The Value of Art and the Value of Love. Moral Relativism, Nietzschean Perspectivism and Questions of Authenticity

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2006

28 Pages, Grade: 1.5




Moral Relativism

Authenticity as a Moral Ideal

The Role of the Authenticator and the Value of Provenance

The Value of Artwork in the Marketplace

Postmodern Artists’ relation with Precursors

Fictional Autobiography

The Connection between ‘Value’ and ‘Price’




Set in the art world of the early nineteen-eighties, the elements ‘Theft’ and ‘Love’ abound in a turbulent adventure of pretence and deceit, deftly written in a genre-mix of crime story, romance, fictional Künstlerroman and fictional memoir, with traces of biographical data from the author. This essay examines Peter Carey’s novel Theft: A Love Story (2006) from the aspect of a particular depiction of ‘Truth and Lies in a Postmodern Sense’, which I intend as a pun on Nietzsche’s essay ‘On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense’ (1873). Moreover, I seek to apply Nietzsche’s epistemic thesis of perspectivism, according to which any act of understanding depends on the dispositions and biases built into the perspective out of which it was made.

Perspectivism is a useful theory that can be applied to examine the motivation of many characters in Theft. The novel is preoccupied with dishonest dealings in which the concept of theft pervades throughout and even intrudes into the world of private relationships; it shows morals being no longer conditioned by any commonly held universal truths, such as ‘good or bad’, ‘right or wrong’. Instead, all moral categorical imperatives have lost their absolute meaning and are shown to have been subsumed under various relative points of view, a subjective preference of each individual – features that seem to have become characteristic of postmodern society.

The main characters in the novel exhibit a moral relativism that goes against the Kantian maxim that each person should be treated as an end, never as a mere means to our ends.[1] Moral relativism and the perspective of a wounded ego of a divorcee might even show to be the author’s emotional dilemma with which he faces his own ethical problem in the book: there frequently emerge difficulties for readers not only in deciding which characters are actually fictional, but also how many autobiographical references can be detected, if the reader assumes that the protagonist with his bitterness for his ex-wife might be set up as an alter-ego figure.

Moral Relativism

In a postmodern world, objective or universal values no longer exist as absolutes; rather, they have become vantage points of a morality that is relative to a subject’s position. With the exception of the character Hugh Bones, the novel’s second narrator, Carey carefully sets up characters’ excessive individualism and marred moral attitudes. Hugh’s narration provides much of the provincial family history. His voice alternates with Michael ‘Butcher’ Boone, the angry brother, who seeks revenge on the art world, its dealers, critics, curators and buyers. Michael Butcher’s damaged ego dramatizes this extreme position: persistent rage resulted from a divorce that left him destitute and caused the erosion of his self from the loss of wife, house, son, his early works, imprisonment, and subsequent marginalization of his works by the art market.

However, at similar vantage points, fellow travellers can sometimes, for a while, share strong mutual support and understanding. Egocentrism proliferates in Theft and, behind the surface of appearances there is corruption, greed and fraud at the centre of the novel’s actions. The novel’s characters cheat and use each other’s flaws and attributes mercilessly in their mad quest for money and happiness. Butcher himself, whose self-pity and ego – wounded from the loss of fame, fortune, and the potential for immortality through his beloved art – screams at the reader, is initially the weakest link in the massive chain of theft. By petty embezzlement and misuse of credit, Butcher seeks to take his revenge on the art collector, Jean-Paul Milan, who had previously invested in Butcher’s work, but had also bought his paintings so cheaply that, to Butcher, it had been theft personified. However, Butcher wants more than this cheap revenge on the likes of Milan and is easily manipulated by Marlene’s physical attractiveness, smitten by her caring attention for his brother and flattered by her endeavours to restore his artistic recognition. Bonded by similar provincial Australian backgrounds, to the controlling market of New York, they are both outsiders, who share common interests, in particular a passionate understanding of art and a strong longing for revenge on the very establishment of the art world, its dealers, critics, curators and buyers. From their views of the world, they recognize each other as soul-mates.

Consequently, Butcher, in those things which he seeks and loves, gradually comes to regard their relationship as a special one, distinguished by Marlene’s exclusive honesty towards him. But Marlene is an amoral scoundrel; she is prepared to do what it takes to get what she wants: total control over her husband’s droit moral [2] as the route to money-making. Her utilitarian approach in relation to others is a tendency that seems to be intrinsic not only to the art market, but to all human activities and seems to be the prevalent attitude in society at large.

In adopting a relativistic view, rigid boundaries become permeable, such that impediments to success should and can be removed – as Butcher does with the insects from a stolen canvas. In his review, the critic John Updike comments that an unbridled egotism pervades the novel: “Theft is not a superb novel; there is something displaced at its heart. Its colorful means keep us at one remove from the central action, which, in retrospect, is perfidious and shocking.”[3] Updike then explains that the ‘something’ which is decentred in Theft, is the human subject – a subject who is lacking in substance: intrinsic value, individuality, and originality, in addition to any moral concerns for its willed actions and the possible impact on others these actions might have. The surface of make-believe and convincing others is what counts. Accordingly, Marlene, from Benalla, Australia, has transformed herself into a cosmopolitan expert on the subject of Leibovitz and claims the right to authenticate his paintings as her own. In her amoral view, the result justifies the deed and consequently, she acts without remorse. Not only is she prepared to steal the intellectual property of the droit moral from her ignorant and inept husband, but she is also prepared to commit the ultimate crime to finally attain it. The ability to wield power and to protect her position is her foremost concern.

When Marlene confesses the criminal history of the stolen Leibovitz painting and her own fraudulent dealings in that respect, Butcher is not shocked, but rather exited at her audacity. The more immoral energy she displays, the happier Butcher is to participate in the hoax of Le Golem électrique, even when it attains the level of fraud. Their partnership in crime fuels their love, such that with every new step taken in their journey of revenge, the bond grows tighter, at least for Butcher, who feels completely committed to the singularity of their partnership. Butcher, seemingly not overly worried about Marlene having murdered her husband, is however horrified when he realizes that Marlene, by planting her cunningly faked evidence at the crime scene, would callously be prepared to imply that Butcher’s own brother was the culprit. Marlene calls her use of intimate knowledge simply her “insurance”, but, for Butcher, her deed is unforgivable and he calls it “monstrous”.[4] At this point, Butcher stops short of any further complicity, as Marlene’s actions have decidedly crossed his personal, albeit extended, moral border. Anthony Hassall writes that both partake in “a sour, desperate world, in which the redemption offered by their genuine love for one another can only ever be partial and impermanent.[5] Marlene felt that she had to protect herself by adopting a strong position that would forestall the withdrawal of Butcher’s complicity. But for Butcher, trust has been betrayed and severed their bond; they can no longer be soul-mates and Butcher returns to Australia, where he leaves behind painting and settles for a quit life.

Authenticity as a Moral Ideal

Aesthetic judgement becomes corrupted when the value of originality and the artist as the source of creation is annihilated and value is conferred upon an artwork by desire for profit which robes it of its intrinsic value. On one hand, the novel puts forward the premise that forged, partly-forged, or even dubious works are miraculously transformed into originals and, on the other hand, originals can be transformed into objects of suspicion, doubt or disgrace. Ascend or descend of the status of artwork and artists is shown as following market rules. The novel shows how the greed for power and profit corrupts the morality of all parties involved: players in the global art economy have a propensity to cheat in order to fence in their reputation and status as fine art experts; consumers decide what to buy and how much to pay for artwork that at once acts as a status symbol and promises solid returns in future resale.

Carey presents a world where the value of art-work and the processes of art-making have finally succumbed to the logic of commerce and globalization of the postmodern; art, thus stripped of its intrinsic value, is reduced to a commodity and this commodification is further promoted as fashion trends hold sway for the big names in the market; names amplified by money, gives their art surplus value well beyond its aesthetic value. With the substitution of a disinterested aesthetic ideal as the base of evaluation, the “theft” is complete. Carolyn Bliss understands the novel’s philosophical and moral complexity as “an inquiry into the (im)possibility of truly moral art-making, a condition leading to an affirmation of the messy, often morally opaque life that dares art to represent it.”[6]

In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx remarked that one of the results of capitalist development was that "all that is solid melts in air. All that is holy is profaned." Although Marx’s laconic statement was originally directed against bourgeois modernism with its need to constantly revolutionize itself in order to create new markets, his prescient words can also be applied the culture of postmodernity in which permanence gives way to dissolution: the solid, lasting, often expressive objects of the past are being set aside for replaceable commodities and value is reduced to the abstraction of money.

The transformation that took place in the contemporary art market is attributed to the advent of a new power agency that has superseded the artist as the creator and primary endorser of originality: the authenticator has taken over from the artist as the guarantor for authenticity and even this crucial role is largely being usurped by the buyer, who simply claims the right to give the final verdict in what constitutes legitimate art.

The novel illustrates the process in which art is regulated and consumed by capitalism that covers a broad spectrum: from millions made in resale value in auction houses down to the kitschy dissemination for the masses. The moral decay in the international art market means that authenticity is no longer a quality that is considered as an a priori, or given without qualification, and the autonomy of art as a humanistic enterprise in the creation of an aesthetic ideal no longer holds true.

The Role of the Authenticator and the Value of Provenance

There are many thefts in the plot and the novel is particularly concerned with the meaning of authenticity, as a concept that refers to a convergence between how something presents itself and what it actually is, which is shown as being contested in both ontological and epistemological frameworks: aesthetic and moral values are constructed and subservient to economic values set up by authorities and institutional powers. Furthermore, the novel makes the claim that individual relationships work under the same utilitarian calculus: moral values become skewed when self-interest impedes trust between partners and duplicity is shown as a way of life in a world in which value and truth have become outdated concepts.


[1] Immanuel Kant writes in Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals (1785): “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”

[2] Authentication is the powerful right of the possessor of the droit moral— “the one,” according to Carey, “who gets to say if the work is real or false.” John Updike explains that “The right forms an entity under French law that can be inherited, just like a share of stock or a Limoges tureen.” (Updike in in “Blood and Paint: Australians in the art world”).

[3] John Updike, “Blood and Paint,” Review of Theft: A Love Story, The New Yorker, 29 May 2006. Online, n.p.

[4] Peter Carey, Theft: A Love Story (Sydney: Random House, 2007) 262.

[5] Anthony Hassall, “How Do You Know?” rev. of Theft: A Love Story, LiNQ 34 (2007): 111.

[6] Carolyn Bliss, “A Postmodern Kunstlerroman,” rev. of Theft: A Love Story, Antipodes 21.1 (2007): 85.

Excerpt out of 28 pages


The Value of Art and the Value of Love. Moral Relativism, Nietzschean Perspectivism and Questions of Authenticity
James Cook University
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Truth and Lies, Moral Relativism, Authenticity, droit moral, Provenance, fictional Autobiography, Perspectivism, Friedrich Nietzsche, Theft: A Love Story, Peter Carey, art market, painters, Originality, Value and Price, Postmodern
Quote paper
Dr Sabine Mercer (Author), 2006, The Value of Art and the Value of Love. Moral Relativism, Nietzschean Perspectivism and Questions of Authenticity, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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