25 April 2009

Still Faking After All These Years

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Holland Cotter, the New York Times art critic who recently won a Pulitzer Prize, pulled out another terrific review last week, for an exhibition titled “I Am Art: An Expression of the Visual & Artistic Process of Plastic Surgery” at New York's Apexart gallery. It's a measure of Cotter's qualifications for journalism's highest honor that a review of an exhibition so potentially off-putting can be, instead, so intellectually intriguing.


I have to admit: reading that exhibition review, the first thing I thought of was something I wrote a few years ago. (Don’t worry, I'm not comparing myself to Cotter.) In my piece titled "Smooth, Firm, But Not Subtle," I explored a question that was nagging at me: how does our society treat authenticity—and fakery? As I wrote then:

Two of the most obvious and hifalutin subjects in which authenticity factors significantly are religion and art. ... Likewise in the arts, the 'real' is prized (whether in painting, sculpture, or other fine handicrafts) and an entire network of 'temples' has been constructed around the world to house art objects. Much like religion, art also relies on a broad pool of people who respond with devotion—a devotion bordering on the religious, and epitomized in the form of gifts, much as a religious establishment might receive—to those objects which the clergy comprised of museum directors, curators, and collectors has deemed to be authentic.

I then continued on to suggest that our cultural affection for authenticity is often fairly weak, and used breast enhancement surgery as an example of the point. Broadly speaking, if some 300,000 women per year (according to USA Today, although those are pre-recession numbers) are having their breasts "enhanced"—many presumably without a separate medical need for breast reconstruction—that says something about our collective need for the authentic.

That is not an expression of judgment; it is an observation. Certainly we all, at times, find some form of happiness in fakes of one kind or another, just as we can also find a kind of pleasure in the authentic. Extending the analysis into a very present-day context—the Madoff scandal and other Ponzi schemes—one might even say that we seek out people and situations we likely know cannot possibly be authentic and yet desperately hope that they are.


Still, an exhibition that explores, artistically, this very subject has got to have some real mettle attached to it. It does not sound like this is “Nip/Tuck,” a show that glorifies the whole premise of our physical artificiality (or, our artificial edifice). Nor does it sound like the photographic version of “Are You Hot? The Search for America’s Sexiest People,” which categorically mixed up and confused so many of the issues that relate to our collective body image (if we can be said to have one, and I think we can).

Cotter’s review makes the exhibition sound much smarter than that, and more compelling. At the same time, the question of authenticity that nagged me then remains, and I feel I am no closer to an answer.

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