Skip links


Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 18-Jan-2003

Edition: Late

Section: Spectrum


Page: 4

Wordcount: 2543

Unoriginal sins


Elizabeth Farrelly

Who is the real faker the forger? Or “the art lover” whose judgment of a work depends on whether the signature is genuine? Elizabeth Farrellyexplores the murky ethics of authenticity.

A woman finds her favourite Picasso print to be, in fact, original and promotes it from the staircase to the drawing room. When queried, the woman insists her judgement was revised on strictly aesthetic grounds “composition, colour, harmony, power, what have you”.

The piece was unchanged, yes, but she saw it differently. Why? If the work is good, why should we care who painted it? And why, then, is forgery such a problem, so long as it is sufficiently faithful? Logically, it shouldn’t matter. And yet matter it does. Now, more than ever, we are obsessed by the authenticity thing.

Most fraud, however baroque in its intent, is conceptually simple. An object is presented as something it is not, usually for financial gain. Sometimes, there is more at stake than just money: the so-called Hitler diaries of the 1980s were dangerous because, read as fact, they would have distorted history.

Fake artworks, though, are different, since the relationship between art and truth is already rubbery. Art is not expected to “tell the truth” in any verifiable way. And we are comfortable, or so we tell ourselves, that art is fiction. That it shapes, edits, invents, lifts, abstracts, colours, remixes, twists or embroiders fact to create something that is no longer fact, but a product of imagination. From performance peeing to online architecture, art is essentially make-believe.

Plus, we’ve been around. We know that for classical artists, copying was a way of life as well as a teaching method, with “in-the-style-of” or “from-the-school-of” copies often proving technically superior to the originals. We’re okay with the tradition of nom de plume (George Sand, Henry Handel Richardson, John le Carre and Lemony Snicket). We’ve digested Warhol’s multi-entendres on the meaning of mass-production and originality.

We have even survived the 20 years or so that postmodernism has spent snipping whatever meagre threads still tethered art to truth killing the author, blurring fact and fiction and denying the very existence of fact. So you could reasonably expect art, by now, to be well beyond mere veracity.

Not so. Increasingly, authenticity makes big-T trouble in the art world. With one or two exceptions, it is an inflexible rule; a genuine Rubens, Raphael or (especially) Warhol infinitely outvalues a copy, fake or repro. Why?

Clearly, it’s not about the work’s likeness to reality. That’s not the authenticity that matters. A painting of a horse can look like a crested toucan and no one will give a toss. No, our concern is less with the object than with the belief structure that frames it. The authenticity at issue is about the author.

Take three identical canvases, all square, all painted red. One is a famous minimalist painting, one a “clever bit of Moscow landscape”, and one a paint sample. The objects themselves, in this question as posed by New York writer Arthur Danto in 1981, cannot be distinguished. And yet the first is priceless, the last without value of any kind. How do we sustain this remarkable consensus?

Here, philosophers divide into two camps: the contextualists and the formalists. The latter hold that a painting’s aesthetic value rests solely in its formal, visual qualities, and that a perfect copy ought to be every bit as valuable as an original. Clearly, however, this is not the case.

The contextualists, on the other hand, emphasise the importance of external factors including the work’s history, its theoretical framework and its author’s intentions in determining aesthetic value. The argument is that what we know about the work is at least as relevant in our response as what we see.

“It may seem irrational,” writes Harvard critic Nan Stalnaker, “that Etruscan statues long enjoyed for their beauty were removed from view at the Metropolitan Museum when they were discovered to be forgeries. But the contextualist insists that the forged Etruscan objects, because they are not genuine, may subtly reflect the culture and time in which they were copied in ways that misrepresent Etruscan culture.”

Is it tempting to infer here that the essential difference between Danto’s three red squares is intention.

But how are intentions communicated? By tiny details of moulding or brushstroke? What if the likeness was molecule-perfect, and the only difference was in the blurb? In that case, could the forged Etruscans be shown without adverse impact if the spectator still believed them to be genuine? Clearly, there is validity in both arguments. The artwork should be valued for itself. Equally, perception is profoundly shaped by knowledge. Seeing is a mental act, not a physical one.

This phenomenon is not limited to art. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant, describing the beauty of the nightingale’s summer evensong, once famously said that if he discovered the source of the melody was a mischievous boy, say, rather than a nightingale, the tune would be robbed of its


Phar Lap’s heart, on show in the National Museum of Australia, would lose all magnetism were it revealed as just some regulation equine organ in a pickling bottle. What is it, then, about authenticity, and the knowledge of it, that we so value?

This is sometimes mistaken for a moral question. Indeed, deception quickly acquires stark moral overtones when lines of political correctness are crossed.

Author Helen Darville’s case was complicated by other charges, of plagiarism and anti-Semitism. Part of her sin, though, was pretending to be someone else, which came to be seen not as imaginative virtuosity, but as a form of cultural snaffling.

Awarding the Miles Franklin prize to The Hand that Signed the Paper was controversial, anyway, but, without the halo of authenticity lent by her assumed Ukrainian descent, Darville suddenly had no “right” to the evil and suffering she had depicted. And so the work itself was debased.

A novel is fiction, sure, no problem. But we have become puritanical about cultural demarcation. Written by Demidenko, The Hand that Signed the Paper deserved the Vogel as well as the Franklin; so, at least, thought the judges. Written by Darville, it deserved nothing but condemnation.

A similar scandal erupted in 1997 around the novel My Own Sweet Time, written by white male Leon Carmen in the guise of Aboriginal female Wanda Koolmatrie.

The book, published by Broome-based, Australia Council-funded indigenous-publisher Magabala Books, won the 1995 Dobbie Award. Two years later, after its true author was uncloaked, the book was withdrawn from sale amid calls for the return of all moneys.

Agents and publishers swore off Carmen. James Fraser, Pan MacMillan’s then director of publishing, said: “We’re blessed with genuine writers. Why would we bother with impostors?”

The alter ego adopted by another West Australian, artist Elizabeth Durack, is another case in point. For years, Durack used the persona of Eddie Burrup to create an imaginative world quite unlike her own; a sin for which she was semi-forgiven only because she chose to reveal her own deception.

It has been said by writer Roberta Sykes that such “hoaxes” denote a “national sickness”. That the adoption of such a cross-cultural nom de plume indicates a psychopathological desire on the part of the white middle classes to slum it by becoming the dispossessed. Novelist Ruby Langford Ginibi accused Carmen of having “ripped off” black heritage and culture.

It could be, though, that the real sickness is this obsession with authenticating an artwork via its author’s cultural credentials. The Viennese writer Arthur Koestler saw it as a matter of simple snobbery. And, if snobbery is defined as the inappropriate misapplication of value A to judgement B, there is, no doubt, an element of it in the authenticity game. Quite an element, perhaps, more concerned with art as commodity than art as art.

Pro Hart’s decision, for example, to foil forgers by embedding personal, database-linked DNA in each painting can be seen as a simple protection of intellectual property. Equally, it can be seen as a desire to capture the market keeping all potential Pro Hart purchasers for himself.

Fair enough, too, you might say. If you have got a gimmick, patent it.

But you can’t patent an entire culture; can’t insist that only those born into a cultural system may have imaginative access to it; can’t quarantine the imagination within the confines of birth and experience or what is art for? Surely, art’s capacity to flout cultural boundaries is one of its greatest strengths not just artistically, but socially. Politically, even. Dammit, the Carmens and Duracks should be applauded, not condemned, for daring to undermine the ramparts of race and stereotype.

Personally, I hope Durack’s Burrups will more than make up from notoriety whatever value they lost in authenticity.

Since ambiguity is art’s home ground, and extending experience via imagination is its raison d’etre, this imperative to restrict the creative personality is perverse indeed.

Why do we make this error? Is our habitual celebrity addiction at fault here, leading us to obsess on the who, not the what? Has postmodernism’s fuzzing of fact and fiction made us more anxious to define a reliable authorial rock in a sea of relativity?

Or perhaps our obsession is a perfectly normal seasick response to the deliberately unlevel playing field on which we expect artists to compete; a field rippled and pleated by smug politics-for-art discrimination that, with covert superiority, offers

prizes only for women, or publishing offers only for blacks. The implication is that a “good novel for someone of ethnic origins other than WASP” would likely fall short as a novel per se.

Then there’s the audacity thing. Darville, Carmen and Durack dared to buck the system, and at least part of the fury they attracted was a response to that audacity.

One thing art experts agree on is that egg-on-face is not a good look. And yet they are surprisingly willing to be deceived. Positively asking for it.

Dutchman Hans van Meegeren (1889-1947), for example, faked Vermeers for a living. The works, previously unknown, were not terribly good and suffered, as the French writer Andre Malraux and others have pointed out, from a number of giveaway modern habits.

Nevertheless, several of them were purchased, under expert scrutiny and at considerable expense, by such reputable organisations as the Rijksmuseum and the Dutch government.

But success was van Meegeren’s undoing. During World War II, he had swindled Hermann Goering out of 200 minor Dutch works in return for a fake Vermeer, Christ and the Adulteress, and, in 1945, he was charged with treason. His crime: not forgery, but releasing a Dutch masterwork into Nazi hands.

Van Meegeren had little choice but to make forgery his defence. Being a convincing fake, though, is like insisting you’re a liar. None would believe van Meegeren until he painted a further, demonstration Vermeer as performance art. Contending that he deserved praise, not opprobrium, for having thus defrauded the Third Reich and recouped so many national treasures at a blow, van Meegeren was given a one-year sentence, but died before he could serve it.

Even then, a leading Vermeer expert refused to believe that Christ and the Adulteress wasn’t genuine.

Clearly, Koestler has a point about the snobbery thing: if authenticity had no snob value, there’d be no black market in fake Old Masters, and few of them to sell. Perhaps authenticity is just one more fiction sustained by a market determined to protect the scarcity of supply on which it depends. Even so, the question stands: what is it about authenticity that we value?

For Koestler, “the principal mark of genius is not perfection, but originality, the opening of new frontiers; once this is done, the conquered territory becomes common property”. Andre Malraux, too, himself recently revealed as something of a fake, argued that “the original work of genius, whether classical or not, is an invention”.

In other words, the truth of a work lies in its status as the creation of something that didn’t exist before. This implies that, even if the fake is universally judged a better painting, it is inherently less valuable because the original offers a bridge of some kind to the creative energy that produced it.

We share a primitive intuition that finding the source of the universe, the Amazon, life itself is important, and that, somehow, that original life force will communicate itself through the object.

Perhaps Malraux is right. Perhaps this dim sense that genius, even vicarious genius, is our best answer to mortality, is the last vestige of art’s original purpose as “an object-lesson for the gods”.

Because now, and for most of us, it is clear that artefacts are at least as valued for their assistance in generating inauthenticity in our lives. So absorbed are we, indeed, in fabricating and refabricating ourselves with dye, silicone, laser and myriad status symbols with which we bolster our fantasy selves that you would think the last thing we valued was any kind of truth.

In which case, the ultimate ironies are provided by the art world itself, which, having invented an elaborate provenancing system to stymie fraud, has succeeded merely in broadening its opportunities. Before their 1999 conviction in Britain, for example, dealer John Drewe and painter John Myatt made and sold some 200 Braques, Matisses, Giacomettis, Le Corbusiers, Nicholsons and Dubuffets. The paintings weren’t very good as paintings, or as fakes. Myatt used vinyl emulsion paint thickened with KY Jelly to show the brush strokes.

Still, the scam worked brilliantly. It is working yet. Only 73 of the 200 have been detected. The key was quality not of the paintings, but of their forged provenances. Experts at the Tate, the Victoria and Albert (V&A), the Museum of Modern Art and Sotheby’s were duped into authenticating the pictures and that’s just the ones we know about. Drewe’s apartment, when raided, yielded documents, stamps and authenticating seals from the Tate, the V&A, the Institute of Contemporary Art, receipts of sale dating back decades, forged antique letters from supposed past owners, certificates of authenticity from the estates of Dubuffet and Giacometti and a seal from the Servite Mary order of monastic priests.

“Drewe changed and fabricated so many records at both the V&A and the Tate,” reported The New York Times, “and with so many different artists, that the directors of both museums admit they may never know how much of their collection has been corrupted.” The British prosecution office even declared Drewe a menace to “Britain’s cultural patrimony”.

But perhaps the last laugh rests with Hungary’s Elmyr de Hory (1905-1976). Before becoming the celebrated subject of Orson Welles’s 1975 F for Fake, de Hory forged Monets, Matisses and Modiglianis with such flair and accomplishment that a genuine de Hory fake sells for $US30,000 ($52,000). Owners are concerned about fake de Hory fakes known to be in circulation.


THREE ILLUS: Alter egos …

van Meegeren’s fake Vermeer depicting The Last Supper, above; Elizabeth Durack with one of her Eddie Burrup works, top right; and Helen Darville as Helen Demidenko, with her book The Hand that Signed the Paper, bottom.

Photos: Reuters, Sharon Smith, Robert Pearce



Join the Discussion