Thursday, August 13, 2009

Faking it

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I love fakes- in art and music anyway. My favorite part of the Victoria and Albert Museum, my favorite museum, is the gallery of fakes. When the Joyce Hatto scandal hit, I followed it avidly. I really enjoyed the story of Josh Bell pretending to be a street musician and almost no one even noticing that he was any good. These stories all reinforce my belief that there are no objective standards for artistic value, that hype and fraud are behind a lot of what people think is good and that there is a real moral value to trying to overcome the effects of pushy salesmanship, money based promotion and media hype. And let's face it, it is really fun to watch various "experts" who were duped try to explain themselves.

My favorite fake story is of Han Van Meegeren. Van Meegeren was a Dutch painter of the first half of the twentieth century who passed off a number of his original works as the work of Vermeer and other Dutch masters and sold them at exorbitant prices. He got into trouble when one of his forgeries was sold to Hermann Goering. After the war, he was arrested as a Nazi collaborator (for selling a painting to Goering) and his defense was that he himself actually painted the "Vermeer". The authorities refused to believe him, and in his defense, he painted a "Vermeer" in front of a panel.

Many years ago I read two accounts of the Van Meegeren story, one by Arthur Koestler and another in an interview with Glenn Gould. (talk about diverse sources!) Both Koestler and Gould were fascinated by the question: If Van Meegeren's work was really good enough to pass off as Vermeer, should it not be as valuable as Vermeer? Why is a fake less valuable?

Van Meegeren himself played the role of misunderstood genius, born in the wrong time, who was led to forgery as a way to get recognition for his remarkable skills.

And then, I saw the paintings....now, I am not an art critic, but seriously... they were laughably obvious fakes. Suddenly one question was answered, but another was raised. They were worth less than a Vermeer because they sucked. But a new question was raised. How could he have fooled so many allegedly expert observers?

This is where it gets interesting. It seems that Van Meegeren's real skill was that he had an uncanny ability to know his audience. His work "Supper at Emmaus" was created at least in part as a deliberate attempt to fool the critic Abraham Bredius. Van Meegeren loathed the critic for past slights.and so Van Meegeren laid a trap for him. He noted that Bredius had proposed an Italianate "religious period" in Vermeer's careeer, and Van Meegeren carefully created a work with a few Vermeer clich├ęs but of the type of subject matter not present in any existing Vermeer (this also made his task easier, because it made a direct comparison with an existing Vermeer harder). Having flattered his victim, the deception was assured; Bredius pronouncing the work "Vermeer's masterpiece." The "Vermeer" that he sold to Goering had iconic Nazi/Fascist symbolism embedded in the work which made it instantly more attractive to Goering, who sold two hundred other works of art to buy this fake. What this suggests is that his victims were attracted not by the quality of the work itself but by the fact that these specific paintings spoke to them in a way that turned off any internal critical faculties. And the fact that the work that flattered them was supposedly by Vermeer made it that much more attractive.It made them feel that they had been flattered by Vermeer himself.

Once fooled, the victims had a terrible time admitting they were duped; Bredius died a few months after Van Meegeren confessed, still convinced of the authenticity of his "religious Vermeer". Other fooled experts simply refused to believe that the works were forgeries. One poor "art expert" died in 1971 still trying to prove that the "Vermeer" he had spent a fortune on was the work of the master.

I cannot help but think of the parallel cases in music; how the same critics reviewed recordings of "Joyce Hatto" completely differently than the same recording when it was properly attributed to whichever famous pianist was really playing; how the recording of the obscure pianist Halina Czerny-Stefanska of the Chopin E minor Concerto was praised when it was attributed to Dinu Lipatti, but was ignored or panned when the same recording was properly attributed to her. (the properly labelled Supraphon recording was available at the same time as the misattributed EMI recording, offering wonderful opportunities for critical embarrassment.) By the way, the Czerny-Stefanska recording was terrific, but her interpretation was quite different from the existing real Lipatti recording, which is also great.
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It is interesting that the first art experts who saw "Supper at Emmaus" thought the forgery was so obvious that it hardly needed mentioning, but they were not the intended victim. They had no emotional attachment to cloud their judgement. And to bring in the music point, Lipatti's widow continued to insist that the recording was of her husband long after the recording was proven to be of another pianist.

What does this say about why we value what we value? it says that what we like is affected by so many emotional and personal factors that we cannot hope for objectivity. And it certainly makes me feel better about trying to get music out there that might be enjoyed by others, and might be genuinely valuable, but has fallen between the cracks of history and well funded publicity. And I can only hope that my own love for the music I choose can make me a convincing advocate for it.

Post script:here are some great links for the Joyce Hatto and Van Meegeren stories: have fun!

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