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),
secondhand (postmodernism), and the trashy (kitsch art). Also the mere act of presenting an object constitutes a "treatment",
- 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
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
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 -
- 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
- 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
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?
- 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".
- TheoryContextual devices
Theoretical approaches are
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.
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
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", Dionysus and the City", OUP, 1970, p.230
Updated in March 2007