"The Great Swindle": the Self-Perpetuating art of fakery

I just read this incredible thought-provoking piece by Roger Scruton, an English philosopher and writer, whom I’d never heard of before. It’s a long piece breaking down the modern obsession with what he calls “fakery” and kitsch. He describes it as a cultural ouroboros, where artists, their critics, and the public, are trapped in an endless delusional cycle of attempts to reject, and then embrace, the value of cliché.

It touches on a lot of issues I’ve been having with the post-modern art movement (or whatever the fuck we call it now). So much of the “art” and “culture” that I feel force fed on me, through museums, but even radio, magazines, and mainstream movie theatres, feel empty and contrived. In varying ways, they tend make me feel inadequate.

One example of this is a modern art exhibit. When I go to them, I usually feel as though the museum is trying to explain an inside joke to me. Those walls written with an explanation for why you should think that particular collection is important, might give me a history of those works, why it may have been groundbreaking, or maybe what it’s supposed to say about the society that I live in. If I don’t understand, or even if I do understand but don’t find it meaningful, there’s this underlying message of these statements that seem to say, “Well, you had to have been there.” Maybe that constant feeling of inadequacy has something to do with the lack of agency I feel in determining what is or isn’t culturally valuable, and how so often it’s not based on anything but a commercially-driven motive.

It’s late and I’m starting to feel like I’m talking in circles. Anyway, I took out a bunch of excerpts that I liked and compiled them below, mostly for my own personal keeping.

UPDATE: A twitter friend pointed out to me that this Scruton fellow faced a bit of controversy himself 10 years ago, when he wrote a seemingly objective, independent report on the impact of tobacco on health while receiving money from the industry itself. While I agree that’s definitely ironic, given that he lambasts “fakery” this entire piece, I don’t think that undermines it one bit.

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The kitsch work of art is not a response to the real world, but a fabrication designed to replace it. Yet both producer and consumer conspire to persuade each other that what they feel in and through the kitsch work of art is something deep, important and real.

The fake intellectual invites you to conspire in his own self-deception, to join in creating a fantasy world. He is the teacher of genius, you the brilliant pupil. Faking is a social activity in which people act together to draw a veil over unwanted realities and encourage each other in the exercise of their illusory powers. The arrival of fake thought and fake scholarship in our universities should not therefore be attributed to any explicit desire to deceive. It has come about through the complicit opening of territory to the propagation of nonsense.

To gain the status of an original artist is not easy, but in a society where art is revered as the highest cultural achievement, the rewards are enormous. There is, therefore, an incentive to fake it, to produce a complicit circle; the artists posing as the originators of astonishing breakthroughs, the critics posing as the penetrating judges of the true avant-garde.

…beginning with Marcel Duchamp’s urinal and passing through Andy Warhol’s silk screen portraits and Brillo boxes to the pickled sharks and cows of Damien Hirst. In each case, the critics gathered like clucking hens around the new, inscrutable egg, and the fake was projected to the public with all the apparatus required for its acceptance as the real thing.

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Real emotion allows no substitutes, and is never the subject of a bargain or an exchange. Fake emotion seeks to discard the cost of feeling while receiving the benefit. It is therefore always ready to exchange its present object for a better one. The sentimental lover who enjoys the warm feelings of self-approval that accompany his love is also the one who moves quickly to another object should the present one prove too arduous — perhaps because he or she has developed some debilitating illness, or has grown old, weary and unattractive.

Kitsch art, by contrast, is designed to put emotion on sale: it works as advertisements work, creating a fantasy world in which everything, love included, can be purchased, and in which every emotion is simply one item in an infinite line of substitutes. The clichéd kiss, the doe-eyed smile, the Christmas-card sentiments: all advertise what cannot be advertised without ceasing to be. They commit the salesman to nothing. They can be bought and sold without emotional hardship, since the emotion, being a fantasy product, no longer exists in its committed form.

Fear of kitsch led to the routinisation of modernism. By posing as a modernist, the artist gives an easily perceivable sign of his authenticity. But the result is cliché of another kind. This is one reason for the emergence of a wholly new artistic enterprise that some call ‘postmodernism’ but which might be better described as ‘pre-emptive kitsch’.

In the place of modernist severity comes a kind of institutionalised fakery. Public galleries and big collections fill with the pre-digested clutter of modern life. Such art eschews subtlety, allusion and implication, and in place of imagined ideals in gilded frames it offers real junk in quotation marks. It is indistinguishable in the end from advertising — with the sole qualification that it has no product to sell except itself.

Perhaps the destiny of culture is to induct us all into a Disneyland dream whenever the dangerous lust for realities sweeps across us. When you look at the cultural institutions in democracies today, you might well be tempted to think that faking is their purpose, and that it is a purpose pursued for the good of us all.

Yet culture is important. Without it we remain emotionally uneducated. There are consequences of fake culture that are comparable to the consequences of corruption in politics. In a world of fakes, the public interest is constantly sacrificed to private fantasy, and the truths on which we depend for our rescue are left unexamined and unknown.

 

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