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Thomas Sutcliffe

Tom Sutcliffe: Whose art is it anyway?

The week in culture

I'm guessing that everybody is already familiar with the capricious nature of works of art. I'm not talking here about the ambiguity which we generally take as the hallmark of a classic – its ability to mean one thing to one person and another thing to someone else. I'm talking about the way in which they get up to stuff behind your back. You encounter a film or a book when you're 17, say, and you're dazzled by the clarity with which it speaks directly to your teenage concerns. And then, 10 or 20 years later, you go back to it and find that it bears no resemblance to your cherished recollection. This can go in one of two ways – either it's nowhere near as good as you remember, or it's good in a way that seems incompatible with your original enthusiasm. It happened to me with Conrad's Under Western Eyes, a text that for years I recalled as a novel almost exclusively concerned with an unrequited and ultimately unrequitable love. Then I read it again and discovered that, although those themes were certainly part of the book, it would be deeply perverse to say that they were what it was "about". It was just as good, if not a little better, but it bore no relation to the weird cultural identikit portrait I'd compiled in my memory.

It's intriguing, though, to find that even the artist who created a work may be susceptible to the same effect. That's one possible interpretation, anyway, of the row between Sir Anthony Caro and the auctioneers Bonhams, who he's accused of "misrepresentation" after they attributed a piece to him in a sales catalogue.

There's no question, incidentally, that Lagoon was once by Sir Anthony Caro. He sold it in 1984 to the Peterborough Sculpture Trust to be displayed in public. But since then it's suffered from the attentions of Peterborough's less aesthetically reverential citizens (who sprayed it with graffiti) and it arrives in the auction room with metal legs that Sir Anthony says were no part of the original work. He may also – quite understandably – feel a little put out that the Sculpture Trust has decided to trade the piece in for cash.

Bonhams has suggested that the legs are only visible because the piece isn't in situ. When it's installed they'll be invisible below the ground, where presumably they anchor and stabilise the piece. And there are a number of possible explanations for the discrepancy between Sir Anthony's account and Bonhams'. It's possible, I suppose, that Peterborough Sculpture Trust simply took it on themselves to add some structural fittings, fearing that the piece might be vulnerable to thieves with a very big lorry.

But it seems a little unlikely. Bonhams responded to Sir Anthony's claims that it never had legs by saying, "that is not the recollection of the trust's staff who dealt with the installation of the piece", a tactful phrase which tactfully conceals exactly whose reputation it is sparing. It's also possible that this was a detail of the installation that Sir Anthony left to an assistant – and that he couldn't remember the legs because he'd never actually seen them. As far as he was concerned, the piece only ever existed in its Platonic state, sitting proud in the city centre. Or perhaps the legs were added when the sculpture was moved to the city's Thorpe Meadows. But that too seems a little improbable. And the only other explanation I can think of is that Sir Anthony may simply have been carrying a mental picture of the work which doesn't any more match up to its distressed and deracinated condition. When he says, "It's been mutilated", he means "it doesn't look anything like what I think it should look like".

I have no idea which is the case here – and Sir Anthony's view deserves some deference. But it must occasionally happen, mustn't it, that an artist revisits a piece he's made a quarter of a century before and thinks, "I don't remember it looking anything like that!" The first instinct, as with that common experience we all have with works revisited, is to think that the piece has altered in some way – or that our memory is in some way faulty. In truth, we've changed and the work changes with us.

The clichés do me in, but I still love The Killing

We had a bad moment a couple of weeks ago, The Killing and I. After the rom-com opening to our relationship (we had a little spat over the employment of the frantic-girl-running-through-the-woods cliché) things had been going swimmingly. I was, frankly, infatuated – breathlessly impatient for the next rendezvous with Lund and her sweaters. And then they resorted to the Enhanced CCTV trope. Somebody had come up with video tape of the town hall parking lot, and when the tech boys had finished with it you could clearly see that Troels was behind the wheel. This is what always happens when the tech boys get hold of a smeary indistinct image in Hollywood thrillers. But it isn't, needless to say, what happens in real life, where you're most likely just to get a bigger smear. It was a bit of a blow to find The Killing resorting to such a hoary old narrative short-cut. What next, I thought, a hidden trapdoor? And then I remembered that we'd already had one, when the investigators discovered the concealed basement room which supplied Red Herring Number Three. Shortly after that, Lund entered a darkened room and – rather than looking for the nearest light switch – pulled out her torch so that she wouldn't destroy the atmospheric chiaroscuro. It's packed with clichés, I realised, and yet I still love it. Which just goes to show how far a little bit of innovation and a little bit of moral seriousness will go.

Don't throw the book at borrowers

HarperCollins has caused something of a stir by telling American librarians that digital versions of their titles will expire after they've been checked out 26 times. Its argument is that while physical copies are subject to wear and tear, electronic copies are effectively immortal, and thus they're losing out on resale earnings. "We have serious concerns that our previous e-book policy... if left unchanged, would undermine the emerging e-book ecosystem," explained a HarperCollins executive – a nonsensical statement given that nothing is more likely to undermine it than the idea that purchase of an e-book will include buying inbuilt obsolescence. One can't help wondering how HarperCollins arrived at this precise number and whether it isn't a little ashamed to admit that its products are so shoddy? No book should really fall apart after just 26 readings, and given that this is an average HarperCollins is effectively admitting that many don't even get that far. In any case, librarians have always been able to repair a battered text with a bit of glue or Sellotape. Perhaps Harper Collins is also planning to bring a retrospective action against librarians for unlicensed extension of product life. It would be only marginally more stupid and self-defeating than this move.