The Art Center is not just for those who want to create art; it’s also a great place to learn about contemporary art. A case in point is our Lifelong Learning Series that focuses on specific topics in art. This fall noted art and cultural critic Dan Bischoff will lead the Lifelong Learning Series: Fake, Forgery & Illusion five-week course in October. Dan has been an art critic for the Star-Ledger for over fifteen years. He was also National Affairs editor for the Village Voice for nearly ten years and has written for national publications including The Nation, ArtNews, The New York Times Magazine, and Vanity Fair. Dan brings a good perspective to the topic of fakes and forgery in art. I decided to ask Dan some questions to get a fuller understanding of this interesting and often controversial topic.
1. How is the Lifelong Learning Series different from a general art history or art appreciation class?
Well, it's aimed at much more topical themes, ones that aren't necessarily at the forefront of art historical research. Last year we dealt with broad concepts like "Art and Power" and "Art and Nudity." This year it's about fake art.
Fakery has only become a mainstream theme in the last couple of years. The National Gallery in London did its Closer Examination show of fakes that had fooled their acquisition committee in 2010, and the Getty in LA did their show on faked Archaic sculpture only after so many headlines and international prosecutions came their way in the early 21st century that they felt they needed to clear the air. As we begin to rely on technology for everything, even for counterfeiting currency, the skills it takes to forge any work made before the early 20th century are vanishing, and the labor required to be convincing becomes increasingly worthy of display.
2. This year’s series deals with fake, forgery and illusion in contemporary art. Are these subjects prominent in the history of art making?
Yes, in the sense that artists have always been pretty pissed off at being ripped off. Albrecht Durer actually carved a curse into one of his woodcuts of the Virgin which reads "Be cursed, plunderers and imitators of the work of others." The Romans frequently made copies of Greek works and occasionally passed them off as originals; Michelangelo did a fake "Sleeping Cupid" that he passed off as the work of an anonymous Roman. But fakery on a huge scale wasn't really possible, or even meaningful, until the Renaissance, when artists became revered for their skills and sought after for their reputations. How many collectors today would demand, as the Cardinal Riario did then, to be paid back for a sculpture he thought was by a nameless Roman hack when it turned out to be an original Michelangelo?
3. Can you give a few examples from the contemporary art world?
Right now there's a scandal, slowly developing, about fakes of Greek Modernist art--people like Constantine Parthenis. As with so many obscure national economies, the boom years of the 1990s tailing off into the Bush presidency covered a multitude of sins, and one of them was some member of the Greek aristocracy going around auctions with bogus Virgins by Parthenis and other low-tier Modernists and selling them at wildly inflated prices, usually to other Greeks who were just then making their fortunes. It helped that the artists were not household names abroad, and that they were Modernists. My kid could do that--well, maybe, but certainly a competent forger can still find canvasses made in the early 20th century and paints with the right infrared signatures to pass. But there are many examples of folks trying to do it--the big arrest a couple of years ago was of a Dutch dealer who was selling fake Appels. It happens, but it's definitely more risky given contemporary technology.
4. The concept of fair use, described as the right to use another’s copyrighted material, under certain circumstances, for purposes such as criticism, news reporting, teaching, and research without the need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder, is a hot issue in the art world today. How does this relate to your topic of fake, forgery and illusion?
We are actually coming off a period of outrageous fakery and tolerance for it. Some of that is because modern life itself feels inherently fake. I will speak in one lecture about interior designer Roger Thomas, who tarts up the casinos in Las Vegas because he's found that creating an atmosphere that feels utterly fake and therefore impossibly luxurious--the whole idea of luxury behind drywall in air-conditioned rooms would have been incomprehensible to grandees of the 18th century, say--encourages people to spend more money. You kind of get the sense that nothing is real in these environments, so we can just indulge in the wildest fantasies while we're there.
Fair use itself is a mostly compromised idea, built around extenuated legal claims to originality and copyright laws. Neo-Pop art is implicated in most of these issues, since most Neo-Pop artists (Koons, Murakami, Hirst, etc.) actually don't do any of their own work. They hire people to do it for them. As long as that is entirely acceptable--as it was in the Middle Ages, and again in the 17th and 18th centuries, just as it is now--this generation of artists is immune to charges of theft. What would it mean?
5. What effect has the rise of digital media had on these issues?
Immense. Like the way Roger Thomas thinks about Baroque interiors, digital workers feel anything in pixels is basically fake already, and the originality comes in smashing them together as only you can. As Devo put it, "Each in your own individual color!" The illusion of individuality and freedom is often more appealing than the actual thing---just as, at a different level, Delftware, say, is often more pleasing to a certain collector than actual Chinese porcelain. And it's cheaper to maintain. The great Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei, whose art company is named "Fake, Ltd." is the best guide to these issues.
While it may often be difficult to spot a fake, Dan’s Lifelong Learning Series class sounds like the ‘real deal’ to me. The lectures will run Tuesdays 7:30 pm-9:00 pm October 2-30. The series cost is $170 and $140 for Art Center members. Visit our web site for more information and to register. www.artcenternj.org.