Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 20, 2000
Sándor Radnóti The Fake: Forgery and Its Place in Art Trans Ervin Dunaie Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1999. 255 pp. Paper $18.95 (084769206X)

In this fine work, Hungarian art-philosopher Sándor Radnóti uses the concept of forgery to explore important issues in art theory. It is an insightful strategy. Like the image of the Japanese novelty game in the recollection scene of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, the topic of forgery unfolds to reveal an entire landscape of aesthetics. In the game, tightly wrapped paper placed in a water-filled bowl opens up to display a flower or a town; so, too, the topic of forgery opens up discussions of authenticity, originality, value, and even the current status of the art world itself.

The first chapter, “Picaresque Aesthetics,” provides a stimulating history of art forgeries in an attempt to define the genre of forgery. Radnóti reminds us of the classic story of Michelangelo’s dio d’amore dormente (a sleeping Cupid) and the manner in which Vasari’s account portrays the deception and foolishness surrounding the matter. When it is suggested to Michelangelo that he bury his sculpture so as to make it look like an ancient (and hence more esteemed and valuable) work, the scenario works and various “collectors” are fooled. Of course, the excellence of the work and not its stained antiquity matter most in the tale.

For Radnóti, deliberate forgeries share the characteristics of the picaro, the rascal or rogue who bypasses law and morality, but stops at the doorstep of the true villain. Their stories intrigue and amuse us for their escapades often involve complex plots and the unmasking of pretentiousness. The notorious case of Han van Meegeren is a prime example.

After an early and modest success as an artist, the critic’s rejection of Van Meegeren’s work embittered him. In ways that mix revenge with financial gain, he devised a plan to create fake Vermeers. Following and fulfilling the art world’s anticipation of yet-to-be-discovered Vermeer paintings, Van Meegeren crafted Christ at Emmaus and developed a legend surrounding its “discovery.” Events during the war years led to Van Meegeren’s trial and to the confession that he was the artist behind the signatures of a number of faked “masterpieces.”

Underlying the standard schemes of the forger, gleam deeper aesthetic issues—and it is these that most interest Radnóti: “The figure of the forger, quite often wholly independently from the true character of the actual person . . . invariably serves to undermine the notion of originality” (26). Behind the faked signature that fools the art world is the question “Does it really matter?” —and beyond that—how the signature came to be so important in the first place.

Chapter two pursues these questions by investigating the problematic history of “originality.” It shows that there is no simple, ahistorical antinomy between originality and forgery. Art forgery arises, in an important sense, from the modern cult of names and the institution of museums. The fake is as much a parasite upon a critic’s appraisal of the original, authentic works of a Raphael or a Vermeer. The “ideological message of forgery can be summed up as follows: Who cares about originality if the copy is beautiful? … Who cares about originality if the copy cannot sensually be discerned from the original” (55)? Radnóti cares a great deal and is at pains to show us how the emphasis on concept of originality and the concomitant notions of authenticity and historical purity arose in the age of “genius aestheticism.” The new element here was not originality per se, but “originality as the predominate value” (with the consequence that tradition and artistic practice be rearranged “in accordance with this value”) (86). Historically, Radnóti argues in his chapter on “The Copy,” the sphere of artistic production is in dialogue with copying and pattern maintenance. Not every copy is a forgery and not every forgery is a copy. “[T]he reality of art is a given domain of representational and compositional possibilities. To a very large extent, these possibilities are determined by tradition, which enters the present in the form of pattern maintenance, reproduction, and copying” (96).

In Chapter four: “The Perfect Fake,” the author analytically explores the problem of original and copy. Among other things, this section analyzes the hypothetical problem of the perfect fake as discussed in the writings of Nelson Goodman, Mark Sagoff, and Arthur Danto. Goodman’s thought experiment physically places an authentic work of art next to its perfect forgery. We know that one is an exposed fake and the other a documented original. The problem is that initially none of the criteria that distinguish them rests on perception, on the visible. What becomes central are the cognitive elements that add interpretation to the perception of the pictures. Sagoff argues that the notion of perceptual indistinguishability rests on a category mistake: the forgery and original belong to different referential classes. To this Radnóti responds with a discussion of Danto’s The Configuration of the Commonplace and its analysis of intention and meaning.

Finally, Richard Wollheim is called on to add the “noncopy-type” forgery, the inventive creativity that goes into, for example, van Meegeren’s Christ at Emmaus. Here Radnóti moves the discussion of these “strong forgeries” to the arena of European hermeneutics. This approach “regards forgery as a way of understanding or form of translating” (137). The analysis rests on the works of Hans Georg-Gadamer and, in a surprising way, on the Hungarian archaeologist Jónos Szilógyi.

The reference to the writings of Szilógyi highlights one of the refreshing features of this book. The author comes from the “cultural peripheries” of a post-Cold War country and brings with him new perspectives on the contemporary art scene. These insights come together in the last chapter. However, before we reach the conclusion, Radnóti segues into a chapter on “Literary Mystification.”

At bottom, the literary fakes of writers such as James Macpherson, Thomas Chatterton, and William Henry Ireland are not in the same genre as fine art fakes. The literary device of “feigned authenticity” may not affect the aesthetic value, or the originality of the work. Indeed, unmasking a literary forger might help increase his originality: “it is the constant contact of fictitious as forged and fictitious as poetic that establishes the poetry of literary forgeries” (191).

The final chapter, “The Fake Paradigm,” brings the discussion of forgery into contact with the postmodern art world of the late 20th century. After an analysis and critique of Jean Baudrillard’s hyper-reality “which aestheticizes everything, turning everything into art and thus effectively abolishing art” (20) Radnóti explores the relation between “forgery” and contemporary artistic practice. Forgery (copying, appropriation) releases contemporary art from its “farcical role” and attains the status of a metaphor. Radnóti looks at Marcel Duchamp’s Mona Lisa and Fontaine as consciously recognizable “forgeries,” one grounded in the canonic tradition of art, the other in everyday life. Commenting on the practice of appropriating the tradition, Radnóti suspects that “in presenting works of the tradition anew, whether in fragments or their entirety, whether retouched or not retouched, artists partly rely on the wear and tear, the erosion and banalization of the works occupying a central place in the canon, while partly contributing to this erosion themselves” (208).

Artists contribute to the erosion because an authoritative (institutionalized) aspect severs tradition from its exemplary aspects (as a guide to the creation of art works). Through the appropriation process of “mass culture”— technically reproducing old high art in calendars and screen savers—we lost our ability to appreciate the authoritative nature of the tradition since it exemplifies the known. Accordingly, “in modern reception the tradition … symbolized by banalized works, has been forged from the start” (209).

This crisis of contemporary art has resulted from the ascendancy of an aesthetic heteronomy which Radnóti labels the pull of “everyday life, mass culture, the media and multiculturalism” (210). To counter this, he wants us to recall the opposite pole represented by the autonomous work of art— capable of articulating its own history and context as well as its ability to make an impression in another context (e.g., the museum). In the debate between the old and the new, Radnóti wishes to bring the pendulum back toward a center. He suggests that we draw a new line between high and low (applied) art in such a way that “while the latter is mainly inspired by futurology [the challenges of technology, fashion, advertising], the former surveys the past, receives its inspiration from the old . . . and moves into museums” (215).

I recommend a thoughtful reading to all who are interested in Radnóti’s subject matter. His conclusion will no doubt be controversial, and this overview can’t do justice to the subtle, dialectical quality of the argument in The Fake.

Robert Cavalier
Carnegie Mellon University