Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Forgeries, Fakes, Hoaxes and Hope

May 15, 2007

I went with a couple of old friends to a movie called Hoax a couple of weeks ago. There was only one other couple in the Cineplex compartment with us, and the movie disappeared within the next week. Never mind, I promise it'll surface again at Oscar time, and probably garner Richard Gere his first statuette, most deservedly.

The picture outlines an adventure in the life of writer Clifford Irving, who had minor success with a book about art forgery, and himself went on to perpetrate one of the biggest hoaxes in the 20th Century, one which involved a fiction he wrote claiming it to be the authorized autobiography of mysterious recluse Howard Hughes. The caper was bold to the point of being outrageous, and the risks Irving took were almost pathological. In the bargain, he lost everything. Now it's a major motion picture and will probably keep him afloat for the rest of his life.

The scam depended upon the very reclusiveness of Hughes. Irving had banked on the old man staying hermetically sealed in his Las Vegas apartment as he -- Irving -- wove more and more complex tales of phone calls and correspondence, involving his wife and a friend to participate in the cover-up. When the publishers, agents, and the phalanx of journalists became suspicious, Irving made the audacious claim that Hughes now wanted a $1 million advance before he would release the material.

Irving's tale ended with his own confession and jail time for himself and his wife. The man who had always been fascinated by hoaxes and forgeries finally got caught after Howard Hughes emerged from his self-imposed darkness to announce in a conference call to the editors that he had never met Clifford Irving -- had not, until this episode, even heard of the man.

The episode fascinated another expert in sleight-of-hand and forgery, filmmaker Orson Welles, who had known Elmyr de Hory, the art forger Clifford Irving had written his first book about. Welles created a wonderful documentary about both de Hory and Clifford Irving, called "F" for Fake which I caught in an insomniac evening on Turner Classic Movies in the wee hours this morning. This one contends that there would be no art forgeries if there were no art experts, and that more often than not, the so-called experts can't even spot a fake anyway.

There is a moment when Welles quotes a few lines from Rudyard Kipling's "The Conundrum of the Workshops." Granted, Orson Welles reading the telephone book sounds like the most profound poetry ever written, but this one bears considering:

When the flush of a new-born sun fell first on Eden's green and gold,
Our father Adam sat under the Tree and scratched with a stick in the mould;
And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart,
Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves, "It's pretty, but is it Art?"

We have often pondered the question here, but not, I hope with the Devil at our backs. Welles' point is that the concept of Art being something grander than it appears is the work of art experts, and that art experts are responsible for the art market, and that the art market is responsible for the inflated prices that made art forgery lucrative and illegal.

I wish Welles had lived to see Hoax. In "F" for Fake, he says that when he was developing ideas for the movie that became Citizen Kane, he considered several powerful men as the model. For some reason, he chose William Randolph Hearst -- but his second choice would have been Howard Hughes.

With my title, I suggest that I'm somehow going to tie the concept of hope, or at least a fair version of it, into this post. I can't think of any way to do that. I was faking it. I just thought the addition of that word made a better title.


Bert said...

Artists live with hope. It was always tied in.

I have a son who is in third year of an art major. On very rare occasions I find myself what it's like having a talent that is so hard to quantify. I am an expert in what I do and am paid accordingly. But "painters" don't seem to be able to rely on their expertise. They have to rely on the 'taste' of those who view their paintings. My son and all the new friends he's made can "draw." It perplexes me that of all the "drawers" in the world, only a handful will become renowned and rich. What am I missing?

sinjap said...

the same holds true for literary "art"...what some claim is the best book ever written seems like bilge to me and vice versa...i think most writers spend 10 percent of their time writing and 90 percent trying to find a market for their work...and since most of the artists and writers i've ever met are not known for their business acumen or patience, it seems a losing endeavor...makes you just wanna fake it

John Sweden said...

Actually Bert out of all the "drawers" in the world none will become rich or famous for drawing...because drawing or craftsmanship has nothing to do with being a good artist. On top of that there is no market for drawing except in animation and Video game production etc. Many good painters see it as a craft, but since painting as an artform is dead...it's tough to make an investment grade impression much less get rich off a corpse.

Most of the serious writers and artists I know are incredibly patient and will wait and work years for some success. They also have pretty good business sense of their market and their product's value in it. Just like anything else their financial success or failure depends on market forces and the need for their product in it.

When it comes to selling things whether it's painting, or a can of soup, or a painting of a can of soup, it's mostly about promotion, marketing and hype and being in the right place, with right stuff at the right time. which usually means being dead. Good gallery owners and publishers work hard to create that time and place even if doesn't exist...

Original paintings selling above 1000 dollars are brought by people who have a lot of money to waste or see them as investments. If you good enough and fast enough and fortunate enough to sell one a week you would only gross 52,000 dollars a year. After the gallery cut and expenses you net if lucky 30 thousand before taxes...after taxes your take home will be about 15-18,000 per year. it's a living and you will be doing better than 90% of all the other artists in the world.

None of this has anything to do with defining work of art or the value of an artist. You will have to go back into the archives here to find out what does.

Mary Lois said...

John, don't forget Bert paints the numbers in front of houses...he'll probably make more money in his lifetime than most other painters. Ah, is it money that makes success? Is it fame? Is it possible to have a successful life without either? If not, a lot of us "failures" are having a wonderful life for no reason. Please don't bother telling us.