Thursday 13 January 2011

Charlatanism, Poetry and Art

Hoaxes happen often in Poetry and in Art - lost works by masters such as Shakespeare and Vermeer are rediscovered only to be revealed as frauds by stylistic or forensic analysis. For the hoax to work the copied master needs to be unavailable for comment - either by being dead or by never existing. Literary examples of the latter include Ossian (Scotland) Ern Malley (Australia) and more recently Araki Yasusada (Japan) - all created by skillful hoaxers who are frequently surprised that their work is taken seriously.

Writers too develop their characters and self-promote. They may invent personae and pastiche works. They may even identify with the persona and take the persona seriously. They flourish in similar environments to those where hoaxes profilerate. They induce criticism because to some their fame or wealth seems undeserved, even fraudulent, distracting attention from the quality of the work itself. Such criticism is enflamed by artistic flamboyance or media hype. The critics and members of the public with few (typically one) criteria of judgement - verisimilitude, for instance - are amongst the most vociferous. The supposed charlatans sometimes emerge as important artists, or at least (as with Dali) the case remains open, so in ideal conditions one doesn't want to be too quick in starving these artists of funding. Nevertheless, with competition for public money increasing, it's worth exploring the public reception of "charlatans", in particular in Art and Poetry.

The potential for charlatanism in Modern Art is greater than in Modern Poetry, and public reaction is greater. The reasons for this fall into 3 main categories -

  • Ease of production
    • In Art, it's easier to get away with having little technical skill, thus making entry-level charlatanism simpler. When a praised piece of abstract expressionism turned out to be done by an chimp, some critics still defended the quality of its Abstract Expressionism.
    • Moreso than literature, Modern Art deals with the ephemeral (pop art), the secondhand (postmodernism), and the trashy (kitsch art). Also the mere act of presenting an object constitutes a "treatment", an artwork.
    • Because translation may not be necessary, artists can more easily and quickly borrow from styles distant in time and space. Being ahead of their audience they can more easily present the merely exotic as art.
  • Definitions and Boundaries
    • Art has changed more quickly than poetry, with more artists than poets challenging boundaries. History has more famous artists once dismissed as charlatans than it has resurrected writers, thus making critics more hesitant about criticising charlatans. But could critics have made any difference anyway? Matthew Collings writes (p.121) that "the 80s ... was the decade when critics were laughably weak and galleries and collectors were shockingly strong"
    • Art still has a cult of Authenticity, a desire to create (and own) the unreproducible - leading to Installations, Happenings, etc that cross media boundaries.
    • Many things are described as "Poetic", but poetry books are still texts. Use of the term "Art" has widened, and because the media used in Art has widened, many of these products termed "artistic" can be accommodated in Galleries - or anywhere.
    • Genre and Art/non-Art boundaries are unclear both in literature and Art, but Performance Art and Conceptual Art have made the boundaries fuzzier. If 2 people carry a plank through a city centre and call it art, can we disagree? Does a voyeur become an artist by making a project from it and keeping a diary? The Pornography/Erotica dimension in particular troubles people, with writers like Henry Miller teasing the boundary as much as artists do. In the last decade several stories have hit the headlines both in the UK and the USA, making grant-giving bodies cautious. Photographers and performance artists predominate -
      • Robert Mapplethorpe (photographer of "homoerotic images")
      • Jock Sturges (photographer of nude young children, 1990). A federal grand jury failed to indict Sturges, and his career was enhanced by the notoriety.
      • Marilyn Zimmerman (tenured professor at Wayne State University, photographer of her nude daughter, 1993). Charges dropped, but her ex-husband used the photograph controversy to gain primary custody in court.
      • Natsuki Uruma (Performance Artist, pole-dances to London tube travellers, 2000)
      That shocking the public (or "making them think") can be artistic comes partly from Surrealism. Breton himself said that "Surrealism attempted to provoke, from an intellectual and moral point of view, an attack of conscience, of the most general and serious kind". The creator's genre classification of their work is a hint about the way the viewer might approach the work. It may be (deliberately) unhelpful or provocative. We needn't trust what creators say about their work. We needn't believe their claim that their own work is "Wonderful", so why should we heed their classifications - and intentions? And if we don't, where does that leave the work's value?
  • Social Factors
    • There's big money to be had in Art, especially in the USA. In addition to the tax breaks for private collectors, several states and some 40 cities have a "percent for art law" that require a percent or more of public building projects be set aside for the purchase of public art. The giving of public money to artists has brought the issue of the nature of Art into the open - when Art and Hospitals are competing for funds, public reaction can be heated. Studying public art controversies has itself become a growing field, represented by a flood of books and studies that aim to help agencies head off complaints before they occur and lessen their intensity after they arise. See The Nation's article for details. Poetry developments have been shielded from the glare of publicity.
    • There's more Minimalism in Art, which is provocative - though people sympathetic to the Arts might think it fair enough that one should take time with overtly obscure and difficult works like the Wasteland or Ulysses, many would not be prepared to stare at a pile of bricks too long. And it's not unusual for gallery furniture to be mistaken for pieces of art. Matthew Collings writes (p.225) "Relatively recently the assumption was that there was no point in thinking about contemporary art because it didn't mean anything to anyone except artists... Now there is a growing anxiety that there might not be any point to it because its meanings are too available and also too available elsewhere".
    • Images have more of an impact than words.
    • Mainstream poetry is closer to public sensibility than mainstream Art; literary avante-gardism is peripheral even to the literary world. Whereas winners of major art awards (the Turner prize in the UK, for example) initially provoked anger, poetry winners are welcomed by indifference. Now, as Matthew Collings points out (p.226) " the Turner Prize .. is an amusing talking-point, a laugh on the cultural calendar, but not an outrage". It's something that the media enjoy and thus sustain.

Where Modern Art is, will Poetry follow?

  • Theory
    Theoretical approaches are converging. When evaluation of a work emphasises issues like Ethnicity, Gender, Power and Politics, other more aesthetic issues can be neglected. Novelty is prized not only in the works but in theories about the works, and the more theories there are, the easier it is to justify a piece.
  • Contextual devices
    Poets are making more use of contextual devices. Art (Duchamp, etc) exploited the "Gallery Effect" (the changed perception of an audience when in aesthetic mood) long ago with his readymades. Audience reaction has become part of an artist's work - the work is incomplete without it. Part of the "art" of being an artist is being able to judge the right time for such a piece of work. Picasso, for instance, had the idea of producing a blank canvas long before someone did it (he also had the idea of coating common objects with fur) but maybe he felt that part of the work (namely the audience) wasn't ready. With "Found poetry", poets are catching up.
  • Reaction
    Publicity stunts are becoming more common (the Dada poets and Dali providing role models), and shock value sells books. Bluff and double bluff are on the increase. Suspected pseudo-science and pseudo-intellectuals are attacked by their counterparts, but suspected pseudo-artists are only attacked by non-artists. Sometimes there are theoretical backlashes (see for instance the summary of "What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand") but the art world is self-sustaining, and it's hard to see how any re-evaluation is likely to succeed.

Perhaps charlatans are nothing to worry about. After all, they are sometimes only sincere, pretentious creators who have gambled and lost in the posterity stakes - we need artists who gamble. But I think it's worth comparing the ability of intellectual pursuits to deal with charlatans. The sciences in the main deal with them rapidly. Art seems slower than Poetry at coming to a settled judgement. This is laudable in that all such judgements are provisional, but if public funds are limited and Art gets much more funding than Poetry, Art has at least some obligation to show that in more ways than one it takes fraud seriously.


See Also

  • "The Hoax Engine", Peter Forbes, Poetry Review 87:2, 1997
  • "this is modern art", Matthew Collings, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1999
  • "But is it Art?", Cynthia Freeland, OUP, 2001
  • "Because [painting] is susceptible to exploitation as a commodity open to all the worst pressures of capitalism - affected by advertising and journalism, by the appetite for change, novelty, fashion, and obsolescence; purchased for completely non-aesthetic reasons ... - `It becomes hard ... to distinguish between what is significant for the history of art and what is significant only in the history of commerce or popular taste. The distinction is made more difficult by the enthusiastic efforts of most of the artists to obliterate it", Monroe K. Spears, "Dionysus and the City", OUP, 1970, p.230

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