Thursday, July 8, 2010

Peer-reviewed art

Is there a group of experts somewhere who can tell for sure, possibly with new computers, cameras or forensic tools, whether a painting is by a Great Master or other famous painter or not? One might think so, and yet ....

The New Yorker has a great piece by David Grann. One expert has made his name by detecting the finger prints of an artist on a disputed painting, then matching these prints with known finger prints to prove authenticity. The article portrays him very sympathetically for the first half or so--finally, someone willing and able to bring science to a field that has been far too subjective, with people defending their potential dollars rather than the truth. But then the tide of the article turns: the finger print expert may be a con artist.

The massive question emerges: has any real progress been made from the notion that there are some people who can just tell whether a painting is by a particular artist or not?

In the nineteen-thirties, the notorious Dutch forger Han van Meegeren, who produced at least nine fake Vermeers, used a canvas from the seventeenth century that still had its original stretcher. (Like many forgers, Van Meegeren insisted that he was “driven by the psychological effect of disappointment in not being acknowledged by my fellow artists and critics.”)

The reputations of scholars have been ruined after their eye was shown to be fallible. Dr. Abraham Bredius, who in the thirties was considered the greatest authority on the Dutch Old Masters, is now remembered best for having branded a van Meegeren forgery a Vermeer masterpiece.

The public’s distrust of the cloistered art world helps to explain why a forger, or a swindler, is so often perceived as a romantic avenger, his deceptions exposing the deeper fraudulence of the establishment. When Han van Meegeren was tried for his Vermeer forgeries, in 1947, his lawyer insisted, “The art world is reeling, and experts are beginning to doubt the very basis of artistic attribution. This was precisely what the defendant was trying to achieve.” In fact, most art swindlers have no grand intellectual design; rather, they are, as Thomas Hoving once put it, “money-grubbing confidence men, delighted to cobble up something that will get by in the rush for big profits.”

When a forgery is exposed, people in the art world generally have the same reaction: how could anyone have ever been fooled by something so obviously phony, so artless? Few connoisseurs still think that Han van Meegeren’s paintings look at all like Vermeers, or even have any artistic value. Forgers usually succeed not because they are so talented but, rather, because they provide, at a moment in time, exactly what others desperately want to see. Conjurers as much as copyists, they fulfill a wish or a fantasy. And so the inconsistencies—crooked signatures, uncharacteristic brushstrokes—are ignored or explained away.

A who's who of experts can get caught up in a fad, and only a few years later, wonder how anyone could have been so stupid. The con artists hits on a way to tell people what they want to believe. Morally, it may hardly seem to be dishonest when a few words are taken as gospel by gullible fools. Perhaps the con artist is even clever or honest enough to say: There is a lot of uncertainty; my words should not be taken as gospel.

Food for thought.

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