‘It is painful to be told that anything is very fine and not be able to feel that it is fine – something like being blind, while people talk of the sky.’
George Eliot, Middlemarch (1872)
Earlier this year J.T. LeRoy, the former male prostitute and author of the cult semi-autobiographical novel The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things (2002), was exposed as the invention of the 40-year-old writer Laura Albert. At the same time James Frey, the author of the best-selling memoir A Million Little Pieces (2003), was publicly humiliated for fabricating portions of his supposedly autobiographical tale. The general public, of which we are all members, is a slumbering beast when it comes to artistic criticism. Nevertheless it should not be supposed that it does not possess any critical faculty, and there is no surer way to rouse it than by playing on its ultimate anxiety – that someone is perpetrating a fraud upon it.
Condemnation of the authors was swift and vociferous. Perhaps the main reason for this was that both books were prime exemplars of ‘therapy lit’, in which incidents of victimization are the salient features of the protagonist’s and author’s life, these facts adding to (and some might say, overwhelming) the books’ literary accomplishments. Certainly Frey’s book, an unconventional record of the author’s drug and alcohol abuse and his slow and painful journey to recovery, had proved a massive popular and critical success, and in late 2005 it had gained the ultimate publishing accolade of being named an Oprah’s Book Club selection by America’s most popular talk-show host.
The revelation that both authors had faked the depths of their own personal hell – in Frey’s case by exaggerating details of his bad-boy past, and in LeRoy’s case by not existing at all – seemed to peg them as little more than anti-social climbers, bragging on their bad beats. But from the grandest broadsheet to the lowest blog, Popular Criticism, as we might as well call it, spoke of more serious issues than vanity, accusing the authors of fabricating a callow hoax and generally exemplifying all-round unethical behaviour.
In the case of Frey his sin was deemed so great that, momentarily, the world went quite askew. Oprah Winfrey, the matronly redeemer, who on any weekday morning can be found offering heartfelt advice to the abused and self-abusing alike, now turned on an individual who would usually be ripe for salvation and berated him for ‘lying’ to her. Thus it was that Frey’s Golgotha turned out to be neither the prison cell nor the hospital ward he had written of in his book, but rather the 9am mauveness of a daytime television set. Hell hath no fury like a public that thinks it’s been hoodwinked.
The anxiety that Frey and LeRoy released is more familiar to the art world, where it has been working at the back of the populace’s mind ever since the avant-garde was formed at the Salon des Réfusés in 1863. Indeed the feeling that a hoax is being perpetrated on the viewer is fundamental to Popular Criticism’s dialogue with modern and contemporary art. This facet of Popular Criticism can best be seen in the frequent complaint ‘a child could have painted that’, a more complex condemnation than is usually realized. By comparing art to an accidental and unmediated scrawl, the Popular Critic is denying it any intellectual weight and valuing it purely for the immediate emotional resonance he gains from it. What’s more, the Popular Critic maintains his steadfast insistence on virtuosity, even as modern and contemporary art have come to value the conceptual at least, if not more, than the technical.
Marcel Duchamp, the original courter and exploiter of Popular Criticism’s innate hostility, put his finger on this misconception when he said, ‘Since Courbet it’s been believed that painting is addressed to the retina. That was everyone’s error. The retinal shudder! Before painting had other functions: it could be religious, philosophical, moral.’ (One wonders if Popular Criticism would have taken this visceral stance had the boom in public art galleries not occurred in the late 19th century). If the ‘retinal shudder’ doesn’t appear, many people naturally think they have been fooled. Indeed, when Duchamp’s 'Fountain' (1917) was first submitted to the American Society of Independent Artists, it was refused on the grounds of being a hoax.
What does it mean if we can appreciate stories only if they are ‘true’? Does it signify that we are losing the ability to suspend our disbelief, to make that essential leap of faith that communion with all art requires? Not necessarily, for Popular Criticism’s anxiety is not always roused by falsehoods. In fact we should recognize that, while being wondrously willful, Popular Criticism is always surprisingly complex when it comes to making its infrequent pronouncements. In April this year Dan Brown, the author of the best-selling The Da Vinci Code (2004) – a thriller that flirts with factual particulars – was found innocent of charges of plagiarism. One could almost hear a collective sigh of relief resound throughout the firmament that Brown’s book was, without question, a total and utter fabrication. Heaven help him if it had been otherwise.