What Is Real Art?

Do not enjoy this painting.

Recently I watched Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art, Barry Avrich’s entertaining documentary about an $80 million dollar forgery scandal involving New York City’s oldest art gallery. The film explores how the fine art wold of experts, collectors, and critics could be taken in by knock-offs of Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, and Jackson Pollock paintings, in some cases paying as much as two million bucks for a forgery. Two million! If you can’t imagine a number that large, simply borrow a friend’s four year-old for the day and count how many questions he or she asks you. Now divide by three.

The true crime aspect of Made You Look is fascinating, and there are few things this side of a big game hunter being mauled by a lion more satisfying than watching some bloated, privileged douche bag get swindled out of seven figures, but what really grabbed me about the movie was that I found myself asking this: If these paintings were art of a quality worth cataloguing, displaying, and collecting prior to their origin being discovered, why were they “fake art” after their real painter was known?

There’s a legal answer to this, of course. Signing Pollock’s or Rothko’s name is the oily flourish separating tribute from felony, but that’s not particularly interesting to me. Cons are going to con, after all. Made You Look’s big reveal is that the entire fine art world is one giant, collective con in a much more profound sense. That world isn’t about the art, but rather the signatures. It’s not about Mark Rothko’s work; it’s about “owning a Rothko.”

It’s not just the world of super-rich art collectors who confuse name recognition with worth. That’s the little engine that compels people who would never purchase a Toyota to buy a Lexus, who wouldn’t be caught dead in a Chevy SUV to proudly drive their Escalades. How many suckers have overpaid for cheaply manufactured electronics just so that they can display the Apple logo, and does anyone sincerely believe that Luis Vuitton anything is attractive?

Record labels used to be notorious for running this kind of game on their customers. Back in the ’70s the song “Sub-Rosa Subway,” with its Beatles-esque production and Maca-ish vocals garnered lots of airplay (and lots of buzz) before the tune’s artist, Klaatu, was revealed. The same promotional tool was used at least twice during the ’80s: Once for “On the Dark Side,” John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band’s Springsteen sound-alike, and this number from the mostly forgotten Kingdom Come:

The song was rolled out on AOR and classic rock radio stations back in 1988 as a “mystery track,” its artist to be announced in the near future. I was managing a record store at the time and found myself more than a little confused when customers started asking when the new Led Zeppelin album was coming out. They weren’t being sarcastic, either: People genuinely loved this song until the moment that they learned that it wasn’t Led Zeppelin.

Nobody likes feeling tricked, at least not without permission. We expect a hokey magician to mess with our heads, but not the Morning Zoo Crew on our favorite FM station; well, at least back when that was a thing. And then there’s our natural aversion to derivative work. How dare Kingdom Come rip off Led Zeppelin, a band who created their very own sound by ripping off Leadbelly, Willie Dixon, Bert Jansch, Spirit, Moby Grape, Joan Baez..what was I talking about again?

All of that is true, but solely based on the song’s own merits (or lack thereof) why did fans of “Get It On” suddenly dislike it when its origin was revealed? With the name Led Zeppelin implicitly attached the song was great; as a Kingdom Come song it was a piece of junk.

There are many corollaries to this example, by the way. The Rolling Stones haven’t made an album that anyone would listen to since 1981’s Tattoo You if not for that storied band name appearing on the sleeve. There’s little risk of 2021’s version of a Kingdom Come sound-alike band whipping out a knockoff of Voodoo Lounge. Over in the art world we have folks praising the mysterious Banksy at the same cocktail parties where they rant about what these thugs and their spray paint cans are doing to our beloved city.

And then there’s literature. I’m about two-thirds of the way through reading all of the novels that have won a Pulitzer prize, and here’s a little spoiler: Some of them are not very good. In fact, some of them are awful. If you find yourself thinking, “Well, that’s just your opinion” you’re not only absolutely right but you’re reinforcing my point. What matters more when it comes to art: our own opinions or some authority’s? Should I enjoy an overly-descriptive novel lacking any narrative sense simply because its cover brags “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize”? Should I ignore Robert Galbraith and adore J.K. Rowling? The emperor wears no Luis Vuitton clothing.

Anyway, back to Made You Look. I suppose this all comes down to the semantics of the term “art collector.” Within the context of this film, that phrase seems to connote “one who enjoys collecting famous painter’s signatures” rather than “one who surrounds oneself with visual art that he or she enjoys.” Similarly, the “hard rock fan” and “Led Zeppelin fan” circles may overlap significantly, but they remain distinct entities on a Venn diagram.

I would love to own one of those “worthless” fake Rothkos shown in Made You Look. Hanging over my couch I would enjoy studying its surface much more than I would staring at a poster of a real Rothko. Contrary to the film’s subtitle, A True Story About Fake Art,those paintings aren’t “fake art”–they are fake Rothkos. If all that separates “art” and “not art” is the presence of Mark Rothko’s signature, after all, then are Rothkos “real art”?

Life in America is one long struggle to not get suckered into thinking that this or that brand name translates to “quality.” At least that’s what this guy in front of me in line at Starbucks says.

Categories: op-ed

2 replies »

  1. I have long had this issue with all forms of art. There are movies I love that were panned by critics, authors I read that you won’t find praised in the NY Times and paintings that move me but are labelled trash by the experts. That’s the thing about art. It’s at heart an appeal to our emotions that either resonates or not. I like Neil Diamond records because they’re catchy, clever and have a nice beat. Your opinion doesn’t matter to my reaction.

    One of my major flaws is that I too often respect the opinion of “experts” in judging my reaction to any form of art. I like what I like because I like it, but feel a kind of guilt when an “expert” derides the work. My record collection reflects this inner battle, but I’m proud to say that connoisseurs would sneer at a portion of my selections.

    Liked by 1 person

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