52 Guitars: Week 49
52 Guitars: Week 50

Roger Scruton on Fakery in Art

Everyone, I think, including on some suppressed level the participants, recognizes that there is a great deal in the art of the past 70 years or so that is meretricious if not actually fraudulent. Any number of people have pointed this out, but I don't think I've seen a better analysis of the phenomenon than a recent piece in the BBC News by Roger Scruton.

After defining the faker as one who doesn't just tell a lie but inhabits it (I thought of Bill Clinton), Scruton describes the process by which fakery became normal in the art establishment:

Originality requires learning, hard work, the mastery of a medium and - most of all - the refined sensibility and openness to experience that have suffering and solitude as their normal cost.

To gain the status of an original artist is therefore not easy. But in a society where art is revered as the highest cultural achievement, the rewards are enormous. Hence there is a motive to fake it. Artists and critics get together in order to take themselves in, the artists posing as the originators of astonishing breakthroughs, the critics posing as the penetrating judges of the true avant-garde.

That's only the beginning, so by all means read the whole thing.


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Great piece. Love this image: "In each case the critics have gathered like clucking hens around the new and inscrutable egg, and the fake is projected to the public with all the apparatus required for its acceptance as the real thing."

I loved that, too.

It's a good piece. It's a development of a long essay (about sixty pages) by a chap named Harry Frankfurt called 'On Bullshit'. I assign it in my classes and a few philosophy of religion professors I know do so too. The thesis is that 'bullshitting' is a definable act, and that one way to force people to bullshit is to require them to be sincere.

You know the line, if you can fake sincerity, you can fake anything.

Something like that line was sometimes attributed to Bill Clinton when he was president. I think it went roughly "The most important thing in politics is sincerity. If you can fake that, you've got it made." But I'm pretty sure it goes back much further than that. Will Rogers, maybe?

I figured that Machiavelli must have said something about faking sincerity, so I did a search and found, not a direct quote, but this:

"Machiavelli advised princes that they need only look sincere, since it was unlikely that any peasants would get close enough to tell the difference."

That's in the New Republic in an article reviewing a book titled Sincerity that examines "sincerity’s contemporary fluidity".

According to Wiki it was a Frenchy
named Jean Giraudoux

"Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. ... For this reason a prince ought to take care that he never lets anything slip from his lips that is not replete with the above-named five qualities, that he may appear to him who sees and hears him altogether merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious. There is nothing more necessary to appear to have than this last quality, inasmuch as men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because it belongs to everybody to see you, to few to come in touch with you." (The Prince, chapter 18.)

Machiavelli is rather more elegant, but in a way worse. Although he doesn't mention faking sincerity itself, he's very specific about the particular matters concerning which insincerity is to be cultivated. He seems very sincere about it.

According to Scruton in this piece modern art is the consequence of faking sincerity

I didn't read it that way exactly, but yeah, I see what you mean. If sincerity was part of what made high modernism go, then what's been going on since is fake sincerity.

"Fakery" also requires hard work.
Without dissecting it, there is a focused dedication to pulling off the ruse, making certain that one has one's "bases covered"; devious in its rigor. Whether it be a solo operation or one involving many participants. Ensuring that one's decision to travel this path is defensible. Managing many moving parts. Originality also requires, independent thinking. Thinking outside the box (In Bill Clinton's case, just the reverse). Thinking outside established rules, laws.
Hollywood relishes in the telling of these stories; "Catch Me If You Can", "Big Eyes", "American Hustle", "Capricorn One", "Incognito", "Fake", etc.
Oh yeah, and big egos. Fakery requires massive ego. If only that part which thrives on outsmarting the public---that one which believes it can escape discovery. Fakery is often underestimated in its underhandedness. And all too often, underrepresented.
(all said tongue-in-cheek, of course)

Correction: s/b "Fakery also requires independent thinking."

I don't think the kind of fakery Scruton is describing is even conscious of making an effort to escape discovery--it's been "internalized," to the point where the faker mostly believes his own b.s., although he may have an uneasy conscience.

"The fake really is shocked when he is exposed, since he had created around himself a community of trust, of which he himself was a member."

In Tim Burton's, Big Eyes, Walter Keane goes to great lengths to "fake" the public. At one point confronted by his wife, Keane does not go into any sort of shock, he merely threatens his wife, the real painter, that he'll kill her if she divulges the truth. He has "connections". Maybe he did think that through to such a dark ending.
Perhaps there are all sorts of fakers.
Perhaps Mr. Scruton would have done well to explain that his focus on the fakers in Modern Art are of a certain subset of faker.

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