into making a tree (or any object or experience) beautiful, factors that have nothing to do with the tree.  Suppose in the end I don’t find Matisse’s paintings all that beautiful, much less the palm trees that inspired them. Suppose I find Joan Mitchell’s abstractions to be more beautiful, Agnes Martin’s even more so, and at least in part because I don’t like Matisse. Suppose what moves me most in a work of art is not what it represents but, as Barnes believed, the way it invites me to look.

To see the original as no less conditional than the copy may just be more workable than the opposite, in which beauty is an ontological question. If any beauty I encounter is, by virtue of its being a copy, a mediated experience – and potentially degraded as a result – the world in which the work of art is created, or copied for that matter, becomes a secondary one on a hierarchy of being. My IKEA chair, like the new Barnes, is of a lesser order than the originals, themselves lesser versions of ideal chairs and museums. Were this the case – and I like to believe it’s not, or at least not entirely – it could only be a disastrous situation for art. It would suck the air out of the space between the viewer and the view.


4. Hypothesis

It may not be enough to ask whether the chair works, whether it serves its purpose. The chair cannot, perhaps, be validated on its own terms, or rather it may not be enough for me to ask whether the chair works because in asking that question, I’m also asking another: does the chair work for a person in general and, more specifically, for me? I might not be able to interpret the chair solely on its basis and without reference to criteria external to it, which will be both objective and subjective in nature, since what makes for a good chair varies from one person to the next and from one discipline to another (e.g., furniture-making, architecture, history – even fields like criminology or religion, in which a stiff chair may be preferable to a cushy one).

On the surface, the experiment appears to be a test of materials: if you have a lot of cinder blocks in your house, you will likely build a more durable chair than if you have lots of loose sheets of paper. But there is another dimension to the experiment that has to do with the experiment itself: are you testing the materials or are you testing the idea of building a chair? Suppose it is this second layer of the experiment that intrigues you. Suppose you realize that rather than building a chair, you can substitute something for it – your heaviest dictionary for example. You call your dictionary a chair, and it is indeed true that you can sit on it. You produce other such chairs out of wasp nests, chunks of graphite, vintage pornography, and fingernail clippings. Experts validate your chairs, perhaps producing their own out of flowers, legal testimony, and automobiles in turn. Eventually you are given an endowed professorship in chairmaking. You are invited on national TV. It’s better not to know anything about making chairs, you say to the smiling host. Some chairs are not meant to be sat on, but both of you, naturally, are sitting on expensive ones.

Months before my fateful trip to IKEA, I watched Abbas Kiarostami’s 2010 film Certified Copy, and, as I realize now, something moved in me. I had already started writing this essay, which I wouldn’t actually begin for some time.

Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy

The film is, in part, a copy of Richard Linklater’s 2004 Before Sunset, and like Linklater’s film, Kiarostami’s traces an itinerary from the relatively anonymous space of a public reading at the beginning to the intimate space of a bedroom at the end. The conversations between the two couples in each respective film are correspondingly progressive in their intimacy: in Before Sunset you have the feeling of watching two people fall in love, and in Certified Copy the apparent revelation halfway through is that the people who seemed at first to be strangers may in fact be a married couple.

Nothing much happens in either film. The couples walk and talk, and as they move through their rarefied European spaces – Paris and Tuscany, respectively – the camera doesn’t leave them alone for a moment. It is as though we were watching the couples in real time, voyeurs to their private dramas. That we know very little of what came before these snapshots, and nothing of what comes after, is an important feature of this particular brand of realism: the backstory is no more vital to the films than the resolutions to the conflicts within them. We have only the magnetism of the attraction (or repulsion) between characters to sustain us, and it is ultimately the muck of their relationships that entertains.

From there the films diverge, and the romance of Linklater’s is, in Kiarostami’s, replaced by a relationship that might not make it past the film’s final frames. Kiarostami’s film is also aware of itself as a piece of art in a way that Linklater’s isn’t. He relishes the metadiscourse around filmmaking; Linklater mostly avoids this. Certified Copy even takes a certain pride, per its title, in its status as a copy, and one of the claims that it makes is that a copy can be just as beautiful, if not more so, than the original.

Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset

Whether or not Kiarostami’s characters actually believe that is another question. The husband in the film, James (played by William Shimell), has written a book about copies, and the argument for copies in and of themselves seems to be his. But in person he resists the copies of artworks they look at first in his wife’s shop, then in a museum, and finally in a square the two visit. It appears to be the couple’s anniversary (either that or their whole relationship has been condensed to a single afternoon), and they may be partly retracing the itinerary of their wedding day. But when they encounter a young couple on their own wedding day, James wants nothing to do with them, nor does he seem to want anything to do with the most intimate of copies of and in his life – his adolescent son. For James, in short, delighting in the copy may be mostly an intellectual exercise, better in theory than in practice.

His unnamed wife (Juliette Binoche) is a more sympathetic character. She believes in the agency James’s theory of copies gives the viewer: such agency means that what matters is the engagement a work invites. What is eternal in the sculpture they come across in the square – also a copy, we gather – is not its relationship to the original version but the gesture both original and copy enact: the woman placing her head on the man’s shoulder.

But James doesn’t have time for eternity: he has a train to catch. Like Linklater’s Jesse (Ethan Hawke), whose real name is James and whose flight home looms over the action in Before Sunset, Kiarostami’s male lead is working against the clock. Where Jesse feels his departure coming too quickly, James’s can’t come soon enough. He appears increasingly bored and irritated as the film goes on, and the carefully constructed distances between him and his life collapse. He may be the proponent for the virtues of the copy, but the idea that his marriage might be an imitation – if not of other marriages than of his marriage itself – galls him. He has been trying to convince himself of his own idea. But he has failed: the copy may be good enough for others, but it isn’t good enough for him.

For James’s wife, however, the question of the copy hardly matters in the end. She’s more practical than that: she wants to live with the things that inhabit her life, regardless of how she might intellectualize them. You could almost say that insomuch as she’s a mother mostly parenting their son on her own, she doesn’t have a choice. The original is a luxury, a privilege she can’t afford. As such, she makes do with the copies.


5. Results

It is no doubt easier, and infinitely more practical, to sit in an actual chair rather than a conceptual one, but what’s unsettling about the experiment is that, as everyone intuitively knows, no one spends $9 billion on a particle collider to study how it was constructed. That would be a bit like visiting Mount Rushmore to admire the terrace. Either way, we have perhaps returned to the Middle Ages, if we ever left them – producing objects of limited utility, objects of tremendous symbolic power (symbolic, that is, of power), whose meaning, for most, is prohibitive.

If what’s true of the unnamed wife in Certified Copy is true for viewers as well, is our experience necessarily diminished, our simulacra poor substitutes – especially if we don’t know (or don’t care) that the copy is a copy? Or, to turn that question around, whose experience is enriched by the originals if not those who possess them? The copy may glorify no one, but the original glorifies its owner most of all. What’s strange is that, as viewers, we somehow share the owner’s concern. Imagine the person who would prefer seeing a copy of a painting over the original. Imagine the person who would willingly pay top dollar for a fake Matisse. And yet if you were to put the two side by side without saying which was which – if you could no longer rely on provenance – then it would be much harder, except in the case of greatly inferior copies, to develop a criteria of preference.

In the Barnes Foundation, for example, that copy of an art museum, I was drawn to a painting by Hieronymous Bosch. The visionary quality in Bosch’s work has always stood out to me as something of a miracle: if ever there was an original, it was him. So imagine my surprise when, after a few minutes alone with the painting, an older couple entered the gallery and the woman told her companion, when they came around to the Bosch, that it was a copy.

Hieronymous Bosch’s Triptych of the Temptation of St. Anthony

I found myself unconsciously dismissing the painting as inferior, but was it? I had reacted strongly to the canvas before I knew it was a copy, but not because it was an original: the painting spoke to me on its own merits. Now that I knew it was a copy, would my appreciation dissolve altogether? Isn’t this precisely the dilemma in which Kiarostami’s James finds himself? Intellectually, he might argue that there’s no reason why the copy in the Barnes should be any less admirable than the original, but he might nonetheless expect me to respond as I would to spoilt milk. Part of this kneejerk reaction might be no less evolutionary than my inborn sense to avoid foods that may poison me, and perhaps the copy, like the fake, is intellectually and emotionally dangerous, but only if I know it’s a copy. If I don’t, then my experience of it can be as authentic, at least in my own mind, as the viewer who has the means to travel to the Portuguese museum where the original is said to hang.

Then again, maybe I have it backwards. Maybe the copy is only dangerous if I don’t know it’s a copy, since such ignorance could mean I’m being taken advantage of, as I might be should someone pass me a counterfeit twenty. When I know the painting is a copy, I still have the ability to enjoy it, even if I enjoy it as a copy, but I also would want to know – wouldn’t I? – whether the twenty in my pocket is a fake. Unless the clerk in the gift shop doesn’t know either, in which case I hand her the twenty and the rate of inflation goes up an infinitesimal amount. Suppose a similar devaluation (of esteem, if nothing else) happens in the case of the Bosch painting – or in the art world as a whole – is that really as much of a problem for me as a viewer as it is for those who own the originals? Is the threat posed by the copy less of an intellectual than an economic one? Is originality in effect a currency, its defenders (and their elaborate defenses) akin to national banks?


6. Analysis

Future readers might peruse some of the strange language machines built over the past few decades (this one included) with no small bewilderment, as though they were deformed chairs, poorly designed, and which, ultimately, are not meant to be sat in. But if I become little more than a button-pushing text operator, beholden to the systems I construct, then my writing might (under the banner of the experiment) seek to legitimize itself within the context of a formalism in which the tiny anarchy of the poem, say, or the large anarchy of the novel, has no discernible place. In lieu of an alternative program, or in advance of one, I can only record that the chair I have built out of discarded drafts of this report, though not altogether insubstantial, is insufficient to my frame.

If pragmatism trumps originality – if I am indeed someone who knows the difference between a chair and a bicycle but not the difference between one iteration of an idea and the next – then there should be no problem with the copy, regardless of whether or not I know it’s a copy. But what Kiarostami’s James feels in front of the sculpture – what I felt in front of my ersatz Bosch – suggests this isn’t the case. It suggests that pragmatism only substitutes for originality when the latter is out of reach. And the problem of justice, which may reflect the problem of beauty after all, is precisely that the originals, or the conditions of originality, are so often out of reach.

There’s something as bourgeois in cherishing the copy, then, as there is something elitist in cherishing the original, but whereas so few have recourse to such elitism, the conditions of most are manifestly those of the copy­ – or rather those of the copy of the copy, or the copy of the copy of the copy, as Baudrilliard might say. Even our knockoffs are knockoffs; and as for beauty, you have to get it where you can find it. If its mediation isn’t total, it may be near enough to obscure whatever remains of the genuine article, if that even exists. Of course, there’s also something bourgeois in the semantics at play here, and I can’t help feeling that if I could only divorce my IKEA chairs from words like original and copy, I might finally answer the question I still haven’t quite gotten around to asking. But even then I would need a place to sit.


Erik Anderson is the author of The Poetics of Trespass (Otis Books/Seismicity Editions, 2010). Recent work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Seneca Review, Unstuck, West Branch, and others. He teaches creative writing at Franklin & Marshall College.


First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 7th, 2014.