Saturday, March 21, 2009

Houses of Games (Con men, forgers, artists)

I was delighted when I came across a reference to one of my favorite movies in James Surowiecki's column on Bernard Madoff in the January 12, 2009, issue of The New Yorker:

In David Mamet’s movie “House of Games,” the grifter played by Joe Mantegna explains to a former mark, “It’s called a confidence game. Why? Because you give me your confidence? No. Because I give you mine.”

This description of the scene is not quite right, but that's not a problem. I've always liked the overtones of "House of Games" that have to do with the relationship between artists and audiences: there's a great deal of trust and confidence involved on both sides.

Compare Peter Schjeldahl on art forgers (specifically, on the Dutch forger Han van Meegeren; the article is a review of two biographies of the forger) in The New Yorker from October 27, 2008 (this is the last paragraph; it is on page four of the on-line version):

Art forgery is among the least despised of crimes, except by its victims—the identity of those victims being more than exculpatory, for many people. Art is unique among universally esteemed creative fields in its aloofness from a public audience. Its economic base is a club of the wealthy, who share power to impose or repress value with professional and academic élites. Lopez’s muckraking of van Meegeren scants a fact that Dolnick merrily exploits: the forger gratifies class resentment precisely because he is a pariah. Unlike the subversive gestures of a Marcel Duchamp, say, his outrages will not become educational boilerplate in museums and universities. They are impeccably destructive, tarring not only pretensions to taste but the credibility of taste in general. The spectre of forgery chills the receptiveness—the will to believe—without which the experience of art cannot occur. Faith in authorship matters. We read the qualities of a work as the forthright decisions of a particular mind, wanting to let it commandeer our own minds, and we are disappointed when it doesn’t. If we are disappointed enough, when the named artist is familiar, we get suspicious. But we can never be certain in every case that someone—a veiled mind—isn’t playing us for suckers. Art lovers are people who brave that possible chagrin.

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