Fakery and aesthetics

girl-with-hair-ribbonby Steve Snyder

In the various arts, just as in intellectual endeavors, there are two types of what we might commonly call fakery. The first is forgery, plagiarism and similar. It’s obviously a matter of law, not philosophy. The second, which is the concern here, might be called “inauthenticity” — it in some way involves passing off a lesser work as a greater one.

Fakery of this sort is harder to determine, of course. A painting, a sculpture, a symphony, a novel or a skyscraper don’t involve scientific fact in the same way as works in the natural sciences, other than obvious matters such as the refractive properties of different pigments, the timbre of different instruments or the tensile properties of different architectural construction materials. There’s no materials analysis, like there is in the case of a modern work that’s being passed off as ancient. Even more, unlike intellectual works in the sciences and philosophy alike, there’s no rationality, no reasoning to a conclusion. Add to that the old Latin maxim of “de gustibus non disputandum,” there’s no disputing tastes.

With all that in mind, some patrons of the arts, whether more serious aficionados or more casual ingesters, might wonder whether we can ever get any consensus on what constitutes fakery or inauthentic works. Others might flatly state that such judgments are impossible.

However, while recognizing that such judgments may be more provisional than in the sciences, or even than in philosophy, and may also have less empirical grounding, I argue that they still can be made, and they can be made without waiting for the “judgment of history,” whatever that may entail. I also argue we can look at specific motives that may drive some artists to engage in psychological fakery. And motives, to the degree they can be discerned, are part of the world of the social sciences.

Moreover, if we count the emotions as part of intellect in its broadest sense, we can also look at artists as public intellectuals of a sort. With this in mind, we can see how aesthetic fakery not only may be a matter for discussion, but how it should be such a matter. That’s especially true with artists such as, to pick one obvious example, Andres Serrano, who deliberately shocks and challenges convention.

With the above basic groundwork laid, let’s dive in. Within the type of fakery I’m concerned with here, I see two main subtypes, which can often overlap. That’s either the fakery of coasting on one’s reputation and producing schlock, or — somewhat similar —   coasting on the reputation of one’s ideals, as those ideals are perceived by the general public.

For the former, I am first and foremost reminded of Barbara Tuchman calling most of the later output of Richard Strauss “schlock.” Salvador Dali, beyond the possibility of not doing his own work (the first type of fakery), may also be. Case in point. Things such as his telephone with a lobster headset, to use another foreign loan word, but one now thoroughly Anglicized, strike me as “kitsch” as well as schlock. And, although the skit, as most of them were, was over the top, I’m also reminded of an old Saturday Night Live episode in which Jon Lovett played Pablo Picasso. The aging Picasso scribbles doodles on napkins, claims they’re priceless masterpieces and uses them as currency, or tries to.

Artists of all sorts, whether painters, sculptors, photographers, musicians or others, always worry about the wellspring of creativity drying up. One easy way to sidestep this is to tap into the old myth of artist as rebel and proclaim that schlock is actually shock.

From there, the artist doesn’t have too much further to go if he or she wants to underscore the claim to genius. Per a bit of waggery that’s at least 15 seconds old in my mind as of first typing these words, the French for “shock” is “avant-garde.”

In the case of Dali, of whose work I am an aficionado, and seeing him as a premier artist, and a premier controversial artist, of the last century, it’s easy to see how this could happen. That’s doubly so when the myth of artist as rebel is trumped by the reality of artist as capitalist.

That comes even more to the fore with Andy Warhol and his paintings of things such as Campbell’s soup cans. True artistry, or just overblown graphic arts? Or, to pick up the main thread, art or kitsch? Not being as much a fan of Warhol as of Dali, I lean toward the latter. I do so while acknowledging that this is just one person’s opinion, while at the same time stating that, as a connoisseur of some sort of modern art and a definite aficionado of modern classical music, I am no Philistine in tastes.

And it wasn’t just Warhol. The whole Pop Art movement struggled to separate itself from the idea of kitsch. One could argue that while the best of the movement, such as Warhol, made the cut, lesser Pop Art creators didn’t.

What about modern classical music? In music, the issue of fakery can be a bit more difficult. First, most music, other than program music with specific titles, has never been representational in the first place, unlike pre-modern art. Nonetheless, I can agree with Tuchman, at least to a fair degree, on her assessment of Richard Strauss. Here, there’s another issue that’s involved, and it gets back to the question of creative juices. Richard Strauss never claimed that his later works were meant to shock. Rather, to use a modern phrase, one might accuse him of “phoning it in.” Which gets me to the other version of fakery: being untrue to one’s own ideals.

Staying with the world of classical music to get us started, the problem can take several different forms. In music, serialism, or at least semi-serialism, continued to grow in popularity in Europe (though certainly not in America, land of blue-haired ladies attending orchestral concerts). Strauss, unlike, say, Dmitri Shostakovich before Stalin put the kibosh on his experimentation by way of gulag threats or worse, refused to go down that road. However, one could argue that he still could have found more creativity while staying closer to tonality. After all, Brahms remained a musical conservative, even to the point of continuing to score his music for valveless Waldhorns, even though Wagnerians were in the ascent in the German musical world of Brahms’ time. Ditto for Rachmaninoff versus Stravinsky, just nine years his junior, and others.

So, who is to say that Richard Strauss was indeed “phoning it in”? After all, while we don’t have a Latin phrase for that [1] we do have another one that gets to the crux of aesthetics as a field within philosophy, and that’s the above mentioned “de gustibus.”

Well, music critics aren’t philosophers, but they are music critics. And they generally rank Brahms and Rachmaninoff above to well above Richard Strauss in the musical pantheon. The same goes for art critics, who don’t rank Warhol in the same league as Dali or Picasso.

Even if something that is avant-garde isn’t necessarily meant to shock, one can ask whether a seemingly avant-garde work of art is really that, or whether it’s more trivial than that, as we get near the art vs. kitsch issue from another direction.

Classical music offers an excellent example, namely in what is surely John Cage’s single best-known work. I totally understand the idea behind 4’33”. And, having listened to his music for prepared piano [2] and other aleatoric work [3], I know that this came from a sincere artistic temperament and impulse.

But, what if Cage had written 2’27”? Or 2’27”, 4’33”, 5’12” and 0’47” into a four-movement symphony? Would we then have accused him of pushing a boundary with the musical version of kitsch, like a Warhol, or even going beyond? I might have; I would at least be open to discussion of the idea.

Creating a new style will leave one vulnerable to the charge of fakery. Alfred Schnittke, known for his “polystylism,” or incorporation of a number of different musical styles into his own work, in fact faced that charge repeatedly. Critics claimed that his eclectic incorporation of various musical styles was a tool used to hide his own lack of creativity rather than being part of that creativity.

A related issue in fakery is claiming to be creative when one is not. This spins off from the discussion above about Warhol and other members of the Pop Art movement, and about whether Pop Art really was something above kitsch.

Several movements within various modern art forms relate to that as well. This includes serialism in classical music, cubism and then abstract expressionism in painting, and related modernizing movements in sculpture. It also includes some individual styles, and stylistic movements, in literature.

Was Arnold Schoenberg creative, or was he using serialism in service of fakery? What about Picasso and Cubism? Or consider the stream of consciousness writers, beginning with James Joyce in “Ulysses.” Or ee cummings — no capital letters, no punctuation and all?

We have to start by asking what artists were trying to do with such movements. In serialism, Schoenberg, and followers, thought the 12-tone major-minor system of the past 300 years was reaching its limits, and that composers such as Gustav Mahler were already showing that. In cubism, Picasso and others thought that photography had freed them from representational limits to take their oils and canvases in new directions; the same goes for Jackson Pollack and other practitioners of abstract expressionism. And Joyce thought that his new style was the only way to truly represent his characters’ inner thought patterns.

So, as with Schnittke and his polystylism, these other creatives were venturing into new terrain not because they had run out of things to say, but because they had run out of creative space in which to say them, or so they felt.

While not calling cummings a “fake,” I’m not at all ready to put him at the same level of creativity as the others mentioned above. Mentioning him, however, does bring up an area of literature not mentioned thus far: poetry. Because poetry has, in general, not been “representational” (other than something like Shakespearean soliloquies in blank verse), similar to how music has never generally been representational of actual sounds, it’s not the same as novels and short stories, which generally purport to represent narratives, and it may be thought of in a way similar to how we treated music above.

Yet another way of betraying one’s ideals might be professing to be a cultural rebel or general leader, an artistic version of a public intellectual while focusing on emotions as well as intellect (or intellect in its broadest sense), but actually not being any such thing.

The best illustration of this might be to create a snippet of counterfactual history. The story of Beethoven scratching out from his Eroica symphony the original dedication to Napoleon is well-known. Unfortunately for the idea of an artist as an unflinching genius, it’s not true. Was Beethoven untrue to his ideals, or were his ideals more complex than that? Given that he passed up a fee by not dedicating the symphony to an Austrian princely patron, namely Prince Lobkowitz, it appears that he was indeed true to his ideals.

That, in turn, illustrates another problem, when the public imputes ideals to an artist that he may not actually have. As late as 1808, Beethoven considered accepting a position in Cassel, whose salary would be funded by Napoleon’s brother Jerome, King of Westphalia. Ultimately, he used that as a lever to get an even bigger stipend from a group of royal Viennese patrons who included Lobkowitz.

In other words, the image of Beethoven as someone so dedicated to his creative muse that he would ignore chasing after either the plaudits of fame, or filthy lucre, is simply false. But myth aside, this is nevertheless a way in which we could and should see him as the first modern artist. One might argue that Beethoven was the first artist to create a myth about himself.

In a quite different fashion, Dali traded in “shock” as being part of the coin of his artistry. But at some point, that artistry, or what he professed to call artistry, became first and foremost about the shock and eventually almost entirely so. And there’s every indication that Dali knew what he was doing and was laughing all the way to the bank.

While we as a society shouldn’t ask our artists to be starving ones, and we shouldn’t expect them to divorce themselves from questions about the financial value of their work, there is a flip side. When does being a capitalist outpace being an artist to a degree that fakery becomes a temptation? Or, with Dali’s lobster telephone, a reality?

And, we haven’t even gotten to literature. Other than both of them being paid by the word because their novels were being serialized in magazines, literary critics would find little in common between Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray. Is unduly “padding” a story another version of fakery? It’s a judgment call, as of course many issues in the arts are, but if the padding is of such a degree or nature that it clearly does little or nothing to advance a plot, then yes, it’s fakery.

There’s yet another twist here, hinted at above: “capitalist.” How much does money drive fakery? And, how much does it drive an acceptance of fakery by the public?

I referenced Beethoven, above, and how myths about his artistic drive don’t exclude that he wasn’t above any trick he could think of for a few extra bucks. Again, the plastic arts are different from either literature or music. Oh, sure, an ur-text of Moonlight Sonata or a first edition of “Oliver Twist” will draw a pretty penny, but not the tens of millions of a Picasso. The pages of a novel or the staves of music are like a carrier wave; they’re not the art itself. The canvas of an “old master” is the actual work of art.

Here, the issue of “shock” squares the circle. An artist trading in the coin of “artist as rebel” can use the shock value to ratchet up prices. See Dali laughing to the bank again. Ditto for someone skirting the Pop Art/kitsch border, claiming to be rebelling against definitions of what constitutes art that allegedly are driven by socio-economic class standing.

And, at that point, we begin to move closer toward fakery in intellectualism, as best shown by Alan Sokal’s famous hoax about postmodern philosophy. It’s easy to slide from feminist theory in literature to feminist literature and a claim that it deserves “bonus points” in its consideration as art precisely because it has to fight against old, “classist” ideas of what constitutes art. From there, it’s yet another relatively easy step to exploit allegiance to that idea to market novels, paintings and other works as “feminist,” “African American,” or whatever.

The object of the “sellout” isn’t always money, though. As I noted above in deconstructing the myth of Beethoven, an artist as faux rebel may be a glory-seeker rather than a money-grubber. (Of course, these two aren’t mutually exclusive, though one of the two usually is riding higher in the saddle than the other.)

Second to the myth of “artist as rebel” is probably that of the “persecuted artist.” (Again, with parallels in science and philosophy.) I was inspired to this by one that Roger Scruton wrote in Aeon magazine [4]. He spends less time on the aesthetics issue than I do, and dives more directly into capitalism, Marxism, and related themes. But that’s in part because he extends the issue of fakery to philosophers, and to public intellectuals who might not necessarily label themselves as philosophers. However, there too, for fakery to succeed, it must have an audience willing to accept the fake as real, as Sokal has shown. And I don’t mean the academy of art critics, to parallel Sokal’s skewering of literary criticism. I mean more the audience of the general public.

Maybe it’s for money at times, as made possible by plutocratic art collectors who seek out paintings as investments. Or maybe it is for fear of appearing philistine, or otherwise wanting to better one’s social image, that a work by a famous modern artist is bought even if the purchaser doesn’t “get it.” But, at some point, the collector who’s buying for investment value first and artistic genius second is on the spot. He has to tout Warhol as a genius to make sure his particular Warhol doesn’t depreciate in value.

Back to the issue of fakery and schlock vs. shock. While the myth of artist as rebel is overrated, there is a degree of truth to it. But to rebel simply for rebellion’s sake, per Camus’ work of the name, avails nothing, unless allied to the other values traditionally ascribed to the arts — values of uplift, sensory stimulation, mental and emotional challenge, and more.

Indeed, one can argue for those values to come first without being a philistine. Or, per a James Dean role, the real artist is the “Rebel with a Cause.” To put it another way, while tastes may be highly disputable, value judgments, intents, motives, and goals are less so, though proving motives, of course, is never easy, and critics and laypeople may disagree on quality as well as motives. However, the arts do have legitimate critics, with even literature not entirely populated by Sokal-type caricatures from new literary criticism.

To bring matters to a close, and to align with my political beliefs, I don’t call for artists to starve, nor to reject legitimate values that the public will pay for their works, even if the paying public is a plutocrat. But, part of what sets good art apart from fakery is that the artist is writing, painting or composing for artistic value, knowing that, at least to a degree, if he or she is recognized, the money will follow [5].

In short, while not an exhaustive framework, the question of fakery in arts can, in part, be seen as one of art as an exercise in public intellectualism (counting public stimulation of emotions as part of intellectualism) versus art as commercialism. With that in mind, we can still accept that classical maxim of “de gustibus non disputandum” and argue over whether Saint-Saëns was greater than Schubert or not, while at the same time knowing that neither of them was a fake. In the same vein, we can not only argue about Jackson Pollack vs. Andy Warhol, we can also debate whether Warhol was an artist or something else.

And, if we think of artists as a type of public intellectual, we should be having exactly these debates.


Steve Snyder is a newspaper editor and an atheist with a graduate theological degree. He blogs at Socratic Gadfly on politics, atheism, journalism, sports, and philosophy.

[1] “Iens per motibus,” as an equivalent of “going though the motions,” might be acceptable.

[2] A prepared piano is a piano that has had its sound altered by placing objects (preparations) between or on the strings or on the hammers or dampers.

[3] Aleatoric music is music in which some element or portion is left to chance, and/or some primary element of a composed work’s realization is left to the determination of its performer(s).

[4] See Scruton, in Aeon.

[5] Obviously, this could lead to a discussion of the role of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities in the United States, but that’s another story for another time.

12 thoughts on “Fakery and aesthetics

  1. What about mastery in the making of art (somewhat distinct from the authenticity of creating it) across art disciplines? There are no credidible violinist frauds–you can’t fake playing the violin, or indeed, most musical instruments, but there are elephant painters and computer generated poems that have successfully faked artistic sensibility. Music requires careful treatment here since almost any plausibly enjoyable musical creation (even if it’s shlock) requires skill (if not talent) to create. Neil Diamond is utter shock, but he knows how to write a musical hook…


  2. An interesting point. On the computer side, due to sheer computational power as much as anything, this is growing, in music as well as poem-writing.
    And, on the violinists, I’ll take this from players to instruments, and then back to the issue of reputation. Here, I’m talking about many great violinists still refusing to accept (even after blindind playing) that the best modern fiddles are the equal of Strads or Guaneris.


  3. Is folk art fake? How about contemporary artists who intentionally call themselves folk artists? How do you evaluate primitive art by actual primitive artists (as opposed to modern imitations of primitive style)? Is that fake? Would Gauguin then be considered fake under your criteria? Seems to me your definition of fakery is going down the same rabbit hole as Phaedrus with quality in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Lila.


  4. I didn’t delve into folk art, but … I would consider it, or primitivism, both when done by actual primitives, to be real art. As I would Gaughin, as I don’t consider him to be merely imitative. And, I do consider Andres Serrano more of an artist than Andy Warhol.

    It’s not quite a “rabbit hole,” but I do acknowledge that judgments about the arts will always have some degree of “provisional” to them.

    That said, I thought about including Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous comment about pornography: “I know it when I see it.” I think it has at least a bit of relevance.

    At the same time, even if our judgments are imperfect, and a bit intuitive, we do make judgments on both, and often have at least semi-consensus.


  5. In science, ‘literature” means everything written on a given subject. In aesthetics “literature” is everything written well on a worthy subject. The distinction implies a kind of deontological imperative, an implicit “ought.” Now in philosophy it appears to be more or less obligatory to insist that “ought” is separate from “is.” Empirical assessments of value are irrelevant to those who find their “ought” in God’s will or categorical imperatives or whatever. Similarly, estheticians who have an “ought” that separates art from kitsch and so on, are exercising judgments based on their favorite sources of value. But is it really surprising if these philosophers of beauty can no more compel assent to their decress on beauty, than Aquinas or Kant can compel assent to their commandments on ethics?

    Utilitarian philosophers, if there are any extant, don’t seem to have ever solved problems of transitivity in preferences. And art is notorious for the uncertainty whether it even has consequences, which rather limits the interest of consequentialists, or so I should think.

    The upshot is that esthetics is the branch of philosophy by far the least popularized. This is odd, because it is very common for philosophers to talk about philosophy as addressing questions of meaning. It seems to me that art always has meaning, especially the everyday stuff that implicitly affirms the way things are.


  6. Steve, thank you for addressing this complex topic. You’ve covered a lot of ground in a short piece that you might agree would be better covered in several essays. I personally don’t find the “fakery” approach to the subject particularly helpful. It reminds me of my grad school days and long nights of cross-talk with other aspiring poets in various states of intoxication. Meanwhile, our poems remained unwritten. Or, to quote Chuck Berry, albeit in an entirely different context:

    Meanwhile, I was still thinkin, hmmmm,
    Well if it’s a slow one
    We’ll omit it
    If it’s a rocker, then we’ll get it
    If it’s a good one, she’ll admit it
    C’mon queenie, let’s get with it

    Nevertheless, it’s gratifying to hear one claim more about artists and art than simply resorting to the truism that “it’s a simply a matter of taste.” Still, when all is said and done, one is either doing it, or talking about doing it, or talking about whether it was worth doing. The rest is all background noise. I agree with Octavio Paz: “Art is an invention of aesthetics, which in turn is an invention of philosophers… What we call art is a game.” But, hey, as Wittgenstein might have said, “Now let’s discuss the rules.”


  7. I think the topic of fakery in art is more complex than this essay allows. “Art” is a malleable concept and may not even exist today if you believe the philosopher Arthur Danto. Throughout most of our past, the objects that we now call art were produced by artisans, not artists in the contemporary sense. Moreover, the decorative arts overlap with “high” art. I don’t think you can make much headway on this topic without relying on social assumptions that vary over time and place.

    Both kitsch fakery and idea fakery probably relate to the commercial aspects of art. Try this thought experiment: an astoundingly talented artist comes along who never repeats herself either in form or idea; each of her works is a one-off that is stylistically unique. It seems to me that such an artist would have a difficult time establishing herself professionally as an artist. Most art patrons can’t warm up to that much variability: it is human nature to seek reassurance through repetition. Thus, this artist might produce the most significant artistic works of her time and never be know to the public. She would of necessity be a private artist, not a public artist. To be sure, it is possible that one-off art could become a new movement in itself that could enhance the reputation of this artist, but, to my knowledge, that would be highly unlikely if you extrapolate from art history.

    One might argue that all financially successful artists engage in branding. If such is the case, the topic of the essay really comes down to differentiating between modest branding and flagrant branding.


  8. Steve,

    If “classical” art posited a common canon, and “modern” art pushed a subjective canon, “contemporary” art denies that there is a canon at all – art being the subjective experience of the spectator, to which (at best) the contemporary artist is either mid-wife or commentator (HEINICH). The artist’s claim to “authenticity” is rooted is his disclaimer that art may in any way be “authentic”. BTW: in this sense, the money aspect is parasitic to contemporary artist’s discourse (he’s selling bulbs during a tulipmania).

    The public intellectual, on the other hand, takes the position that there is a common and universal discourse. While hopefully refraining from advocacy of a specific “good” society, he posits that the “just” society exists and can be reached through rationality (RAWLS). The public intellectual’s claim to “authenticity” rests on his capacity to highlight either the logical or ideological errors marring the political conversation (or hiding the straight path toward utopia).

    The contemporary artist and the public intellectual both make radical and opposing claims about social reality. One may be allowed a dose of skepticism. As for the public intellectual, Ignatieff: “Analytical memoir:” Fire and Ashes, may contain a welcome exemplary as well as cautionary tale.


  9. Paul, I think your last paragraph is part of the issue, yes, and I agree with the idea. I’d like to then tie it to the paragraphs above.
    I think that when most societies reach a certain level of average income, and disposable income, the creation of art by artists rather than the production of art by artisans tends to emerge from there.
    A more distantly related issue is that of public “discovery” of an artist. Twain’s great short story, “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven,” covers this as part of skewering earth-based Christian pretensions about the afterlife.
    That said, I agree that fakery is more complex than can be crammed in one essay, as both you and Thomas note. Related to that, I think that per my comment to Leo about Potter Stewart’s observation about porn, there is a certain legitimate “I saw it” to fakery in the arts as well as what art is. Contra Aldo below, within a culture, I think that some claims of contemporary artists are parallel to those of contemporary literary theory and fall into flagrant branding.


  10. metroplexsouthsider, yes, these questions get very murky when you bring them down to the intentions of the artist. In essays like this, there is a temptation to portray artists as logicians who are following a rigorous procedure, when that is hardly ever the case. Sometimes the success of a work of art is accidental and unexpected by the artist. Then when you throw in conceptual art it gets even fuzzier. If Picasso scribbles on a napkin and hands it to the waiter in payment for his meal, the napkin might be fake art, but it is also possible that Picasso’s action is a genuine artistic statement saying “Art is currency” or “Artists are bullshitters” or “Screw the system.” A lot of Picasso’s art seems bogus to me, but I’m not interested enough to find out how art historians interpret it. At some point even art historians may just be guessing anyway.


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