Let's say you were a nonexistent person. But what if you used existence strategies? Would that be enough to sort of make up for your nonexistence, in a sense?
You'll notice certain recursive qualities in the above question.
It has been an utter delight to follow the case of one Karl Waldmann, who doesn't exist. That hasn't stopped Waldmann, who is deceased but never lived, from not making piles of money with artwork he didn't create.
It seems Waldmann is, or was, a previously unknown Dada artist from Vienna whose works were discovered by a French journalist at a Polish flea market in Berlin.
The charming part of the story is how the art world is responding to the emerging evidence that Waldmann actually never existed and that his works are forgeries, consigned for sale across Europe by a gang of criminals.
Waldmann's Belgian gallerist, for instance, has responded by offering authentication services. I love this, but I'm unclear...is he saying that some of the works are fakes but not all of them, or is he authenticating the real fakes from fake fakes? I hope it's the latter. Because we must put our collective foot down about people faking fakes. There should be only one authentic fictitious Karl Waldmann.
The real gem comes from an institution, no less, the Kunsthaus Dresden, where Waldmann's work has been shown. The institution admitted to being troubled by the possible nonexistence of Waldmann, but added, according to Süddeutsche Zeitung, said that "it's also possible that it is a contemporary art project using fictional strategies."
I totally love that. Read it again and think about it, and watch your own head explode.
Furthermore, I'll go them one better. I think the criminals ought to immediately adopt this as their defense. That is, they should immediately claim that they are not creating forgeries for purposes of fraud, but that they are creating real fake art because the whole project is itself a contemporary art project meant as a subtle commentary on the state of the art market and the greed and willing gullibility of its various factotums and middlepersons.
Because then, watch what happens to the art itself—it passes from state to state to state like water going from solid to liquid to gas. It is art, then it becomes not-art, then it becomes art again. First it is authentic historical Dadist work by a guy nobody happens to know much about called Karl Waldmann; then it becomes fraudulent fake art cynically planted by criminals; then it becomes one of the cleverest contemporary art projects recently conceived—new work that convinced people it was old art, but only to make a point.
In that final state, if you think about it, everyone can be happy. The people who bought the art because they liked it can continue liking it; the former "criminals" can be celebrated for their daring, cutting-edge two-thousand-teens art project, which exactly mimicked forgery but wasn't; and everyone who has gained either money or artworks can keep their money and artworks without having to admit either that they were taken advantage of or that they committed a crime or an unsavory act, as the case may be. The police need not get involved. (I've failed to mention that the police are in fact involved.) Works all around, seems to me.
Fakes, forgeries and misattributions
If I can get serious for a moment—unless it's just way too late for that—I might point out that a large percentage of the art being traded as authentic on world markets probably isn't real. The Fine Arts Experts Institute of Geneva, Switzerland, analyzes artworks for authenticity using scientific methods. They charge healthy fees for doing so, and the purpose is to add value to works that stand up to their scrutiny; it's a sort of appraisal service. The head of FAEI, Yann Walther, says of the idea that 50% of the art in circulation on the world art market is fake or misattributed "is, if anything, an underestimate."
The reason for this is simple: the market needs objects. There's a strong demand for art and strong incentives on the part of the market to satisfy that demand. Even granting that Karl Waldmann is imaginary and "his" work the product of forgers, it would be nice if he were real; the market could use more attractive Dadaist works. There's nothing wrong with the impulses. Collectors would love to have the works and art dealers would love to provide them.
That certainly doesn't excuse criminal malfeasance, on any level. But it's interesting to me to imagine the feelings such work perhaps evokes on the part of hypothetical owners. What if you love to look at the piece? You would get a lot of satisfaction and enjoyment out of it. Then, if you found it was a forgery and you'd been defrauded, your feelings would be changed radically and fundamentally—the meaning of the work would now be that you were played for a chump, robbed and violated, and the work itself, you might feel, was interwoven in that betrayal—how could you now look at it and not feel bad? And yet the object itself would not have changed at all.
No matter what percentage of the art that's "out there" in the world is fake—50%, 70% (which seems to be the high end of the estimates), or even just 20% or 10% (numbers everyone seems to agree are too low)...whatever it is, it means that there are a large number of people out there who are fooling themselves. They own artworks that presumably please them, that they think are valuable, and that provide some of the gratifications and consolations of art...but only because of what they think they know about it. If they found out that what they know isn't true, their feelings would change dramatically.
I only have one conclusion here, and it's very mundane. And that is, if you want to play in the art world, you need to create objects. Objects are what the market revolves around. Objects are what are bought and sold. And the good news is, the art world really needs more objects; there apparently aren't enough already to go around. The door is open for you to step up and try to provide some of what's needed.
(Thanks to artnet news)
Original contents copyright 2015 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
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Featured Comments from:
Jon Orloff: "The institution got it wrong. It's not a contemporary art project using fictional strategies. It's really a fictional art project using contemporary strategies."
Rodger Kingston: "This is a fascinating post with an interesting spectrum of responses, and has personal resonance for me in a couple of ways.
"Starting in the mid 1970s, I built a large collection of 'anonymous' photographs based strictly on aesthetic and/or historic values. (See the TOP articles 'Democratic Vistas' and 'The Kingston Collection.')
"I never collected with monetary return in mind; my goal was to build an 'alternative history of photography' in hopes of changing how photography is valued in the art world. And while I clearly haven't attained this lofty goal, I have succeeded in becoming a 'Connoisseur of the Commonplace' (as I have been called), which has taught me to see the beauty in everyday things.
"As regards my own work as a photographer, I've had modest success, with numerous museum and gallery exhibitions, and I've supported myself in and around photography for over 40 years, most recently with my latest self-published book (See the TOP article 'Strong Color' and 'Searching for Edward Hopper' at the Luminous-Landscape.)
"While I've made a hand-to-mouth living in photography lo these many years, if I were judging by external values, I wonder if I'd call myself a success.
"However, going by internal values, I can't imagine a more wonderful way of making my living; my work has been my spiritual fulfillment and my play.
"Robert Frost said that he wanted to leave a few poems where they wouldn't shake loose, and also that he wanted to make sure the woodpile was a little bit higher when he left than when he arrived. That would be success enough for me."
Dave in NM: "Thank you, Mike. I've got a toothache today. Now that you've made my head hurt, the tooth doesn't feel too bad."
Kenneth Tanaka: "The subjects of art theft and forgery have become a special interest for me for the past few years, ever since I read The Gardner Heist. Since then I've read just about anything I can find on these subjects. (No, I'm not studying for a future caper.) I've not yet read much about 'Karl Waldmann' so you've now given me another cool case to pursue this summer/fall, particularly since I will be in Vienna in April!
"Estimates of fake or incorrectly attributed art works in private and museum collections generally seem overstated for shock value to me. But since there are so many strengths of verification involved across collection administrations I can only shrug and say OK.
"The degree to which an owner's enjoyment of a piece relies on price and provenance must similarly vary. I know people who bought works by famous artists, often pre-fame, that they would never sell. They love seeing them each day. Discovering that these works were fake or mis-attributed might take some shine away but I think the owners would still love them. I also know people for whom price + provenance = love. Again I can only shrug.
"Re: '...if you want to play in the art world, you need to create objects. Objects are what the market revolves around. Objects are what are bought and sold.' Yup. Bingo. Of course you don't need to 'play in the art world' to pursue and enjoy photography (or painting, or sculpture, or textile art, or...). Most of us don't. But one thing is certain: ya ain't gonna show up on Artnet searches (for example) by posting on Flickr, Tumblr, 500px, Twitter, Facebook.... And, yes indeed Mike, it starts with creating an object; namely, for us, a print.
"Does the art world 'need' more objects? You might not reach such a conclusion if you saw some of the storage vaults of a major museum! But the art world will always find room for new objects of value."
James Bullard: "That reminds me of a movie I saw quite a few years back. A thief breaks into a studio and steals several paintings from an artist who is having trouble selling his work. The thief cons a galley into taking them as the work of an undiscovered painter who is a recluse. They sell so well that the thief tries breaking into the studio again to steal more paintings, but gets caught by the artist. The pair then collaborate to create and sell work by the fictional artist the thief made up to sell the first batch.
"A critic gets suspicious and eventually they are caught and the movie ends with them both in jail, and the artist painting in his cell because there is still demand for his work. I can't remember the name of the movie and I haven't been able to find it in web searches, but the perpetrators of the Karl Waldmann scheme may have gotten the idea from that movie."
Mike replies: Anyone know the movie?
Judith Wallerius: "I don't quite agree with the summary that the art world needs more objects of just any kind, because that void could easily be filled with countless works of unknown and/or new artists that continuously create enough to fit any taste and purse of potential buyers. Instead, the issue seems to be more that it needs more objects with an already established value, or at least objects that fit into the framework of established value without much wiggle room. Anyone not buying for enjoyment is buying to make a profit, and few are doing that by taking a gamble on someone who might be big one day. For that, the perceived and mostly settled value of an object (settled as in, while there might be discussion if it's worth a few hundred or thousand dollars more or less, there's an agreement about the fact that it is worth several of those hundreds or thousands, regardless of taste) is far more important than a debatable artistic one.
"And that's where the forgers or creators of 'unknown' art from past periods come in, to fill a void that no new-and-coming artist can fill. It wants filling with art that already carries a sticker with its 'worth,' for filing purposes."
Mark Roberts: "I recommend False Impressions: The Hunt for Big-Time Art Fakes for a fascinating look at the history of forgery and fakery in the world of art. It's surprising how much is out there—even in some major museums."
Jim: "In the late '60s I took a scientific instrument into the basement of a top art museum to test whether it could help find fakes. The first painting we analyzed which was supposed to be ~400'years old showed the white pigment being titanium oxide, not lead oxide, so it was painted in recent times—a fake!"
Michael Bearman: "This reminds me of a story about Picasso. His friend watches him paint a canvas. When Picasso finishes, the friend expresses his admiration for the work. Picasso says, 'if you like it, take it, keep it.' The friend takes it home. The next day, he realises that Picasso didn't sign the work. So he takes it back to Picasso and asks him to sign it. Picasso says, 'I can't sign that, it's not my painting. It's a fake.' His friend says, 'Are you joking? I watched you paint it yesterday. You gave it to me to keep.' Picasso says, haughtily, 'I can paint fake Picassos as well as anyone.'"
Paul Amyes: "In the 1990s an aboriginal artist by the name of Eddie Burrup came to prominence in Australia. The work was exhibited widely, including at events for indigenous artists, and it started to become widely collected.
"Trouble was Eddie Burrup did not exist. He was the creation of Elizabeth Durack, of one of the most prominent graziers and landowning families in Australia and definitely caucasian. The problem is that it was promoted that Burrup was an initiated man in his tribe and the paintings reflected that sacred knowledge, when nothing could have been further from the truth.
"Durack tried to laugh it off, the white arts community felt considerable discomfort because they had been sold a lie and bought art works which weren't of Aboriginal significance and therefore weren't as valuable as they'd been led to believe, and the Aboriginal artist community was outraged because they felt it was another case of white colonialists stealing what little was left of their culture and profiting from it."