BY Brian Dillion in Opinion | 01 OCT 08
Featured in
Issue 118

Is F for Fake?

What exactly do we mean when we call an artist or writer a charlatan?

BY Brian Dillion in Opinion | 01 OCT 08

Harry Houdini slips out of a straitjacket while hanging upside down over Broadway, New York, 1917

‘I count no man a Philosopher who hath not, be it before the court of his Conscience or at the assizes of his Intellect, accused himself of a scurrilous Invention, and stood condemned by his own Judgement a brazen Charlatan.’ Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621)

Trust me, I’m a doctor …

In his recent book Charlatan: The Fraudulent Life of John Brinkley (2008) Pope Brock tells the grotesque and exemplary tale of one of the most audacious and fortunate fraudsters of the last century. In 1917 Brinkley, a physician of dubious credentials and few scruples, grafted a portion of goat’s testicle onto the genitals of one Bill Stittsworth, a Kansas farmer lately troubled with impotence. Within a decade Brinkley had built a glandular empire on the back of this clinically useless and frequently lethal operation, becoming in the process the most famous doctor in the USA. He died in 1942, his vast fortune untouched by the several scandals that had attended his rejuvenating procedure. Like many charlatans, Brinkley found himself shadowed throughout his career by a tireless sceptic whose single-minded aim was to expose his fakery. Morris Fishbein, of the American Medical Association, wrote, lectured and litigated against the countless ‘Cheap Jacks’, shams and quacks who blithely parted the ailing rube from his dollar. (This in a country where regulation of the medical profession was still looked on with democratic suspicion.) Fishbein became almost as famous as the wealthy targets of his truth-telling; he performed the exposure of the medical mountebank as though it were in itself a spectacle, even a kind of con. Brinkley was his ultimate catch. Fishbein, in other words, came to resemble the surgical grifter himself: he learnt the methods of public exposure from the master of medical PR. The story of Brinkley and Fishbein is unexpectedly instructive for the history of art and charlatanry in the 20th century. It was also in 1917, one might recall, that Marcel Duchamp attempted to introduce some foreign matter, in the shape of his Fountain, into the precincts of the modern museum. In this instance the graft did not at first take: the Society of Independent Artists in New York rejected the rejuvenating tissue. But a curious relay was thus set up between the artist-as-charlatan – who attempts, as it were, to put one over on the institution – and the artist-as-sceptic: the unmasker of institutional art as flagrant deception. Duchamp, of course, was both: he reminds us that charlatans and those who seek to expose them are secretly working in consort.

Crack, baby, crack, show me you’re real

What exactly do we mean when we call an artist or writer a charlatan? An artist friend of mine, for example, worries about Andy Warhol: ‘I can never decide if he’s the greatest artist of the 20th century or a complete charlatan.’ (Why are charlatans always ‘complete’? Are there partial charlatans?) Another friend, whose cultural forays are not unadventurous, complains: ‘I can’t get on with Joseph Beuys: I think he was a charlatan.’ It’s framed as a judgement of taste, but it is really no such thing: rather, the statement damns without appeal, allows of no counter-argument once the spectre of charlatanry has been summoned. (Perhaps that is its point: to put an end to the conversation.) Most pressingly, however, it raises the question of truth where we might not have thought it pertained. But what manner of truth is in question? Assuredly, an artistic or literary charlatan is not merely a fraud, a forger or an impostor. Such quasi-criminal categories – we might add the plagiarist to the list – have their own clear-cut logic: the perpetrator either is or is not what he or she purports to be. The memoirist James Frey, revealed in 2006 to have fabricated crucial portions of his book A Million Little Pieces (2003); the art forger John Myatt, whose approximations of the work of Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Alberto Giacometti and Vincent van Gogh were sold for substantial sums by Sotheby’s and Christie’s in the early 1990s; the British television psychiatrist Raj Persaud, who in June this year admitted cannibalizing the writings of other scholars for his books and articles – none of these is properly a charlatan. The accusation points to something far more fundamental than a simple waywardness with the facts. What it names, precisely, is a deficit of sincerity: this is what the critic Hilton Kramer was referring to in 1966 when he spoke of Duchamp’s ‘resplendent triviality’. The charlatan does not set out to peddle mistruths about the world, but rather does not really mean or does not really believe in the work that he or she makes. This suggests a rather Romantic notion, a conception of artistic being as truth-to-self, which has survived into an era otherwise attuned to auto-invention and to celebration of the type of the trickster in popular culture and the avant-garde alike. In a sense it’s an objection to style, to surface, to those artists who do things for effect. (As though there were some higher value in art than its effects.) But the charlatan–wrangler objects just as regularly to apparent depth: for him no profundity is deep enough to be safe from the shallows of insufficient sincerity. In fact, self-evident profundity would be almost a definition of obvious charlatanry: real depth is harder-won.

We mean it, man!

The crucible in which this notion of sincerity gets sublimed into purest dogma is popular music in the late 20th century. This may seem surprising, given the extent to which pop depends on the production of personae, the flame-into-being of a new self, pristine and self-evidently plastic. More exactly, it’s the split between pop and rock effected in the late 1960s that causes accusations of charlatanry to fly. Not that the latter merely conceives of the former as fake: instead, rock itself becomes a testing ground for the artist’s sincerity. What is judged is his willingness to pay his dues, the extent to which his art emerges from an authentic milieu, the force of his self-belief and the embeddedness of his message in the principle of reality. To be found wanting in these categories means being branded ‘a hype’: a judgement that is somehow even worse than being dismissed as a frankly commercial pop phenomenon. (Most rock criticism still has not escaped this way of thinking.) The ghost that frets the sceptic in this scene is that of Bob Dylan, circa 1965. Dylan’s electric turn may have been cast by those who objected to it as a betrayal of his oeuvre to date, a move away from the authenticity of folk towards the commercial sound and stance of contemporary pop. But what really troubled his detractors – and unconsciously worried even those who embraced the newly electrified Dylan – was surely the suspicion that he had revealed the ‘old Bob Dylan’ as an act in itself. He seemed not to believe in himself, indeed to undo the idea of self-belief on which so much of the culture of the time depended. That this was also the moment at which Dylan most resembled Warhol, physically and artistically, is a clue to just how fundamentally he had unsettled the binary logic of rock sincerity – all that then remained was for David Bowie to fuse the two personae in one and admit outright to being a self-created sham.

My need is such, I pretend too much

In the realms of art and literature it is either insouciance or (oddly) excessive labour that will earn the accusation of charlatanry. On the one hand – as with Duchamp’s ready-mades, Tracey Emin’s My Bed (1998) or Martin Creed’s Work No. 227: The Lights Going On and Off (2000) – the artist–charlatan is popularly accused of having done very little, almost nothing, to constitute the work in the first place, or of freighting a flimsy artefact with a weight of meaning it cannot bear. On the other hand, the charlatan works too hard, produces an elaborate opus – prodigious in terms of its size or scope, the time and effort expended in its making – that yields scarcely any significance. (James Joyce’s novel Finnegans Wake (1939) remains the exemplary instance.) Sometimes, as in the case of Gertrude Stein’s experimental texts, both circumstances obtain: her novel-of-sorts The Making of Americans (1906) is both dauntingly long and apparently written with no care for sense. In philosophy the charlatan may also be thought to have formulated an over-complex system, or to have coined a needlessly obscure vocabulary that hides an essential poverty at the level of the concept. This was certainly one of the charges levelled at Jacques Derrida by the many academics who objected to his being awarded an honorary degree at Cambridge in 1992. But the more fundamental objection was that Derrida had undermined the very notion of philosophical truth. That he had done no such thing was really beside the point: what mattered was that his thoroughgoing philosophical scepticism was in itself perceived as a form of charlatanry. The unmasker, so his opponents claimed, was in reality masked – he possessed, as the philosophical journalist A.C. Grayling put it recently, ‘a dishonest mind’. The phrase is almost too telling. It suggests that Grayling – and those who point and shout ‘Charlatan!’ in general – values some occult level of philosophical sincerity above truth itself. He imagines there are other thinkers who really mean it and are therefore axiomatically better thinkers. This is a kind of willed ignorance of the extent to which philosophy has always relied on what Gilles Deleuze called ‘conceptual personae’: the idiot, the sceptic, the dandy, the melancholic, even the charlatan himself – quasi-fictional stand-ins for the philosopher. It is to assume, as Brian Eno once put it, ‘that there is such a thing as the “real” people, and the pretenders. And the other assumption is that there’s something wrong with pretending.’

Here comes the mirror man

The accusation of charlatanry is in one sense meaningless, in another essential to what it means to be an artist in the wake of Duchamp, Warhol and Beuys. The traditional tabloid charge of putting one over on the public, having a laugh at their expense, remains as popular as ever. Of course, in contemporary art the figure of the faker is in part just one persona among many that the artist may choose to deploy, a now canonical role to be embraced rather than disavowed. Abject sincerity is equally a career choice of sorts. How to tell the difference between the two? Why exactly would one want to tell the difference between the two? The charlatan, in fact, embodies both: he is the artist who convinces and infuriates in equal measure, who makes a spectacle of his sincerity, turns authenticity into pure performance. The ultimate trickster-theorist of the Modernist era was not an artist but an entertainer. Erik Weisz, known to the world as Harry Houdini, first amazed with his feats of escapology, then devoted the latter years of his career to the exposure of the fakery at work in contemporary Spiritualism. In the 1920s the magician was even suborned to a committee of the Scientific American magazine that was dedicated to exposing the Spiritualist sham. His professional nemesis, strangely, was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who had perfected in the character of Sherlock Holmes the type of the perfect sceptic, but later (following the death of his son in World War I) succumbed to the consoling hope of communing with the dead. As the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips has written, ‘the masked are always great unmaskers’. The sceptic and the charlatan formed the perfect partnership, because they both knew that ‘the honest, if they are to pursue the truth, must be sufficiently competent at dishonesty’.