Charlatans of the Art World

The accusation of charlatan is sometime levelled against some artists. Robert Hughes made this accusation to Jeff Koons. Koons replied to was to point out that if had put his talents to use in the business world he would have a bigger income.

Chelsea, NYC stickers, 2013

Chelsea, NYC, stickers, 2013

I smile sadly at the street artists who snigger about all the street art photographers, the artists who dislike collectors and the accusations of “toy” amongst the street artists. I understand the artists who hate critics, although I think that critics are misunderstood. For all of these people are all part of a system that creates and defines what art is.

Artists, collectors, curators, critics, gallery visitors, gallery directors have many different ambitions, drives and desires; one artist may have many different ambitions, drives and desires. The game of art, if it resembled any game, is like a role-playing game; in these games the players are not directly competing against each other but playing characters in a story.

I regularly play tabletop role-playing games and the players have a variety of ambitions within the game: the power player, the character actor, the storyteller and the puzzle solver are the typical variations. Like any game there people playing it for a variety of reasons from the social to personal. In the game of art there are artists and other people playing with all kinds of ambitions within and outside of art.

There is early episode in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, when Tom and Huck are playing at highwaymen and Huck complains about the futility of playing at gentlemen highway robbers.

“He (Tom) said if I warn’t so ignorant, but had read a book called ‘Don Quixote’, I would know without asking… So then I judged that all that stuff was only just one of Tom Sawyer’s lies. I reckoned he believed in all the A-rabs and the elephants, but for me I think different. It had all the marks of a Sunday school.”

Tom Sawyer’s self-conscious play demonstrated awareness of the rules of genre whether it is highwaymen or pirates. He makes the painting of his aunt’s fence into an event, although the event lacking any authentic emotional or artistic quality it is very profitable one for Tom. (Read more in my forth-coming book, Tom Sawyer, Art Entrepreneur. Syndicated chapter from the early years about Tom getting the local street artists to paint his Aunts fence for nothing, they even brought their own paint. But I digress.)

One can always have doubts about Tom Sawyer’s true intentions or have doubts about Duchamp – serious, joke or both? Tom Sawyer chooses to play at being pirates or highwaymen just as Duchamp chooses to play at making art. However whereas Tom Sawyer slavish follows the conventions of the genre, to Huck Finn’s great consternation, Duchamp incorporates jokes about them into his games. Jokes were about being aware of the conventions of the art gallery and the art world. Duchamp did not change the conventions of art galleries and the art world, the changes had already been made.

Isn’t a charlatan just the opposition’s view of a magician? (Are we talking stage magician or someone like Gandalf?) I am referring to Jed Perls’s new book Magicians and Charlatans.


About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

7 responses to “Charlatans of the Art World

  • erickuns

    Just a quick thought here. I agree with Hughes that a lot of artists are charlatans, including Koons and Hirst, because they appropriate other people’s ideas and hire still others to make the works, and have nothing intelligent to say about them. Koon’s counter that he could have made more money as a businessman isn’t a counter at all, it’s a non sequitur. Why let an argument like that stand? The underlying premise is that because he could have made more money in another way (assuming for a moment that that is true), his artwork isn’t about making money and is therefore authentic. I would counter that his work is inherently derivative and barren, and that he could easily be doing it, even if he could make more money in commodities or whatever, because he wanted to be horsewhipped as a great artist. As in any other occupation, there are charlatans in art, whether they know it about themselves or have convinced themselves otherwise.

    May I politely disagree that artists are all involved in role play, to the degree that you mean it with any seriousness. By extension that would mean that everyone is just playing a game, and nobody is authentic or genuine in what they do. I can accept that in an Eastern Mystical sort of way, but not within a Western context. Just because the charlatans are playing a game and posting as what they are not, does not mean that everyone else is as well, in which case art can hardly rise above superficial entertainment.

    • Mark Holsworth

      Jeff Koons says that his art is about banality. Banality includes what you describe as “inherently derivative and barren”. Koons is art is sterile, it is exploitative but that is a reflection of the times, the Wall Street culture. Koons is not uncritical of that attitude in looking at the banal, remember the “banality of evil”. Maybe Koons, to use your words, “horsewhipped as a great artist”, to authentically suffer the slurs on his character… there is a lot of spirit in Koons work, the liquor adverts, the vacuum cleaners are all about some kind of spirit. But I digress into a defence of Koons.
      Consider Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain, Monmouth invented the whole King Arthur and King Lear history and it was accepted as genuine history by some. Are these stories bad art because they were the work of a charlatan?
      This whole idea of being genuine has its roots in the idea of genius or genie or genetics. The ancient Roman geni were the family gods, their genetics as a genuine god. The whole idea of the genuine is so religious that I’m having difficulty avoiding mentioning the “inherently derivative” text that many religious people in the West take as genuine.
      And what puzzles me the most about this is why wouldn’t the best charlatans in the art world pose as the genuine rather than make their sham and con as obvious as Jeff Koons?

  • erickuns

    “Horsewhipped” was a spell check mistake. I meant “worshipped”. Koons might have hashed out some superficial tripe about his work celebrating the banal somehow being critical of it, but more recently he talks about the “generosity” and “transcendence” of his work, such as his giant chrome candy hearts. He asserts that because you can see your reflection in them, the pieces “vindicate the viewer”. Does it matter at all that this rhetoric completely contradicts any notion of being critical of kitsch or banality? How about his statement that his kitsch works reaffirm the tastes of the viewer? If he was every claiming irony, now he’s not. Koons makes fashion baubles for the ultra rich, and his work reflects the decadent, corrupt, and bankrupt values of the plutocratic class.

    When it comes to questions of “genius” who more can claim genius than the person who merely needs to wave a hand and have his assistants produce works for him that he will sell for millions of dollars? The father of this kind of appropriation art is Andy Warhola, who is always celebrated as some sort of “genius”, even if he didn’t make a good deal of the work sold under his name, and was infuriatingly inarticulate. It’s about time we put to rest the art of the businessmen, who steal the ideas of others, and hire still others to make larger and more impressive copies of them. Sure, it is the favorite art of the 1%, but I’m with Robert Hughes when he declared “Isn’t it a miracle what so much money and so little ability can produce. Just extraordinary. You know, when I look at a thing like this, I realize that so much of art – not all of it, thank God, but a lot of it – has just become a kind of cruddy game for the self-aggrandizement of the rich and ignorant. It is a kind of bad, but useful business.”

    I judge Hirst by his own paintings done with his own hand, which were second rate rip offs of early Francis Bacon, and Koons for his own second rate Photoshop collages he has his assistants make mural sized copies of in paint. Neither is a very good artist, though both are astute business men.

    • Mark Holsworth

      Now Erickuns this is reading like a rant and lacking in art history accuracy. Artists have been appropriating art, working with assistants and work for the 1% has been going on a lot longer than Warhol. It is all about your judgement about who is genuine and who is charlatan without explaining how you can see this – do you have access to the philosopher’s stone so that you can test for genuine genius gold?

  • erickuns

    I hope you don’t mind my disagreeing with you terrible. Not sure now much people post on blogs in order to engage dialogue that might include other, contradictory perspectives. As for the “philosopher’s stone”, yes, I do believe that reasoned argument, objectivity, and intelligence in general are completely relevant tools for understanding art, and recognizing fraudulent masters. It is not just a matter of opinion, though one is certainly entitled to their subjective response to the art in question.

    You implied that because using assistants and making art for the aristocracy has been going on for a long time, Jeff Koons is not a charlatan. Just because charlatanry has been going on forever, doesn’t mean someone isn’t a charlatan now. Further, using assistants to perform mundane tasks like grinding pigment, or even painting tedious details or general backgrounds, is not the same as hiring highly skilled professional artisans to do 100% of the work because the artist is admittedly incapable of doing it himself. This is precisely the case of Jeff Koons, who has confessed that he doesn’t know how to sculpt and hasn’t personally done any sculpting in his adult life (as a child he played with putty). His porcelain figurines and marble statues are entirely sculpted by highly skilled craftspersons. Further, because he isn’t involved in the actual production of the work, his relation to the meaning is arbitrary, and is decided after the work is completed. Like Hirst, he’s ends up saying a lot of his work is “happy” – code word for empty – because that’s what you get when other people make your art for you. The “assistants” or “world-class specialists” are not really invested in infusing content into commissioned work, in which their role is to mimic the perfection of mass production. The result is as empty as a figurine of Ronald McDonald.

    When Koons hires Italian sculptors to make marble sculptures of the likes of Lady Gaga, or Hirst hires a jewelers with an appointment to the queen to fashion a diamond studded skull, they are acting as art directors of very exclusive art production companies, but are not themselves artists. They arrange to have art made in their name, and according to their specifications. The are the bosses of artists. This is why I say that I judge them as artists in the rare instances where they make something themselves, just as I’d judge a write by sentences they think up themselves. No, there are not parallels in art history for the likes of these two, unless it is parallel charlatans.

    I’ve actually researched and written extensively about these two characters, and made parodies of them, especially Jeff Koons. Here are a few articles I’ve written about Koons:

    I’m just finishing a post about Hirst. Will be ready today or tomorrow, though this post gives a good taste of what I think, while also including some parodies:

    • Mark Holsworth

      Was Titian or Rubens a charlatan in your opinion as both employed assistants to do most of the painting? El Greco worked for Titian for a few years, painting Titians. I don’t mind you disagreeing with me but I do think that you need to read more art history and philosophy of art rather than just rant about Koons.

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