Coming to the title of this post: I don't mean to suggest that submissions for the Turner Prize are the work of con artists -- after all, they're merely pandering to the judges' tastes. That may be cynical, but it isn't deceptive. What I do mean is that by allowing banal objects and images to be transformed into expensive works of art, simply by attaching pretentious interpretations to them, does tend to open the doors to a wide variety of hoaxers, pranksters and con-men. This isn't a particularly new phenomenon -- the Museum of Hoaxes website lists quite a number of artistic con tricks that were perpetrated during the 20th century, including the following:
- Disumbrationism was invented in the 1920s by an American named Paul Jordan Smith, who wanted to hit back at highbrow art critics who had been dismissive about his wife's rather conservative paintings. He produced a series of works that were as bad as he could make them, both in concept and execution, and exhibited them under the Russianized name of Pavel Jerdanowitch. Smith's master-stroke was to juxtapose these childish paintings with textual commentaries designed to appeal to the liberal academics of the time. As a result (and much to Smith's disgust) Disumbrationism was a huge hit with the critics.
- Naromji was an artist who appeared out of the blue in 1946, with a painting called "Three Out Of Five" exhibited at the Los Angeles Art Association with a price tag of a thousand dollars (about $11,200 in today's money). Naromji was actually the well-known prankster Jim Moran who, like Paul Jordan Smith, wanted to make fools out of pretentious art experts. He succeeded in this, but not in the way he'd expected. The work was quickly revealed as a hoax, and summarily dismissed as worthless by the Art Association. But then an established artist named Leonard Kester claimed that "Three out Of Five" was actually his own work, and that Moran had pinched it from him. This caused a sudden change of heart at the Los Angeles Art Association, who decided the picture was worth displaying after all!
- Pierre Brassau exhibited four paintings at an exhibition in Sweden in 1964. Opinions among critics were divided: one described him as "an artist who performs with the delicacy of a ballet dancer" while another said "only an ape could have done this". The latter may have been meant as an insult, but actually it was spot on. Pierre Brassau was indeed an ape -- a four-year old chimpanzee from Boras Zoo. A journalist had decided to try an experiment to find out if art critics could tell the difference between human art and simian art. Apparently only one of them could!