Critical Thinking

Fakery and Aesthetics

Steve Snyder*

New York, August  (2014), Alochonaa:  In the various arts, just as in intellectual endeavors, there are two types of what we might commonly call fakery. The first is forgery, plagiarism and similar. It’s obviously a matter of law, not philosophy. The second, which is the concern here, might be called “inauthenticity” — it in some way involves passing off a lesser work as a greater one.

Fakery of this sort is harder to determine, of course. A painting, a sculpture, a symphony, a novel or a skyscraper don’t involve scientific fact in the same way as works in the natural sciences, other than obvious matters such as the refractive properties of different pigments, the timbre of different instruments or the tensile properties of different architectural construction materials. There’s no materials analysis, like there is in the case of a modern work that’s being passed off as ancient. Even more, unlike intellectual works in the sciences and philosophy alike, there’s no rationality, no reasoning to a conclusion. Add to that the old Latin maxim of “de gustibus non disputandum,” there’s no disputing tastes.

With all that in mind, some patrons of the arts, whether more serious aficionados or more casual ingesters, might wonder whether we can ever get any consensus on what constitutes fakery or inauthentic works. Others might flatly state that such judgments are impossible.

Is there any way for us to determine the authentic from inauthentic?

Is there any way for us to determine the authentic from inauthentic?

However, while recognizing that such judgments may be more provisional than in the sciences, or even than in philosophy, and may also have less empirical grounding, I argue that they still can be made, and they can be made without waiting for the “judgment of history,” whatever that may entail. I also argue we can look at specific motives that may drive some artists to engage in psychological fakery. And motives, to the degree they can be discerned, are part of the world of the social sciences.

Moreover, if we count the emotions as part of intellect in its broadest sense, we can also look at artists as public intellectuals of a sort. With this in mind, we can see how aesthetic fakery not only may be a matter for discussion, but how it should be such a matter. That’s especially true with artists such as, to pick one obvious example, Andres Serrano, who deliberately shocks and challenges convention.

With the above basic groundwork laid, let’s dive in. Within the type of fakery I’m concerned with here, I see two main subtypes, which can often overlap. That’s either the fakery of coasting on one’s reputation and producing schlock, or — somewhat similar —   coasting on the reputation of one’s ideals, as those ideals are perceived by the general public.

For the former, I am first and foremost reminded of Barbara Tuchman calling most of the later output of Richard Strauss “schlock.” Salvador Dali, beyond the possibility of not doing his own work (the first type of fakery), may also be. Case in point. Things such as his telephone with a lobster headset, to use another foreign loan word, but one now thoroughly Anglicized, strike me as “kitsch” as well as schlock. And, although the skit, as most of them were, was over the top, I’m also reminded of an old Saturday Night Live episode in which Jon Lovett played Pablo Picasso. The aging Picasso scribbles doodles on napkins, claims they’re priceless masterpieces and uses them as currency, or tries to.

Artists of all sorts, whether painters, sculptors, photographers, musicians or others, always worry about the wellspring of creativity drying up. One easy way to sidestep this is to tap into the old myth of artist as rebel and proclaim that schlock is actually shock.

Are we seeing shock or "schlock"?

Are we seeing shock or “schlock”?

From there, the artist doesn’t have too much further to go if he or she wants to underscore the claim to genius. Per a bit of waggery that’s at least 15 seconds old in my mind as of first typing these words, the French for “shock” is “avant-garde.”

In the case of Dali, of whose work I am an aficionado, and seeing him as a premier artist, and a premier controversial artist, of the last century, it’s easy to see how this could happen. That’s doubly so when the myth of artist as rebel is trumped by the reality of artist as capitalist.

That comes even more to the fore with Andy Warhol and his paintings of things such as Campbell’s soup cans. True artistry, or just overblown graphic arts? Or, to pick up the main thread, art or kitsch? Not being as much a fan of Warhol as of Dali, I lean toward the latter. I do so while acknowledging that this is just one person’s opinion, while at the same time stating that, as a connoisseur of some sort of modern art and a definite aficionado of modern classical music, I am no Philistine in tastes.

And it wasn’t just Warhol. The whole Pop Art movement struggled to separate itself from the idea of kitsch. One could argue that while the best of the movement, such as Warhol, made the cut, lesser Pop Art creators didn’t.

What about modern classical music? In music, the issue of fakery can be a bit more difficult. First, most music, other than program music with specific titles, has never been representational in the first place, unlike pre-modern art. Nonetheless, I can agree with Tuchman, at least to a fair degree, on her assessment of Richard Strauss. Here, there’s another issue that’s involved, and it gets back to the question of creative juices. Richard Strauss never claimed that his later works were meant to shock. Rather, to use a modern phrase, one might accuse him of “phoning it in.” Which gets me to the other version of fakery: being untrue to one’s own ideals.

Staying with the world of classical music to get us started, the problem can take several different forms. In music, serialism, or at least semi-serialism, continued to grow in popularity in Europe (though certainly not in America, land of blue-haired ladies attending orchestral concerts). Strauss, unlike, say, Dmitri Shostakovich before Stalin put the kibosh on his experimentation by way of gulag threats or worse, refused to go down that road. However, one could argue that he still could have found more creativity while staying closer to tonality. After all, Brahms remained a musical conservative, even to the point of continuing to score his music for valveless Waldhorns, even though Wagnerians were in the ascent in the German musical world of Brahms’ time. Ditto for Rachmaninoff versus Stravinsky, just nine years his junior, and others.

So, who is to say that Richard Strauss was indeed “phoning it in”? After all, while we don’t have a Latin phrase for that [1] we do have another one that gets to the crux of aesthetics as a field within philosophy, and that’s the above mentioned “de gustibus.”

Well, music critics aren’t philosophers, but they are music critics. And they generally rank Brahms and Rachmaninoff above to well above Richard Strauss in the musical pantheon. The same goes for art critics, who don’t rank Warhol in the same league as Dali or Picasso.

Even if something that is avant-garde isn’t necessarily meant to shock, one can ask whether a seemingly avant-garde work of art is really that, or whether it’s more trivial than that, as we get near the art vs. kitsch issue from another direction.

Classical music offers an excellent example, namely in what is surely John Cage’s single best-known work. I totally understand the idea behind 4’33”. And, having listened to his music for prepared piano [2] and other aleatoric work [3], I know that this came from a sincere artistic temperament and impulse.

But, what if Cage had written 2’27”? Or 2’27”, 4’33”, 5’12” and 0’47” into a four-movement symphony? Would we then have accused him of pushing a boundary with the musical version of kitsch, like a Warhol, or even going beyond? I might have; I would at least be open to discussion of the idea.

Creating a new style will leave one vulnerable to the charge of fakery. Alfred Schnittke, known for his “polystylism,” or incorporation of a number of different musical styles into his own work, in fact faced that charge repeatedly. Critics claimed that his eclectic incorporation of various musical styles was a tool used to hide his own lack of creativity rather than being part of that creativity.

A related issue in fakery is claiming to be creative when one is not. This spins off from the discussion above about Warhol and other members of the Pop Art movement, and about whether Pop Art really was something above kitsch.

Several movements within various modern art forms relate to that as well. This includes serialism in classical music, cubism and then abstract expressionism in painting, and related modernizing movements in sculpture. It also includes some individual styles, and stylistic movements, in literature.

Was Arnold Schoenberg creative, or was he using serialism in service of fakery? What about Picasso and Cubism? Or consider the stream of consciousness writers, beginning with James Joyce in “Ulysses.” Or ee cummings — no capital letters, no punctuation and all?

We have to start by asking what artists were trying to do with such movements. In serialism, Schoenberg, and followers, thought the 12-tone major-minor system of the past 300 years was reaching its limits, and that composers such as Gustav Mahler were already showing that. In cubism, Picasso and others thought that photography had freed them from representational limits to take their oils and canvases in new directions; the same goes for Jackson Pollack and other practitioners of abstract expressionism. And Joyce thought that his new style was the only way to truly represent his characters’ inner thought patterns.

Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique is credited as beginning seralist method.

Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique is credited as beginning seralist method.

So, as with Schnittke and his polystylism, these other creatives were venturing into new terrain not because they had run out of things to say, but because they had run out of creative space in which to say them, or so they felt.

While not calling cummings a “fake,” I’m not at all ready to put him at the same level of creativity as the others mentioned above. Mentioning him, however, does bring up an area of literature not mentioned thus far: poetry. Because poetry has, in general, not been “representational” (other than something like Shakespearean soliloquies in blank verse), similar to how music has never generally been representational of actual sounds, it’s not the same as novels and short stories, which generally purport to represent narratives, and it may be thought of in a way similar to how we treated music above.

Yet another way of betraying one’s ideals might be professing to be a cultural rebel or general leader, an artistic version of a public intellectual while focusing on emotions as well as intellect (or intellect in its broadest sense), but actually not being any such thing.

The best illustration of this might be to create a snippet of counterfactual history. The story of Beethoven scratching out from his Eroica symphony the original dedication to Napoleon is well-known. Unfortunately for the idea of an artist as an unflinching genius, it’s not true. Was Beethoven untrue to his ideals, or were his ideals more complex than that? Given that he passed up a fee by not dedicating the symphony to an Austrian princely patron, namely Prince Lobkowitz, it appears that he was indeed true to his ideals.

That, in turn, illustrates another problem, when the public imputes ideals to an artist that he may not actually have. As late as 1808, Beethoven considered accepting a position in Cassel, whose salary would be funded by Napoleon’s brother Jerome, King of Westphalia. Ultimately, he used that as a lever to get an even bigger stipend from a group of royal Viennese patrons who included Lobkowitz.

In other words, the image of Beethoven as someone so dedicated to his creative muse that he would ignore chasing after either the plaudits of fame, or filthy lucre, is simply false. But myth aside, this is nevertheless a way in which we could and should see him as the first modern artist. One might argue that Beethoven was the first artist to create a myth about himself.

In a quite different fashion, Dali traded in “shock” as being part of the coin of his artistry. But at some point, that artistry, or what he professed to call artistry, became first and foremost about the shock and eventually almost entirely so. And there’s every indication that Dali knew what he was doing and was laughing all the way to the bank.

While we as a society shouldn’t ask our artists to be starving ones, and we shouldn’t expect them to divorce themselves from questions about the financial value of their work, there is a flip side. When does being a capitalist outpace being an artist to a degree that fakery becomes a temptation? Or, with Dali’s lobster telephone, a reality?

And, we haven’t even gotten to literature. Other than both of them being paid by the word because their novels were being serialized in magazines, literary critics would find little in common between Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray. Is unduly “padding” a story another version of fakery? It’s a judgment call, as of course many issues in the arts are, but if the padding is of such a degree or nature that it clearly does little or nothing to advance a plot, then yes, it’s fakery.

There’s yet another twist here, hinted at above: “capitalist.” How much does money drive fakery? And, how much does it drive an acceptance of fakery by the public?

I referenced Beethoven, above, and how myths about his artistic drive don’t exclude that he wasn’t above any trick he could think of for a few extra bucks. Again, the plastic arts are different from either literature or music. Oh, sure, an ur-text of Moonlight Sonata or a first edition of “Oliver Twist” will draw a pretty penny, but not the tens of millions of a Picasso. The pages of a novel or the staves of music are like a carrier wave; they’re not the art itself. The canvas of an “old master” is the actual work of art.

Here, the issue of “shock” squares the circle. An artist trading in the coin of “artist as rebel” can use the shock value to ratchet up prices. See Dali laughing to the bank again. Ditto for someone skirting the Pop Art/kitsch border, claiming to be rebelling against definitions of what constitutes art that allegedly are driven by socio-economic class standing.

And, at that point, we begin to move closer toward fakery in intellectualism, as best shown by Alan Sokal’s famous hoax about postmodern philosophy. It’s easy to slide from feminist theory in literature to feminist literature and a claim that it deserves “bonus points” in its consideration as art precisely because it has to fight against old, “classist” ideas of what constitutes art. From there, it’s yet another relatively easy step to exploit allegiance to that idea to market novels, paintings and other works as “feminist,” “African American,” or whatever.

Jacques Derrida was one of Sokal's main targets.

Jacques Derrida was one of Sokal’s main targets.

The object of the “sellout” isn’t always money, though. As I noted above in deconstructing the myth of Beethoven, an artist as faux rebel may be a glory-seeker rather than a money-grubber. (Of course, these two aren’t mutually exclusive, though one of the two usually is riding higher in the saddle than the other.)

Second to the myth of “artist as rebel” is probably that of the “persecuted artist.” (Again, with parallels in science and philosophy.) I was inspired to this by one that Roger Scruton wrote in Aeon magazine [4]. He spends less time on the aesthetics issue than I do, and dives more directly into capitalism, Marxism, and related themes. But that’s in part because he extends the issue of fakery to philosophers, and to public intellectuals who might not necessarily label themselves as philosophers. However, there too, for fakery to succeed, it must have an audience willing to accept the fake as real, as Sokal has shown. And I don’t mean the academy of art critics, to parallel Sokal’s skewering of literary criticism. I mean more the audience of the general public.

Maybe it’s for money at times, as made possible by plutocratic art collectors who seek out paintings as investments. Or maybe it is for fear of appearing philistine, or otherwise wanting to better one’s social image, that a work by a famous modern artist is bought even if the purchaser doesn’t “get it.” But, at some point, the collector who’s buying for investment value first and artistic genius second is on the spot. He has to tout Warhol as a genius to make sure his particular Warhol doesn’t depreciate in value.

Back to the issue of fakery and schlock vs. shock. While the myth of artist as rebel is overrated, there is a degree of truth to it. But to rebel simply for rebellion’s sake, per Camus’ work of the name, avails nothing, unless allied to the other values traditionally ascribed to the arts — values of uplift, sensory stimulation, mental and emotional challenge, and more.

Indeed, one can argue for those values to come first without being a philistine. Or, per a James Dean role, the real artist is the “Rebel with a Cause.” To put it another way, while tastes may be highly disputable, value judgments, intents, motives, and goals are less so, though proving motives, of course, is never easy, and critics and laypeople may disagree on quality as well as motives. However, the arts do have legitimate critics, with even literature not entirely populated by Sokal-type caricatures from new literary criticism.

To bring matters to a close, and to align with my political beliefs, I don’t call for artists to starve, nor to reject legitimate values that the public will pay for their works, even if the paying public is a plutocrat. But, part of what sets good art apart from fakery is that the artist is writing, painting or composing for artistic value, knowing that, at least to a degree, if he or she is recognized, the money will follow [5].

In short, while not an exhaustive framework, the question of fakery in arts can, in part, be seen as one of art as an exercise in public intellectualism (counting public stimulation of emotions as part of intellectualism) versus art as commercialism. With that in mind, we can still accept that classical maxim of “de gustibus non disputandum” and argue over whether Saint-Saëns was greater than Schubert or not, while at the same time knowing that neither of them was a fake. In the same vein, we can not only argue about Jackson Pollack vs. Andy Warhol, we can also debate whether Warhol was an artist or something else.

And, if we think of artists as a type of public intellectual, we should be having exactly these debates.

*Steve Snyder is a newspaper editor and an atheist with a graduate theological degree.This is cross-posted via Scientia Salon  under mutual agreement. See the reference list here—Steve-Ref

** is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on this topic. Please send us your submission at



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