I’ve written about conspiracy theories and art here before. The notion that Sorina Higgins has about frauds in her recent piece “On the Validity of the Vogel Collection” is a valid one. Our culture teaches us to hold the truth and conspiracy hand in hand, like imagining that a document that makes its whole case on “self-evident” truth is actually a secret treasure map that leads to a trove of ancient treasures horded by cunning Freemasons. It is why every year, like clockwork, someone will release a startling archaeological discovery about the historical Jesus right around Palm Sunday. It is why the Da Vinci Code could create an overnight cottage industry of books advocating for the conspiracies of the Catholic church and the truth of orthodox Christianity. We live in a culture that secretly believes that everything could be an Indiana Jones story.
A new twist on the truth and conspiracy genre arrived with the critically acclaimed documentary/mock-umentary/possible prank with Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop. I don’t know if it is a brilliant documentary, a movie made to mock a hack artist, an elaborate prank a mixture of all three or something else all together. After watching the movie I do not quite know who even filmed it or edited it. The point, if there even is one, is to have all these questions arise and for discussion and yelling and conspiracy to ensue.
The same can go for Higgins misgivings about the Vogel Collection: “Whatever else it may be, must be, or is, art requires talent, training, and technique. These pieces evidence none of those.” I have my own misgivings about art on display. I walked through the Metropolitan Museum of Art last week with my daughter and a tinge of conspiracy resolved in the back of my mind—I envisioned what would happen if my daughter ran and knocked over one of those large Grecian urns and it broke, what would happen? Do the curators think about all those thousands of children ever year who would be so brazen as to touch the art, even break it? What if they had thought about it? What if they had done something about it? What if that urn was a fake and the real one was in some holding unit, down in the basement, safe and protected from the hands of toddlers and schoolchildren?
Was the whole museum an elaborate fake? A simulacrum on a massive scale? As Higgins asks in her piece:
Who got duped? The Vogels? The curatorial staff of NOMA (and 49 other museums)? Critics? Reviewers? Me?
And who was the con? The “artists”? The Vogels? NOMA?
There is more than just movies to back this line of thinking up. A few years ago the Brooklyn Museum bit the bullet and actually curated an exhibit of a large number of fake pieces in its Coptic gallery (“Brooklyn to Exhibit Fake Art“). Such a brazen move is to be applauded. The more disturbing question becomes “Is a forgery art?”
I think it can be. Art can transcend itself. Art is never displayed in a vaccuum. It is never isolated. Art is always shown as connected to other art around it. Art excites and pleases. Art produces more art.
The conspiracies will always linger in the back of our minds. We even know some of them to be closer to truth than we ever want to readily admit. Fortunately, the conspiracy loving side of our culture is balanced out by the truth side. The side that sees beauty in art. The side that is ever hopeful that galleries will connect the artist and the viewer to something transcendent. That is the side that will keep us going back to your local museums and searching for what “might make you angry, and amaze you, and teach you.”