Writer and artist Jonathon Keats's most recent book is Forged: Why Fakes Are the Great Art of Our Age. He is the art critic for San Francisco Magazine, and his other books include Virtual Words, The Book of the Unknown, and Control + Alt + Delete.
Q: Why did you decide to write about art forgery?
A: I was interesting in writing about art and about where art is going, and the ways in which perhaps art has gone wrong….For the past century or more, artists have been trying to provoke anxiety about themselves and the world. Look at modern art: Edvard Munch’s The Scream, the Dadaists, the surrealists, who sought to get at our subconscious…Pop Art—really, the continuum that you find in all different movements is an attempt to get us out of ourselves.
Yet art has not done as good a job of this as is possible. What has happened is that art…has shown us the existential anxiety, but has not evoked it within us. Museums are so safe, they’re well-lit, they’re temperature-controlled, the curator holds our hand, metaphorically. Art is not achieving what it set out to do. I explored that. Art forgers are accomplishing what I believe the best artists are trying to achieve. Art forgery might be a way of examining art and how art might be done in the future.
Q: One sentence that really struck me in the book was when you wrote, “Forgers are the foremost artists of our age.” Can you talk more about that?
A: If you agree that art is about provoking anxieties, when a forger perpetuates fraud, and the forger is caught, there’s a way in which we are all shown ways in which we’ve been duped. Forgers are not great artists in terms of what they make. Copying as a post-modern phenomenon is not in play for most of them. Most are out to make money.
For the most part, the work they are doing is not especially interesting, but the scandal that ensues is the artwork. No forger wants to be caught, at least most don’t. For the most part, it’s only when a forger against his or her will is in the public eye, the ways in which forgery tricks us, [it involves] the manipulation of authority, of the structures on which society rests.
We tend to get complacent. I believe forgers by virtue of the fact that fraud takes advantage of loopholes--those loopholes are manifest in the ways we have to address them. Art that finds what we take for granted…that we take up as a subject of conversation, that is art that’s really doing its job.
I don’t think forgers are up to the job in the long term. Artists shouldn’t rely on forgers to do this, artists need to take up this mantle.
I delve into the history of forgery [and specific forgers]. It’s a delight to delve into their stories, reconstitute what they did.
The book is a manifesto that is built on the way that a narrator speaking might draw people in and bring them around…. Art exists within a market, it needs to support the art that’s most important to society. The market can play a role in a provocative function that art can have, especially if an institutional collector is an advocate of a riskier sort of art. Museums are built the way they are for reasons to do with conservation. All of that deserves questioning. Museums can support work outside their walls.
Q: What has the reaction to the book been so far?
A: The greatest enthusiasm has come from artists who may or may not work doggedly in this direction. The greatest confusion has been by readers and reviewers who have seen the book as simply a work of advocacy on behalf of forgers, and have not acknowledged or recognized the distinction between the physical object and the way in which that affects people.
I tried my best to impress [upon people] the distinction, but apparently not well enough for everybody. There’s still a lot of misunderstanding. There is room for debate. The book has a provocative thesis and title on purpose, in the spirit of the art I advocate, art that provokes. I would be very disappointed if everyone agreed with me, but I would like the debate to be on what art can do rather than whether forgers are likeable.
Q: You are an artist in addition to being a writer. How does that double perspective help you understand the complexities involved?
A: [The book is] not only a manifesto but an advertisement for myself. The art I make is made in the spirit of provocation. … Having done it for more than 10 years, I am aware of how easy and how difficult it is to do what I advocate. It’s easy because you have to decide to do it, go out in the world, and people will be interested, the media will write about it.
It’s difficult at the level of making public discourse that is truly productive. Very often what happens is that the arguments that take place in the comments sections of articles or blogs tends to be at the level of calling me a con artist, which I don’t mind, or asking where I get my funding….
I think spinning it well is extraordinarily difficult. I am always trying to get better at that. Maybe there’s even a more self-serving side to the book, which is that in the book I’m working out how to be a better artist.
I wouldn’t call myself an artist. The art world is an incredibly tolerant place where if you want to do something, the art world will tolerate what you do. The art world is a very confused place; it will support what you do. I end up being called an artist. I don’t think the distinction between an artist and everyone else is a very useful one; it’s counterproductive.
That’s the ultimate conclusion of the book; we all need to be doing this work. It’s not just for people who call themselves artists to find out ways the world works and bring it out for examination. Self-defined artists can take the initiative, but it’s for everyone else--we’re all in it together.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb