Our next contribution in the Watchman symposium is from Derek Fincham, who is an associate professor at South Texas College of Law in Houston, where he teaches Legal Research and Writing and Art Law. Derek has a Ph.D. in Cultural Heritage from the University of Aberdeen King’s College and went to law school at Wake Forest. He writes about art and cultural property at www.illicitculturalproperty.com:
A lot of questions have been asked about the release of Go Set a Watchman in the wake of the book’s announcement late last year. How should the novel be considered? Did Harper Lee really intend to release this early work after steadfastly refusing for decades?
I wondered whether the book might be a forged work of literature. My summer writing project has looked at how the law applies to disputes over the authenticity of visual art. Owing to the substantial sums of money at stake when a new work by a well-known artist surfaces, litigation is common. As a result, many artist foundations have made the unfortunate decision to withdraw from offering authentication opinions. I’ve discovered that fake works of art are far more common than you might think, and no museum or auction house can claim to be immune.
One thing about forged works of art: they are often matched to their time. A skilled faker has the advantage of combining the stylistic elements of the earlier artist and can attach modern concerns and sensibilities to them. The art forger Hans van Meegeren faked works by Vermeer, and was the subject of a notorious trial in 1947 in which he demonstrated to a Dutch court that he had not sold a genuine Vermeer to Hermann Göring, but in fact had forged the work. And to demonstrate his forgery skills, van Meegeren painted a version of Jesus among the Doctors before the Dutch court. He faked works by Vermeer because they are exceedingly rare, and valuable. His most successful fake, Supper at Emmaus was praised as a change of style for Vermeer, depicting more emotion and different subject matter than the artist had used before. With the benefit of hindsight we can see the work as an obvious fake, one that has much clumsier line and color than any other Vermeer. Literature is a bit different of course. Writers don’t write for lone patrons generally, who keep a work for their own use. An author writes for a bigger audience.
So we should be cautious when a new undiscovered or hidden work of art is out of character or reveals something very contemporary about an older artist. Depicting Atticus Finch as a complicated man who feared the civil rights movement and advocated segregation dramatically changes how we think about the character. That change seems awfully contemporary. Almost too prescient given this nation’s continuing struggle with social justice and racial equality. Yet nearly everyone seems to agree that Watchman was authored by Harper Lee. The publisher and those releasing the work have consistently held Watchman out as an early draft of what came to be To Kill a Mockingbird. Some literature professors in Poland have even data mined the text, and analyzing the use of common words, found that Watchman is the work of Lee.
But even if this isn’t a forged work of literature, is it authentic? Is this a text Ms. Lee wanted included in her body of writings. That is a much more difficult question. Turning back to art history again, when the artist known as El Greco died, his workshop contained four or five copies of nearly every major work the artist had created. Some by his hand, some made with the assistance of his apprentices. Not all of those works should be considered works by El Greco. And even if a work has been created by an artist, they often shift styles so dramatically that they no longer want to acknowledge earlier works. Take the contemporary artist Gerhard Richter, who gave the art market a shudder after announcing he no longer claimed works of art from his early period. A period which differed substantially the style he has developed.
William Giraldi, writing in the New Republic, expressed skepticism surrounding the story of the publication of Watchman. He wondered whether the lawyer, caretaker, and publisher working on behalf of Ms. Lee have done something the author likely never would have. Lee is 89 years-old, suffered a stroke in 2007, lives in an assisted care facility, can see or hear very little, and may not have the mental capacity to consent to the publication of her long-shelved work. Giraldi pointed out that Lee’s sister, Alice Lee, would likely never have allowed the publication of Watchman. The Atlantic in March discussing the capacity of her sister: “She doesn’t know from one minute to the other what she’s told anybody”. The announcement that Watchman would be published came only three months after Alice Lee passed away at 103.
Perhaps the manuscript should have been left to future academics to study, and does not deserve all this fanfare. One of the core moral rights of an artist as its conceived in Europe is the ability to withdraw or disavow a work of art, or to claim authorship. These rights are more limited in the United States under the Visual Artists Rights Act, and would not apply to a work of literature. In an ideal situation an author certainly should be able to choose which works are or are not included in their life’s work. The Alabama Securities Commission, after questions of Ms. Lee’s capacity were raised, conducted an investigation and concluded Ms. Lee wanted the work published. And I guess will have to take that as the last word on Lee’s intentions. And yet given Ms. Lee’s condition and mental capacity, we may perhaps be able to add some fascinating elder law issues to the issues of race and civil rights that Watchman and Mockingbird have already raised.
-- Derek Fincham