It's a rare pleasure and a small one at that – but there's something about a provocative museum label that can really lift the spirits. I encountered one just the other day, while visiting the Getty Villa in Malibu – a reproduction Pompeiian mansion that houses his collection of ancient artefacts. One of the highlights here is the Getty Kouros – one of those highly formulaic sculptures of male youths that advance towards you out of Archaic-era Greece, one foot slightly before the other and the torso crisply etched. The Getty acquired the statue in 1985 from a Basle dealer in antiquities but its subsequent history hasn't been entirely unclouded, as its description candidly reveals. It reads like this: "Greek, about 530 B.C., or modern forgery". Come across this without foreknowledge, as I did, and you'll probably do a double take at the insouciance of that phrase. Quite a lot rests on that "or", you think. After all we're not talking about a decade here and there in date of origin, or a few hundred miles between the possible site of its creation. This isn't a conjunction linking two equally acceptable alternatives. It's very much an Either Or. It's the real deal or it's bogus.
The Getty takes an educational approach to an object that in most galleries would constitute something of an embarrassment, something to be bustled away behind the scenes until the matter had been resolved one way or another. And though it's possible that this is just a way of clinging on to the attribution they'd prefer to have – it isn't entirely cynical. Follow the matter up beyond that brief label and you discover that it isn't entirely easy to resolve the matter. Certainly some dodgy documentation was supplied with the statue, and certainly it strikes some scholars as an odd collage of different styles. But then perhaps it's very oddity is proof that it's the real thing. If you knew enough about kouroi to forge one this well (though frankly, being doggedly formulaic in style they can't be that hard to forge) why not just stick to copying one model – rather than picking and choosing from several? If you want to push deeper still you can buy a book in the gift shop titled The Getty Kouros Colloquium, which goes into isotope analysis and tool marks and de-dolomitization, with experts bouncing from one side of the authenticity fence to the other.
See, says the Getty – attribution is a complicated matter and it's fascinating to think about these things, so we've left the statue here so that you think about them too. Which is fine as far as it goes – but I found myself thinking about something quite different as well, which is how this object helpfully exemplifies two very different forms of American cultural appropriation – purchase and reconstruction. I'd just arrived from Las Vegas when I saw it, so it's possible I was mildly obsessed with such issues – because Vegas is a kind of delirium of appropriation. They've got real art – which like everything else in that breathtakingly avaricious city – is offered on a pay-per-view basis – and they've got fabulously fake art, much of which you get for free because it's far too tacky to charge for. But – in a much more high-minded and admirable way – there's something of Vegas in the Getty Villa too. It's unabashed approach to architectural facsimile, for one thing – which in Sin City allows you to look across from the New York skyline to a detailed reconstruction of the Paris Opera and the Arc de Triomphe, and in Malibu produces a cut-and-paste reconstruction of a Roman villa, taking the peristyle from one archaeological site and the wall paintings from another. But there's also the cheerful way in which statues the museum couldn't acquire have been simply reproduced and placed around the interior and gardens. This is, it strikes you, is both quintessentially American and representatively Roman too – since so many of the genuinely ancient works in the collection are Roman emulations of Greek originals. And in the Kouros all of that seems to come together – the imperial admiration of an ancient civilisation and (possibly) the criminal exploitation of that admiration, the ability to purchase treasure wholesale and the willingness to re-create it when you can't. The Kouros must be one thing or the other, in truth and one day the matter might be finally resolved. But when the ambiguity goes the Getty will be a little poorer whatever the finding.
A sure-fire method of making it to the A-list
Can you remember where you were when you heard the news about Elliott Tittensor and Shelley Malil? What! You don't know either man from Adam? You must do. They are both stars, after all – a word which carries with it a certain expectation of name-recognition. At least they're stars according to the principle that any performer who is accused of a crime is immediately promoted to the A-list, so that the coverage will be more tantalising.
Just to jog your memory, Shelley Malil has had various supporting roles in movies, including "starring" in The 40 Year Old Virgin according to some reports – something that may come as news to Steve Carrell. Then Malil allegedly stabbed his girlfriend 20 times and achieved overnight stardom.
Elliott Tittensor, on the other hand, a long-running member of the Shameless cast, was propelled up the fame ladder after being allegedly involved in a hit-and-run incident early in Kentish Town early last Sunday morning.
"Shameless star Elliott Tittensor in hit-and-run arrest" was the headline on the BBC news site report, which at least didn't pull that classic evening newspaper trick of leaving the name unstated so that punters would shell out in the hope of discovering what had happened to David Threlfall.
Fortunately, perhaps, the ability to add a "star" clipping to your cuttings book is more than offset by the unwanted publicity – otherwise I think the crime rate among jobbing actors would be uncontrollable.
A novel approach for journalists
Like most journalists, I don't like to think too much about the long-term prognosis of the newspaper industry, but I did find myself wondering the other day whether there might be the thinnest of silver linings to the black cloud hanging over the profession. The thought was prompted by reading Jess Walter's excellent (and gratifyingly funny) novel The Financial Lives of the Poets, during a brief furlough from Booker duty. Walters dedicates his book to journalistic friends who have suffered from the contraction of regional journalism in the States. It concerns an out-of-work reporter who turns to marijuana-dealing to get himself out of a financial hole. Along with Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists (about hard times at a European English-language paper with a strong resemblance to the International Herald Tribune), that makes the second good novel I've read this year generated by the tribulations of the old media, and produced by writers whose creative energies – in a more prosperous climate – might have been fully occupied by newsprint. It's impossible to say how many great novels we've been denied by a flourishing daily press over the last hundred years or so, distracting all that talent that hardship might have prodded into action, but I'm willing to bet that we'll get a several more good ones in the coming ten.