Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Uncomfortable Nature of Art

The most recent episode of 60 Minutes caught my attention.

It was about an art forger named Wolfgang Bertracchi who paints in the style of well-known artists, not forging existing pieces, but creating new ones that the artist's might have painted if they were still alive.

The focus of the television piece was on the crime: the way it was committed, the use of materials and the backstory, but what fascinates me more than the crime is the way it calls into question our notions of art and authenticity.

Bertracchi's paintings hang in museums. They're good enough to fool art critics and collectors alike. And, most importantly, they are original works, painted in the style of the artist, but not copying another piece already in existence.

There's no question Bertracchi's talented, genius isn't a stretch for someone who can successfully paint in the style of so many varied artists and pass those pieces off as the real thing. Because they're his own creation, they ARE the real thing. But the dividing line, in my mind, between original work and forgery is that he signed other artist's names.

This makes for lots of tricky questions about the art world, specifically, and what we consider great art, in general.

The 60 Minutes pieces made me think about J.K. Rowling's recent crime fiction venture, published under the pen name Robert Galbraith. According to an article in the Huffington Post, The Cuckoo's Calling sold about 1500 copies until it's true authorship was revealed. Sales then suddenly jumped 150%.

The book didn't suddenly get better.

The only thing that changed was it became a name brand.
Recognizable.
Identifiable.
Not so different than a painting that's branded by the name Rembrandt or Cezanne.

Of course, J.K. Rowling already had the name to push her detective novel to higher sales. She worked hard for that name, earned it and it's hers to use. Both artists created original pieces of art.
Both artists' works have been recognized as masterpieces, celebrated in museums, feted by publishing.

The crucial difference is one artist created a legitimate name for herself that is now shorthand for "Really Amazing Book" while the other artist took advantage of established names that were previously established as shorthand for "Really Amazing Painting".

This territory between Bertracchi's forgeries and Rowling's unveiling of her authorship highlights the way we are quick to use name brand artists to classify certain work as great while others slip by in virtual anonymity.

Which brings me back to the nebulous nature of art.

No matter how hard we try to define art, measure its circumference and calculate it's area with geometric precision, it's still undefinable. The same artist has the ability to create great pieces and pieces that, given a different provenance, might lurch along in the realm of middle-tier.

The subtlety of artistic expression doesn't follow a corporate model, which is troublesome for the publishers and galleries that rely upon art to pay the bills.

In the end, I believe it's the need to define and calculate artist's work that is partially responsible for Bertracchi's success. Instead of uncertainty, he sold a name brand and for an extended period of time, everyone bought it. In much the same way as Rowling's readership jumped the minute she revealed her authorship.

It makes me wonder what we would discover if art wasn't pre-selected for us by the people who run museums, publishing houses and the entertainment industry. What kind of messy, unexpected creativity is out there right now, waiting to be discovered? The kind of thing that is undefinable, yet still undeniably great art.


Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Romantic Shift of a Word

Last week, in a slightly manic bout of children and husband on the west coast energy, I drove into the city on a chilly Friday night to have dinner with a bunch of strangers.

And, to my delight and surprise, it was FUN!

Maybe it's because they were writers. Cartoonists, copywriters, fantasy and poets. Creative people with creative appetites for conversation and food; our age ranges spanned from twenty-something to sixty-something.

Which of course, because we're writers, gave us an idea.  We would each write about what romance means to us; little essays informed by our generational differences.

If you'd asked me what romance meant when I was in my twenties I would have given you flowery descriptions; allusions of being whisked away to somewhere warm with the waves crashing below my window like a metaphor for the amazing sex I would have been too shy to describe.

There would have been exotic fruit, laughter, lots of champagne and eye contact. I would have tried and failed to put into words the feeling of giddiness that's like spinning in circles until you collapse in a giggling heap on the floor. 

After my children were born my vision of romance shifted, as though each birth was a mini-earthquake with the power to shake up and redefine language.

Romance was my husband getting up at 5:00 in the morning when the babies cried so I could sleep in.

It was dinners eaten at child-friendly hours so we could all be together. Looks of wonderment exchanged across the table over the heads of laughing toddlers. The question passing back and forth between the adults in the room, how is it possible that we created a place where our hearts are so full?

Lately, I've realized my definition of romance has morphed again. This time the shift has been slower, but like global warming, its effects can already be felt.

My notions of romance have become intertwined with the concepts of freedom and deep understanding born from quiet scrutiny.

The ability to say and do anything without fear of being judged. To have someone who is both a friend and the calm repository for all my wacky ideas. A person who makes me laugh while I'm brushing my teeth and, who knows me well enough to convince me to slow down, leave the lights off, look out the window at the setting sun while we share our secrets and feel grateful that somehow, through the teeming masses of humanity, we found each other.

Maybe the true magic of romance is located in its ability to shift and glide, changing slightly through each decade until, like a good bottle of wine, it becomes a thing that is perfectly aged.