Defining Art – F is for Fake

Every discussion boils down to the definitions that it employs There must be a common consensus on what is “real”, what is “fake”, what is “art”, what is “technology”.  But who gets to decide what is defined?  How can you? This past week the subject matter of two of my classes Recurring Concepts in Art and Nothing have overlapped. I’ve been reading a lot about the Dada movement, readymades, and what are considered radical innovations in the art world and see this wonderful dance at play between artists and the institutional art world (also the general public).  When Duchamp submitted the Fountain to the Society of Independent Artists’ salon in NY, which claimed they would accept art that was paid for, it was rejected.  It was considered a joke.  The Fountain now resides in the SFMoMa.

Somewhere along the way what was a statement, that was received as a joke, turned into an approved seminal piece of art. It was not the academy that decided what art is but the artist. However the academy, the art world, still remains as the authority.  And yet you still have your audience that sees an upside urinal with scribbles on it, says I could do that, and dismisses it’s relevance and existence as a piece of art.


F for Fake approaches these concepts of real and fake and art and authority in a very playful and successful way.  You observe these concepts through the looking glass of the concepts themselves.  The way how it shows how art can feed off and aggrandize itself is quite marvelous. I love the quote the quote that fake and frauds are old but what’s new are the experts, the authority.  That it is these experts that are ‘god’s gift to the fakers’.  And where everything gets interesting is where the money comes in “value depends on opinion, opinion, depends on the experts, a fakery makes fools of the experts so in the end who is the expert or the faker’.

This brought back to something we discussed in Recurring Concepts in Art. There was the Fountain (After Duchamp) by Sherrie Levine.  This was purposeful imitation art, imitation art from the beginning.  Sherrie Levine made another Fountain but with conscious changes, and you can read what you want into those changes: it being made by woman, in bronze, each its own comment on the original and it’s reception and the current state of the art world.

But the next piece we talked about by Sherrie Levine I found so surprising.  It was a photo of a famous photo.  I couldn’t believe that this had been accepted by the art world as art.  Yet Sherrie Levine was already famous as an imitation artist when this was made and so the it was less controversially accepted as art.

Elmyr de Hory’s work initially passed it off as real and only once caught, made an art of imitation itself.  Elmyr de Hory states that he only sold fakes first because no one would buy his original art.  So were Sherrie Levine’s original pieces different and successful enough to than warrant later a full acceptance of an imitation? Sherrie Levine made a whole series of Walker Evans photos which was then acquired by the Evans estate to prevent their sale and then she officially donated them.  They are now all owned by the MET.  So her work defined as imitation from the beginning but pure imitation, didn’t make money, but was easily accepted by the art world as real art because of the way the idea was presented. I wonder what would happen if one of those pieces sold now? Would it be able to? It’s been accepted as it’s own thing now, art in it’s own right and now a piece of history. But again how can you define the value of this? Who could? And what would it be in relation to the Walter Evan’s originals.


Emyr de Hory’s work on the other hand was sold for money, sold for way more money, and approved by galleries and museums as authentic before becoming ‘ a profound embarrassment for them all.   His mastery of painting and his skill allowed his paintings to be, for a time, indistinguishable from these ‘genius masters’, but no there was no value in the skill itself. He then tried to make it as an imitation artist once his story had been revealed but it seems he was ahead of his time. Perhaps he was too late in making imitation part of his statement.  If he had revealed the forgeries himself before being discovered as some grand coup d’etat of the art world and experts and authenticity maybe he could have sold it as performance piece himself.  He committed suicide upon hearing he was being extradited to France on charges of Fraud.

F for Fake truly shows how fragile and illusory these  definitions are.  How we create value, build it up, burn it down.  It shows how much of art or really life can be about the sell, the story, the reception, instead of the actual product itself.  Emyr de Hory seemed to excuse himself by saying he was making beautiful pieces that they enjoyed, and this story reveals how much enjoyment really came only from the perceived value.