Amherst Magazine

Great Fakes

Interview by Alexander George

Jonathon Keats ’94 is a conceptual artist whose work has included opening a restaurant for plants (it served gourmet sunlight) and trying to genetically engineer God. Now he’s making the case that forgeries are the great art of our time.

Jonathon Keats ’94 developed his own major at Amherst, in aesthetics. “I also smuggled in a philosophy degree as my double major,” says the conceptual artist and author, “but created an aesthetics department as a way to write a novel, or something resembling a novel, as my senior thesis.” Keats counts as his favorite Amherst courses William Kennick’s “Aesthetics” and Alexander George’s “Philosophy of Science,” saying, “I probably draw on one or the other—or both—in all that I create.” George is the Rachel and Michael Deutch Professor of Philosophy and the founder of AskPhilosophers.org. In an interview for the Amherst Reads book club about Keats’ book Forged, George asked his former student to explain why “fakes are the great art of our age.”

Jonathan Keats ’94 in restaurant for plantsThe chief thesis in your book is that “forgers are the foremost artists of our age.” Would you say more about that?
The book is a polemic or manifesto more than a work of history. I was trying to diagnose what’s wrong in the art world and to explain how a parallel universe—the world of forgery—might provide a corrective. Art is fundamentally in the business of provoking our anxieties. From Edvard Munch’s The Scream, which does that in an existential sense, to the Surrealists, who subvert our ideas about logic, most every movement tries to provoke anxiety about ourselves and our world. But they tend to do so in ways that are illustrational of provocation rather than provocative in their own right. That’s especially the case when we see art in a gallery or museum—a safe, culturally staged context. Forgers inadvertently do what legitimate artists set out to do, and they do so in a way that is more profoundly disturbing and universal.

Above: Keats in a restaurant for plants. Photo courtesy Crocker Art Museum.

You say the art of our time is anxious, questioning, provoking, agitating. You make no mention of beauty. Why not?
Beauty is an attribute that a painting or sculpture or performance may have. It’s a way of reflecting the world, potentially in ways that are utopian (as the Pre-Raphaelites achieved), or it can be used ironically (as in the case of David Maisel, whose aerial photographs of toxic waste sites look like abstract paintings). So beauty is a tool, but it is not essential to art. What gives art its value in our society is that it can make us look at ourselves and consider the world in ways other than we ordinarily would.

Your argument seems to run: All great art is in the business of provoking anxiety. Forgers excel at provoking anxiety. Therefore, there are good grounds for taking forgers to be great artists. The syllogism doesn’t seem valid. It seems to be of the form: all Fs are Gs; all Hs are Gs; therefore all Fs are Hs, which, as you recall from your logic class at Amherst, is not a valid syllogism. That’s probably an unsympathetic reconstruction of your argument. How do you get to the conclusion that forgers deserve to be called great artists?
What I’m interested in is the quality of greatness, which is not a strict question of categorization. My position on forgers is that they are inadvertently great artists. The forgeries in their own right—the physical objects—are not necessarily very interesting or very good in aesthetic terms. What’s interesting is the scandal that ensues when a forger is caught. The scandal is the artwork that the forger inadvertently perpetrates.

Forgers effectively mine society for our blind spots, for our inconsistencies, and exploit them to commit their crimes. If the forgery is revealed, a mirror is held up to us. The ways in which we were blindsided reveal qualities about us that we were oblivious to before. It’s an anxiety-producing phenomenon. You read about it in newspapers, see it on television; it breaks through the cultural barriers of the museum or gallery. Even for the people who were not bamboozled, there’s always the feeling that they could have been. That makes people reexamine the social structures and common sense they rely on.

The second part of your book is a riveting retelling of the stories of six great modern master forgers.
Han van Meegeren’s story is probably the most provocative, because it involved so many historical figures. Abraham Bredius, a very old, eminent art historian in the Netherlands, had nursed a thesis that Vermeer had gone through a phase of religious painting. The problem was that no evidence of this thesis had come up. His position was well known, and one man who knew about it was van Meegeren, a frustrated artist who saw an opportunity. He created one of the worst art objects I have ever seen in my life: a rendering of Christ at Emmaus. Not only did Bredius say it was a Vermeer, he said it was “the masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft.” That gave license to van Meegeren to make more paintings in the same style.

This was in the late 1930s and early 1940s, when the Netherlands did not want any work by Vermeer to get into the hands of the Nazis. (Hitler was one of the great collectors—or plunderers—of Vermeer.) As a result, there were many people willing to buy these paintings to keep them from getting into German hands. Ultimately one picture got away, into the hands of Hermann Goering, who was perhaps the greatest enemy of the Netherlands, because he had ordered the leveling of Rotterdam and brought about the surrender of the Netherlands to the Germans.

Painting, Supper at Emmaus, by Han van Meegeren and1938 photo of people studying painting
Left: Supper at Emmaus (1937), by Han van Meegeren, Collection of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. Right: In this 1938 photo, Dirk Hannema (right), director of what was then Museum Boymans in the Netherlands, and restorer Hendrik Luitwieler view The Supper at Emmaus, by Han van Meegeren,  who passed off the painting as a Vermeer. Courtesy Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen; Photo by Frequin

That painting became one of Hermann Goering’s treasured possessions. What happened to it after the war?
When the Nazi regime fell, Goering took the painting with him as he tried to get away, and it was found in his possession. It was traced to van Meegeren, who was accused of the war crime of selling the cultural patrimony of the Netherlands to the Germans. Van Meegeren’s response was: No, I bamboozled the Germans; I forged that painting and sold Goering a fake. That put van Meegeren in the odd position of proving his innocence by proving his guilt. He succeeded, and he was sentenced to one year in prison. He managed to die of a heart attack two days before his sentence was to begin.

Didn’t van Meegeren paint his way to freedom?
Yes, he painted another “Vermeer” while in custody. He became the second most popular person in the Netherlands—second to the new prime minister. There were plans to erect a statue in his honor, despite the fact that he was collaborating with the Nazis all along; this was well known by many in the resistance. The corruptible authority of one man—Bredius—gave credibility to a painting that gave credibility to other paintings. Maybe giving some consideration to Bredius’ motives would have made the later paintings more suspect. The context of war gave urgency to the process of acquiring these works, and therefore a lack of reflection. While the Nazi era was unique, we can still get a little anxious, I hope, by reading that story.

The act of forging often takes over the life of a forger, who comes to forge an entire identity, or many identities. Another manifestation of this is the meta-forgery that takes place when the fakery extends to documents testifying to the authenticity of a fake. How did this take place with Elmyr de Hory, who managed to sell more than 1,000 forgeries to art galleries?
De Hory was a master of disguise. He’d create a painting on a theme that was relatively common for Matisse, for example. He would buy an old catalog of Matisse’s work from an exhibition—a catalog so rare there was probably only one copy extant—and have his own painting photographed in black and white. Because those old catalogs had plates that were glued in, he could simply take out the original and glue in a photograph of his forgery, which gave instant provenance.

Painting, Odalisaque, by Elmyr de Hory
Elmyr de Hory’s 1974 Odalisque is in the style of Matisse. ”A master of disguise,” Keats says, de Hory managed to sell more than 1,000 fakes to art galleries. Collection of Mark Forgy, author of The Forger’s Apprentice

We tend to look to documents and rely on context to tell us what we’re looking at. This is true not only when looking at art but also when assessing the statement of a politician, for instance, and even when looking at scientific evidence. Our gaze tends to be much more peripheral than we are prone to believe or understand.

You compare Andy Warhol’s appropriations to forgeries. Yet, as you point out, Warhol’s appropriation only works if you are aware of the absent original, where forgery only works if you aren’t.
Forgery only operates as art once the fakery is known. Warhol illustrates that point. Thirty Are Better Than One, his silkscreen of the Mona Lisa 30 times, creates a tension between the original object—this venerated Mona Lisa—and the apparatus of celebrity that effectively makes the Mona Lisa what it is to us in our society. As a result, his work reflects on the mechanism of celebrity more generally. To me, Warhol achieved within the realm of legitimate art what I credit forgers with doing inadvertently. When the forgery is revealed and when the scandal ensues, the fallout becomes the material that becomes the artwork. The question for artists is how to achieve that without having to go into hiding, without having to take on the limitations inherent in operating outside of the law. I think there are few artists who go beyond Warhol in terms of activating art as a mechanism of anxiety within our society.

You write about Kant’s idea of “purposefulness without purpose” and deem it “a perfect description of art.” But you say that this idea does not characterize forgery. Doesn’t that suggest that forgery is not the great art of our time—indeed, that it might not even qualify as art?
Forgers are the great artists of our time simply because artists are not bothering to be. Artists are not doing their job, and forgers, who do a very poor imitation of it, end up doing the closest approximation. Of course, most art also operates as a commodity. So to me all art, or most of it, is contaminated by a sense of purpose.

You’ve had a busy career as a conceptual artist. How has your own work been animated by what you take to be this characteristic feature of art at its finest: purposefulness without purpose?
It’s problematic to talk about my own art after having set up what art can be, and then to pose one of my projects as having achieved that. By no means do I make that claim. But, to give an example of the work I’ve done: One of my projects was an attempt to figure out where on the phylogenetic tree—amongst all the species—you might find God. Within the scientific realm there is a sense that anything can be subjected to scientific processes and be known through those processes. In the religious realm, there is a literal God. I wanted to reconcile these two points of view.

Genetically engineering God

Initially I attempted to obtain some divine DNA, which would be the easiest way to find out where God belongs on the phylogenetic tree, but I ended up having to genetically engineer God in a laboratory. According to the religious evidence we have, God came first. So I looked for the first species still extant: cyanobacteria.

On the other hand, we’re told that God created man in his image. Well, humans are difficult to work with in a laboratory, especially over weeks or months, so I decided to work with a species that’s more or less the same: fruit flies. Next I needed a method of comparison, to find out which species is more godlike. I used continuous in vitro evolution, a method of genetic engineering that essentially involves sustained artificial selection: You create environmental conditions that can be exploited by the right set of mutations.

I figured that maybe there’s some way in which God metabolizes worship. I took leading prayers for the major monotheistic religions and played them for seven days and nights, with my control group getting only talk radio. Biblical sources state that God is omnipresent; essentially, you’re talking about rampant population growth, so I did population growth studies to analyze the results of my artificial selection process. Whichever species more closely approached omnipresence following continuous in vitro evolution was presumably more genetically similar to God in the first place.

Jonathan Keats ’94

Did the NSF fund this project?
It did not. I published my research in a book that put forward evidence, very tentatively, that God is more closely related to cyanobacteria than to fruit flies (or to us). I hope it provokes anxiety within the religious about the literalism that religion has taken on, and within the scientific community about the arrogance of the scientific process. The collision of science and religion that took place at my lab bench is something that can reverberate in any number of ways. 

Keats is now “developing a camera that makes a unique century-long exposure. One hundred of my cameras will be distributed throughout Berlin, to be retrieved in a hundred years. The city will be watched over by those not yet born.” Photo by Elena Dorfman

The article is adapted from an interview for Amherst Reads, the college’s online book club. Listen to the Amherst Reads interview at www.amherst.edu/alumni/learn/bookclub.