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Forged: Why Fakes are the Great Art of Our Age
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on March 23, 2014
The impulse toward elitism in art has always been powerful. The branch of this endeavor aimed at persuading the non-elite, especially the middle class, that it is simply incapable of appreciating art has been not only powerful but wildly successful. Starting in the mid-19th century, it has managed to wipe out even the concept of a popular market for new or avant guard art. In poetry, for example, book sales, minimal as they are, are largely the result of class reading assignments in literature courses. The professors write to and for the professors; Hallmark owns the rest.

The forgers portrayed in the book share particular traits. They tend to be people from modest educational and social circumstances who mastered difficult artistic techniques just in time to see them rendered obsolete by modernism and the nihilism that followed. They found demand for these services largely, if not exclusively, in the field of restoration, which in all cases led to falsification. Citing revenge as both motive and justification, they each established careers as gifted forgers, thieves in strictly legal terms. Justification typically is expressed as resentment or envy of an elite characterized by knowledge, money, or both. "Yes, I have cheated them, and they deserved to be cheated. That is my art."

But the crimes of these forgers pale in comparison to the post-modern artists we meet in the book. Relieved of the need for mastery of technique, they are free to concentrate solely on justification. And as Keats demonstrates in the third section of the book, it is all so easy to accomplish. All that is required is to assume the pose of the interlocutor. You simply explain whatever it is you are doing as "raising questions" about whatever subject matter comes to hand.

For example, Keats describes a project by Sherrie Levine in which she photographed pages of a book containing photographs by Walker Evans. According to Levine, this is not what it seems to the uninitiated, the laziness of someone with nothing original to say, but, rather, "A picture of a picture is a strange thing and it brings up lots of contradictions." In such vague and sophomoric fashion, elite artists are said to be questioning society about such things as the "boundaries of art," the nature of attribution," the relationship between past and present," or "the boundaries between subject and object" -- practically anything except, of course, the ability to compose an original photograph. Thus, they shift the burden of meaning from themselves to viewer. It is up to you to prove your worthiness by finding or assigning meaning to the naked act of photographing a photograph. The artist's job is to ask some vague question. If you cannot answer it, and thereby make a case that the act means something, you have proven once again why art is for the elite. Its a perverse form the the emperor's clothes with the emperor in on the ruse this time.

But the fraud of post-modernism really shines when Keats introduces us to a cadre of shallow thinkers posing as artists. J.S.G. Boggs draws facsimile bank notes that, we are told, "leverag[e] the absurdity or art to question the sanity of finance." Really? Define finance? Explain how its "sanity" is in question? What does "the absurdity or art" mean and what does that have to do with finance? It's all just gibberish, lazy and shallow pleas to those who equate finance with evil and don't want to think more about it than that. If bankers and governments are upset about the practice, that is enough.

And then we come to street art. Someone defaces a billboard and it "provokes pertinent questions: Who owns a city's visual space, the corporations who can buy it or the public who lives in it.?' By this anarchist logic, someone might feel justified in spray painting one's automobile, on the ground that it is part of a publicly-owned visual space. Or one's house. Or one's face.

Hacking is also art, again, because somehow it questions things. Someone highjacks a public WiFi spot and alters newspapers to reflect the political views of the hackers. Or hackers create a fake website purporting to represent the views of the Vatican, again, altered to reflect the political views of the hackers. The fact that the viewers were not asked to participate is apparently of no importance. What matters is the transmission of a political message characterized as questioning something or other. I suspect the Chinese Communist government may be way ahead of the hackers on this one.

Finally, we are invited to view genetic research as related to art -- someone generates frog steaks from a living frog and then serves them with the frog in attendance. I confess that I am simply not up to the task of seeing what is being questioned here except good taste, much less why this is art. I embrace my exclusion from this particular elite.

In sum, the stories of the six forgers are interesting and worth reading. Ultimately, I am not persuaded that their frauds constitute heroic acts of vengeance. They set out to deceive, they studied the most effective way of doing so, and they accomplished much in that regard, often muddying the waters of art history in the process. I do not agree with Keats that these acts have raised important questions about such things as attribution, culture, and the rest of it. Rather, they have raised questions about the security of markets and the reliability of certain indicia of authenticity. Producing a convincing painting in the style of an established master does not, to my mind, question the value or originality of that master. Rather, it plays to greed, arrogance, and the qualities that made that master respected in the first place. The question raised, it seems to me, is what the elites who have replaced those technique-driven forms with what has come after have to show for the effort. The book's answer to this question is, perhaps,well-summarized by the following passages:

"This avant guard tendency to ponder and parse what it means to be free, rather than acting on that freedom in any new way, is ubiquitous."

"The readymade liberated artists to incarcerate themselves in their own hall of mirrors."
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on February 3, 2015
From the title, you would expect to find this book arguing that those forgeries that can deceive connoisseurs and experts into believing that they are the work of great artists are the great art of our age. (Not an original idea at all.) And in the short chapters looking at the work of six forgers, he hints at this, but these are just stalking horses for Part Three where his real message is spelled out: "The fact that anything can be categorized as art does not make everything artistically interesting." Anything can be categorized as art? That makes the term meaningless. He appears to champion "purposeful purposelessness" that "calls everything into question." He trots out the usual names and concepts, Marcel Duchamp (who believed that art was whatever the artist said it was), Andy Warhol, Dada, Conceptual Art, deconstruction, graffiti "artists," etc. He also tries to drag the forgers into this potpourri, perhaps because they were sabotaging the the traditional art record, and all of this is in the name of "forging a new art." One wonders what he thinks a great work of traditional art actually is or does. And why would a reasonable person looking back at the history of art believe that it is a sort of attenuated, graphic philosophizing in conundrums?

Since I've read both Eric Hebborn's "Drawn to Trouble" and "The Art Forger's Handbook," I turned to the chapter devoted to him to see how Keats handled his career. I found his recital curiously slanted. To take just one example, Graham Smith, a vindictive ex-lover is cited to support a dubious claim, and then an ambiguous recollection by Geraldine Norman is cited as further support. Now, there is no doubt that Hebborn was both narcissistic and dishonest, but that has little to do with Keats' handling of the source material, and it makes me wonder about his handling of the other chapters.

I would give this two or three stars if it weren't for Part Three, but I don't think that it deserves more.
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on February 20, 2014
Hoving and other experts put the percentage of artworks that are fakes as being very high. In a capitalist market in which
folks with a lot of money and the urge to pretend to have taste are waiting for a taking, a lot of remarkable counterfeiting is to be expected. Keats does a great job of using the crafts of forgery to help us understand how originality works and how imitations
can carry a lot of information and be very, very useful.
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on September 3, 2017
Good stories, if you are in to this kind of thing. Which I am
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on January 30, 2014
In the process of setting forth his surprisingly plausible thesis that forged art may be the great art of our age, the author does a fine job of telling the history and methods of art forgery, making this book both fascinating and thought provoking.
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on November 6, 2014
This books ok. Thought it was possibly going to talk more about the process of making forgeries, oh well. Came on time and in good condition. No complaints.
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on August 20, 2015
Not a very comprehensive work. Does concentrate on 6 artists doing forgery.
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on February 20, 2013
I found this book to be another way to look at art. Why do artists resort to making copies of original paintings? Is it because they are not recognized in their own right?
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on January 6, 2013
Wonderful, informative, and very readable book. Learned so much from Jonathon's well researched writing. It is a must for anyone interested in art.
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VINE VOICEon November 10, 2012
I have a deep love for art having been in art school and study during my younger years. I had a teacher in an art class years ago that had the students copy and recreated their favorite artist's paintings and then create their own work of art using similar techniques. Throughout my career I have used his teachings to create my own works with success. This topic intrigues me.

The book is split into 3 parts. Part One entitled "The Art of Forgery," Part Two entitled "Six Modern Masters," and Part three entitled "Forging a New Art." Part 1 and 3 are quite short, while Part 2 takes up the majority of the book.

Part 2, The Six Modern Masters is composed of six sections:
Lothar Malskat, What is Belief?
Alceao Dossens, What is Authenticity?
Han van Meegeren What is Authority?
Eric Hebborn, What is History?
Elmyr de Hory, What is Identity?
Tom Keating, What is Culture?

I was particularly interested by the final section "Forging a New Art" where the author discusses Andy Warhol's Mona Lisas. The subject matter covered in the book is interesting, but I was hoping the book would be a more light-hearted approach to this subject, Instead, it is highly academic and detailed writings. (Which of course, provides a lot of food for thought!) The book is very appropriate for college coursework.

Jonathon Keats writing style requires a lot of attention and he has a style of his own. I am showing an example below of his writing style which is reflected throughout the book:
"In other words, appropriation artists appropriate the forger's modus operandi for artistic purposes. And almost always, as in the case of Warhol, those purposes are subversive. Appropriation is a form of critique, a mode of questioning. Yet Warhol was nearly unique in his ability to question more than merely the work he appropriated."
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