‘A Great Scandal Is a Masterpiece’: Q&A with ‘Forged’ Author Jonathon Keats

Interviewing your spouse might sound a little strange, but I’ve done worse. I’ve translated him. Several years ago Jonathon Keats published a collection of fables, The Book of the Unknown (Random House), and I translated the book into Italian. As an experienced literary translator, I found it exciting to have “my” author sitting next to me during the translation process. I could ask him any question I wanted, and I could tell him when I didn’t like his answers. Now that he’s published a new, non-fiction book – Forged: Why Fakes Are the Great Art of Our Age, which just came out for Oxford University Press this week – I’ve welcomed the chance to ask him some questions that he was genuinely interested in answering.

In Forged, Jonathon Keats (who, besides being my husband, is also an art critic, journalist and artist) explores the role of the counterfeit within the history of art, starting from the assumption that “forgers are the foremost artists of our age.” Why? Because by challenging the concept of “legitimate” art, they provoke and explore our anxieties, which is what art should always do.

After describing past attitudes toward forgery that were very different from our own, he  tells the fascinating stories of six modern forgers and concludes by looking at how artists today have appropriated many aspects of forgery, and how open-source “copyleft” strategies have the potential to make legitimate art meaningful again.

I’ve begun the interview by trying to find some connection between the art forger and the fiction writer.

Silvia Pareschi: You have already published two novels and a collection of fables. Do you see a connection between your fiction and Forged?

Jonathon Keats: Writing fiction is one of the few forms of counterfeiting that our society permits. The reason, I think, is that the fakery is blatant, announced right on the cover of the book. If it isn’t, as in the case of James Frey’s deceptive memoir, A Million Little Pieces, readers feel betrayed and the author is punished. But if readers know they’re playing a game of make-believe, the trickery doesn’t seem threatening.

This game of make-believe really appeals to me as a writer because it requires readers to explicitly set aside everything they know, much of which may not be true. The imagination is exercised, and I believe that makes us more open-minded when we return to our everyday lives. We’re prepared to consider points of view other than our own.

Of course relatively few people read fiction. The vast majority simply have no interest in fantasy, and those who are most resistant are probably the ones who are least receptive to alternate perspectives in the first place. So it seems to me that the potential impact of fiction is rather limited.

And that’s why a case like the James Frey debacle is so interesting. A lot of people were drawn to the memoir who never would have read it as a work of fiction. Perhaps they even empathized with Frey’s alleged drug addiction. Then the scandal broke and people realized they’d been had, which inadvertently added another layer to the book. Even those who couldn’t care less about Frey’s story were forced to reflect on the reasons why the fraud worked. People were compelled to question their belief in the written word and printed book.

In a way, that makes Frey one of the foremost authors of our time. As a fellow fiction writer, I’m a little bit envious. And as an art critic, I can’t help but notice that art is in trouble for many of the same reasons that fiction is challenged. Like Frey, art forgers deserve serious consideration for their underhanded counterfeiting.

SP: What do you think is wrong with art?

JK: Simply stated, the art world. Look at any avant-garde since the mid-19th century, and you’ll see the worthiest artists trying to rile society. From Pop to Surrealism, modern art is a provocation, goading us to question our belief in everything from the marketplace to our own sanity. In other words, good art is disturbing. And the art world, quite frankly, is a sedative.

Think about museums. Generally they’re well-lit and the art is encased in glass. Anything the least bit worrisome, like ambiguity, is explained away by curatorial texts. Like a novel or fable, the art can still have an impact if you ignore your surroundings and enter into the work, but that’s exceedingly difficult, especially when the museum is doing everything possible to domesticate the art.

Most people can’t be bothered with all that extra work. The small fraction of society that goes out to see art—paying $22 a head to stroll up the Guggenheim ramp—tends to view it as an educational experience, a harmless entertainment, or a bad joke. And can they really be blamed? The majority of art that gets exhibited isn’t really avant-garde. The only challenging thing about it is that it’s willfully opaque, an enigma perfectly poised for curators to crack. Effectively this art is a product of the art world—and product is the right word because there’s no risk for artist, institution or audience.

SP: So what does forgery achieve that conventional art can’t accomplish?

JK: Forgeries are dangerous for everyone involved. If museum art is housebroken, forgeries are feral.

To successfully pull off a con, a forger has to have a keen sense of how we think. Forgers prey on our unjustified assumptions and false beliefs. Sometimes they operate at an individual level. For instance, a forger might take advantage of an expert’s overconfidence. Other times forgers work on a societal level. For example, a forger might exploit our unquestioning respect for institutional authority by tampering with archives. In one way or another forgers shadow our blind spots, and when they get caught—if they get caught—we’re forced to confront the flaws in our everyday perceptions and conventional beliefs. The scandal provokes us to reexamine our worldview—which is exactly what good art strives to do. For that reason, I believe that the scandal deserves to be taken seriously as an artwork. A great scandal is a masterpiece.

The key difference between legitimate art and forgery is that we can choose whether to look at a painting, whereas a forgery confronts us against our will. Even if you’re not personally defrauded, and even if you aren’t interested in art, you’ll hear about the scandal on television or read about it in the newspaper, and it will probably make you a little bit anxious. You’ll almost involuntarily ask whether you could have been duped, and in the process you’ll experience the most salutary effect of art, which is to understand yourself and your world more clearly. That’s why great forgeries are the most powerful and universal artworks produced by our society.

SP: Can you give an example from the book?

JK: The most audacious case of the 20th century played out in the late 1930s and early ’40s, when a Dutch painter named Han van Meegeren forged an entire period in Vermeer’s oeuvre that was unlike anything ever seen before. What got him started was a theory espoused by Abraham Bredius, an eminent Dutch art historian, who claimed that Vermeer once made a series of religious paintings that somehow went missing. So van Meegeren gave Bredius the evidence he’d been seeking by making a painting of Christ breaking bread at Emmaus on which he forged Vermeer’s monogram. The painting was truly abominable, but Bredius was an old man with failing eyesight. He was so gratified by the discovery that he not only authenticated it but also wrote about it in The Burlington Magazine, calling it “the masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft.”

On the strength of that endorsement, van Meegeren was able to pass off more paintings in the same wretched style, selling them to Dutch museums. He was helped by the Second World War, because the Dutch were desperate to keep the national patrimony from being purchased or plundered by the occupying Germans. In fact, it was the Nazis’ lust for Vermeer’s art that ultimately brought van Meegeren down. After the war, a Biblical Vermeer was found in the possession of Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring—the Luftwaffe commander who led the German occupation by blitzing Rotterdam—and van Meegeren was discovered to be the seller of the painting. To avoid being charged with criminal disloyalty to Holland, he confessed to art forgery.

So van Meegeren exploited the vanity of an individual scholar and took advantage of mechanisms by which one ill-informed decision could determine countless others. The circumstances of his fraud were unique, and his con was exquisitely tailored to his time and place, but, like any great work of art, his scam still resonates today. It goes without saying that a 21st century forger couldn’t insinuate paintings as sloppy as his into Holland’s great museums on the strength of one scholar’s biased endorsement, but we can still fall victim to our vanities, and there are plenty of decision-making processes that still run on auto-pilot. Van Meegeren’s masterpiece remains as powerful and pertinent as ever.

SP: Are there any non-forgers who are taking art in the right direction today?

JK: Fortunately, yes. The problem with forgery as an art form is that no forger in his right mind wants to become a great artist in the sense I’m talking about because the forger would first have to get caught. The physical work produced by the forger—such as van Meegeren’s paintings—is an important part of the con, but the artifact isn’t artistically interesting on its own. Remember that the scandal is the masterpiece. Forgers are accidental artists. Their artwork is involuntary, and that really limits their artistic output. But I think artists can learn from forgers, and from forgeries, reinvigorating art and wresting it from the art world.

Street artists such as Banksy have the right instinct, and so do some new media artists, especially those who apply a hacker mentality to their work. An early example of this is Vaticano.org, a 1998 project by net artists Franco and Eva Mattes. It was ingeniously simple. They just took the Vatican website—www.vatican.va—and replicated it under the domain name vaticano.org with a few minor changes. For instance, there were papal encyclicals promoting free sex and drugs, and people could have their sins absolved by email. So the site slyly twisted Church dogma, but what was really remarkable was the effect as people found out that it was fake. The hoax undermined people’s trust in any mechanism whatsoever for disseminating Church doctrine, including the real Vatican website. It was a brilliant hack on faith.

More recently a pair of new media artists named Julian Oliver and Danja Vasiliev developed a gadget that could override the local wi-fi network in a library or coffeeshop, allowing them to remotely modify the content of popular news sites. In one case, they altered the New York Times to announce the nomination of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange as U.S. Secretary of Defense. Since the article only showed up on one wi-fi network, the Times had no way of knowing about it. But what really makes this project compelling is that the artists released the schematics for making their gadget on the web, so that anyone with access to a soldering iron could build one. There’s no knowing how many have been made. And as a result you really can’t trust news sites at any wi-fi hotspot. The potential for misinformation is huge, and that makes this artwork genuinely dangerous. We should all be anxious. We need to question what we learn online, as we should have been doing all along. It’s a perfect example of how an artwork can be a provocation rather than a mere cultural trophy.

My ultimate purpose in writing this book is to encourage more of the same. Looking at the history of forgery is my way of finding a viable future for art.

Acclaimed as a “poet of ideas” by The New Yorker, Jonathon Keats will be presenting Forged at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, January 9, at City Lights Books in San Francisco and at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, January 23, at Book Soup in West Hollywood, where he’ll be in conversation with author and Fortune columnist Stanley Bing.

Silvia Pareschi is a literary translator from English into Italian. She has translated works by Jonathan Franzen, Don DeLillo, Junot Díaz, Amy Hempel, Cormac McCarthy, E.L. Doctorow, Nathan Englander, Julie Otsuka, Denis Johnson and many more writers, including Jennifer DuBois, recently featured in ZYZZYVA‘s Winter issue.

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