Nothing is Real, and Nothing To Get Hung About

In 1985, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Southern California purchased a Greek sculpture, a Kouros, for nine million dollars.  One of only twelve complete kouroi, the statue drew great attention when it was first exhibited, not just because it appeared to be an almost perfect example of an Archaic Greek depiction of a young man ‘coming of age,’ but because it was almost immediately deemed an almost perfect example of a forgery.

kouros 1 kouros 2

The story of the statue’s ‘realness’ is something of myth, to the point that Malcolm Gladwell used it to begin his book Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking.  In his re-telling, though the Getty had made its final decision based on certain scientific proofs, a number of art experts soon found themselves unable to accept the piece as genuine.  ‘Something just doesn’t feel right,’ seemed the reason of choice.

Now on display at the Getty Villa in Malibu, California, the description of the statue, both in the museum and online, reads:

Title: Kouros
Artist/Maker(s): Unknown
Culture: Greek
Place(s): Greece (?) (Place created)
Date: about 530 B.C. or modern forgery

There are two renowned museums of fake art in Europe:

The Fälschermuseum, in Vienna, Austria.

The Museo Del Falso at the University of Salerno’s Center for the Study of Forgery

While the former, a privately owned collection exhibiting a number of famously forged pieces of ‘priceless’ art, the latter has received a great deal of attention in the art world for the last thirty years, such as by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Smithsonian.

Both museums specialize in the forged, the fake, and the ‘not-real,’ taking pride not only in presenting falsified copies of great masterpieces, but shedding light on the notion that the leading difference between a real or genuine piece of art and its fake counterpart is nothing more than an artist’s first-hand influence on the former.

In 1983, and after a bidding war between the German magazine Stern, the UK’s Sunday Times, and the American magazine Newsweek, the Hitler Diaries, the personal account of Adolf Hitler during the war, were purchased by Stern for 3.7 millions dollars.  The diaries were quickly revealed by a number of historians to be forgeries, manufactured by the notorious forger, Konrad Kujau.

Arrested and tried alongside his accomplice, Kujau served four years in prison for the forgery, and upon his release opened a gallery of forged artwork.

Remarking in the Sunday Times that the Hitler Diary affair represented more an example of the media’s concern over a story, rather than its authenticity, Brian McArthur stated:

the discovery of the Hitler diaries offered so tempting a scoop that we all wanted to believe they were genuine. Once hoist with a deal, moreover, we had to go on believing in their authenticity until they were convincingly demonstrated as forgeries.

Discovered by four children in 1940, the Lascaux Cave offers us a snapshot of Upper Palaeolithic artwork, painted onto the walls and ceiling some 17,000 years ago.  These images tell us a great deal, not only about the people who left them, but about what they viewed as ‘sacred,’ and thus worthy of artistic depiction.  In other words, these images tell us a part of their story.

lascaux 1lascaux 2lascaux 3


Until 1963, visitors to the cave could see the images in person.  Now, the cave is sealed off in order to protect it from damage caused by carbon dioxide.

Instead, when you visit the site now, and for a small fee, you may enter Lascaux II, an identical reproduction of the Lascaux cave paintings, wherein the art on the ceiling and walls has been authentically re-made using the same techniques, pigments, and style.

A few months ago, the hit AMC television series Mad Men concluded with its final episode on 17 May 2015.

Following the exploits of Dick Whitman as he struggles to maintain the fictionalised life he stole from his superior officer, Don Draper, during the Korean War, the show was notably lauded for its quite authentic depiction of 1960s Manhattan.  The offices, cars, homes, wardrobes, vernacular, and even cigarettes used for the show made the realism of its plot seem all that more genuine.  In fact, for its authentic depiction, Mad Men won four Excellence in Production Design awards from the Art Directors Guild, the award for Outstanding Costume Design from the Costume Designers Guild of America, and five Creative Arts Emmy Awards for Art Direction and Hairstyling.

After its final episode, most of the production materials went up for bid on the online auction site Screenbid.  For a fee, an audience member could bid on, and if successful, eventually own a genuine piece of Mad Men history, such as Don’s 1965 Cadillac Coupe DeVille (which sold for $39,500), or Lane Pryce’s broken glasses, that Lane broke just before hanging himself in his office in the Season Five episode, “Commission and Fees” (which sold for $350.00).

Each of the examples listed above demonstrate something that isn’t ‘authentic.’  Yet, each of these things equally represent something made authentic, or if nothing else, made more ‘real’ by our giving them meaning in a manner perhaps completely different to their original status.

The kouros, though perhaps a forgery, is made all the more meaningful because it might be fake.

The two museums of fakes are interesting because we are drawn to false artistry, as well as forgery, just as much as we are drawn to the genuine article.  (Is not the ability to re-create a masterpiece not a masterpiece in itself?)

The falsified Hitler Diaries drew three news publications, bound by journalistic integrity, to outbid each other over a textual depiction that was almost immediately deemed a rather poor forgery, because they were so historically sexy.

In order to preserve the artwork of the Lascaux Cave, a re-construction was created nearby in order to ensure that people have the opportunity to witness and experience the artwork of their long-distant relatives without causing irreparable and irreversible damage.  (What is the difference between Lascaux I and Lascaux II, given the care and detail put into that re-creation, other than a short distance of time?)

The offering of manufactured historical items, made sacred by the artistry of a television program, has impelled people to bid and own items that, were it not for the fact that they were consecrated by fictionalised individuals with whom we empathetically came to associate in our quest for entertainment, would be lost amidst other relics strewn about antique shops.

Though each of these things are both real and fake, authentic and inauthentic, they are also examples of the way we impute meaning onto things, and thus transform them from one medium to another, from mere trinket to meaningful artefact.

As a personal example, I had a discussion with a friend recently about this very same sort of transmutation, based on nothing more meaningful than my keeping a receipt for a meaningless purchase on a day that meant something to me.

“What’s funny,” I said to my friend who asked why I’d keep something as simple as a receipt, “is that when I’m dead and gone, and someone finds this, the meaning that I’ve given to it will cease to exist.  It will return to being a simple piece of paper with some printing on it and a date.  The sacredness that I’ve given to it, unless adopted by someone else, will no longer be there.  It will simply go back to being a piece of paper.”

I suppose, in many ways, that’s very true about the artefacts that we study in our quest to understand ‘religion.’  These sorts of items, though meaningless to us, have a sacred authenticity to our subjects.  Though they might not seem ‘real’ to us, their ‘realness’ is validated by the mere fact that the individuals we study see them as such.

Of course, this is made all the more interesting when we consider that just as they find sacrality in these sorts of objects, so do we, by our shifting them from items of meaning to our subjects, to items of significance worthy of our study in the first place.

As a final conclusion, I will end here with my own sacred item, a clip from the film Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Here, our hero sits down with his adversary and nemesis, Belloq, who shares with him his theory that as archaeologists they are bound to objects of significance, to the point of killing each other, an irony that he justifies by referring to the worthlessness of a pocket watch made priceless by the passing of time.

(It’s also, according to the clip I’ve provided here, the longest single shot in the film)


As Belloq further points out, much of what we determine as ‘real’ and ‘authentic,’ and thus ‘sacred,’ is given meaning by our determining them as such, which also means that the sense we have of ‘sacred objects’ is the result of some sort of fictionalisation.  Whether that then determines everything that we hold sacred, from sculpture and art, to religious artefacts, as ‘worthless’ when it is without our intervention, is perhaps entirely up to interpretation.

One thought on “Nothing is Real, and Nothing To Get Hung About

  1. Pingback: Everything is Fiction: A Discursive Year in Review | everything is fiction

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