Yes, But Is It Art?

Were you confused about what Patton Oswalt was doing in this bit from Full Frontal with Samantha Bee? Fear not, for I shall explain. Patton's costume and sleight of hand routines (coins, keys, and cards) are all nods to a movie called F for Fake, directed by Orson Welles, with help from François Reichenbach. Many people will know Welles as the director and star of Citizen Kane, and a few more might know about the fictionalized radio news broadcast that pretended Martians were invading Grovers Mill, New Jersey.[ref]It was an adaptation of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds.[/ref]

fisforfakeF for Fake, however, doesn't seem to have made the same impact, except among people who are already interested in Welles or movies that are off the beaten path.

And it really is off the beaten path. I'm not sure I can describe it succinctly... There aren't actors performing a script[ref]Wellll...[/ref], but it's not really a documentary either.[ref]Except it does focus on some real-life subjects.[/ref] I'd say it's experimental, but that usually makes people think of something more abstract like the work of Stan Brakhage, or this short film called Pas de Deux, that made great use of the recently invented optical printer. It's really an essay- instead of a sequence of events, it's a sequence of ideas.

One of the central subjects is a painter named Elmyr de Hory. But even calling him a painter doesn't make sense: he doesn't just paint his own pictures, he paints other people's pictures. You want PicassoSwish-swish-swish! Here is Picasso. Maybe a MatisseSwish-swish-swish! Boom! Matisse. According to Welles[ref]Do we really trust anything this lying con artist says?[/ref], de Hory's fakes of post-Impressionist painters have wound up in some of the most prestigious museums around the world.

This all leads to some fascinating ideas about what makes art authentic. If a Duchamp sits in a gallery next to a fake, and no one can tell the difference, who's to say which one is more real? The people walking through the gallery care how the painting moves them or doesn't. If a painting feels like a Modigliani, doesn't that make it one?

My favorite sequence is about how we treat art as an artifact- or rather, artists think of their work as something that will remain after they're gone. Welles talks about this over shots of the Chartres Cathedral, a magnificent piece of architecture, anointed with reliefs and sculptures and stained glass, whose designers and craftsmen are all anonymous. It "has no signature."


If you aren't sold yet, let me twist the tale a little more: Another person featured in F for Fake is de Hory's biographer, named Charles Irving. He gained notoriety while the film was being made for publishing an authorized biography of Howard Hughes, the famed recluse, industrialist, filmmaker, aviator, bottled urine enthusiast, and Leonardo DiCaprio impersonator. Hughes, calling in to a television talk show[ref]Was it really him?[/ref], then denied ever authorizing it.

Kyle Kallgrin points out that if there's a villain in all of this, it's The Experts, who judge the art, and tell us how much it's worth, and what's good and what's bad. De Hory shows that they can all be duped. They don't even need to be looking at a fake to do it.

Just recently, an appraiser on Antiques Roadshow looked at a grotesque clay jug, said it was over a hundred years old, and would be worth $30-50,000. After the episode aired, a viewer contacted the show to say she knew the artist- it was a friend who had made the jug as a project in high school in the 1970s. The new appraisal value was one tenth of what it had been: $3-5,000.

Yadda, yadda, eye of the beholder, and all that. The point is that the value of a work of art is only what we agree it is.

The owner of the jug, Alvin Barr, says he prefers knowing it's worth less. "Who wants $30-50,000 lying around their house?" Now he's free to keep it on his table where it can be seen by anyone. Although, going by the pictures of it that are on the web, I don't think there's a lot of people who want to...