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Thursday 27 October 2011

Con Artists

It's Turner Prize time again. For non-UK readers who may never have heard of it, the Turner Prize is an annual award for upcoming young artists that has become famous (or notorious) for the fact that the creative content of the works is more often than not contained in the artist's "message" rather than the object itself. Although named after the great nineteenth century painter Turner, mere paintings rarely win the Turner Prize -- it's more likely to go to a cheap plastic garden gnome or a carefully preserved piece of elephant dung. Even pop-art is far too passé for the Turner judges. A meticulously executed painting of a soup can wouldn't stand a chance... although a real soup can, bought for 50 pence from a supermarket and accompanied by an appropriately trendy textual analysis, would be a sure-fire winner.

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!
Here is my own effort. A few years ago, the BBC ran a "Mock Turner" competition on their website, and this was my contribution. It's called $0.0001 and is intended to conceptualize the deplorably low financial value placed on artworks intended for mass consumption when contrasted with those aimed at society's elite. In strictly technical terms, the picture is a detail taken from issue 139 of The Mighty Thor -- a comic book originally published in 1967 at a price of 12 cents for 20 pages. Each page has an area of approximately 60 square inches, which means that one square inch of the comic (as shown here, magnified) was valued at one hundredth of a cent, or $0.0001. Although the original comic was drawn by Jack Kirby, the true creator of this work of art is myself, not Kirby, because I was the one who thought up the trendy left-wing message behind it. I thought it was pretty clever, but the BBC disagreed -- I didn't make it into their Mock Turner shortlist!

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