Too good to be true
Fakes as an artistic and subversive warfare against cultural hegemony
“All warfare is based on deception” – Sun Tzu, The Art of War
I´m lovin´it! Brad Downey, a street artist from the US, currently based in Berlin, painted for a street art groupshow the McDonald´s-Logo on an entire building in Lüneburg, Germany. Same typography, same colours – for the viewer there was no ironic or artistic escape, he could not see any difference to usual advertising. This fake was the only work at the exhibition that did not serve the city as a “trendy decoration” and an artistic beautification that leads to gentrification. On the contrary: For most of the inhabitants of the historical city this work must be a blemish and visual pollution. If advertising imitates the look of street art and street art gets more and more acceptance in all levels of the population, perhaps street art has to imitate the look of advertising to be really radical. Downeys fake was a pure provocation that answered to the appropriation with a maximal over-identification and commentated the McDonaldization of street art shows and society in general.
Fakes are a subversive strategy that work like a guerilla warfare: It’s all about surprise effects, deception, razzle-dazzle, disinformation, sabotage, misappropriation and quasi-affirmation. As an theoretical implement for categorizing fakes, the work-analysis of Peter Bürger is very useful. In his book “Theory of the Avant-garde”, published in 1974, Bürger disputes the relationship between the historical avant-garde and the art term of the bourgeois epoch. Fight was declared on this art term, bidding to break through the autonomy of the institution art, in order to transform art into life practice. The goal was no lesser than the overthrow of the societal conditions, the instrument was art.
Based on this work, Bürger developed a model for work-analysis. Thus a piece of art is first sorted into the societal conditions, from which it was created. After that, it is scrutinized according to Freud’s formula of id, ego and super-ego. The id here is the work-intention of the artist, the ego is the result and the super-ego is the actual function within society. This model renders the possibility to deduce the artist’s motivation from the work-intention through critical analysis. The extraordinary about this model is the real function: Independently from the work-intention it is possible to derive whether a piece of art as a “child of its time” acts affirmative or critical towards society.
From this point of view, two rough categories of art within the bourgeois epoch can be established: Affirmative and critical art. The motivation of affirmative art is to be successful in present-day society. This form of art acts inherent in the system, thus is dependent of the system and therefore necessarily affirmative. Opposed to that, the work-intention of critical art is to challenge the given circumstances. After this consideration, two categories of fake can be worked out: Affirmative and critical fakes. The work-intention of an affirmative fake is a business concept, the real function is capital – either symbolic or economic. For critical fakes the work-intention has to be a dispute with the given circumstances, the real function is the promotion of critical consciousness within the recipient.
Affirmative fakes do not at all aim for social capital only. The strategy of forgery predominantly follows an economic interest. Viral videos on the net are mostly guerilla marketing campaigns in a battle for eyeballs, made for a postmodern economy of attention. Also illegal acting artists like Banksy became a victim of fakes. In 2007 unauthorised prints by the artist have been sold on eBay – leading to the result that Banksy established a new handling service to legitimate works of art and “to prevent people from becoming victims of fraud”. All this let to a project called notbanksy.co.uk that is producing Banksy-Fakes, giving them away for free in order to “bring back the attainability of Banksy trinkets in an age of bourgeois auction house gentrification”.
Fakes, as a form of media hacking, are also used by artists as well as marketing experts. The director of the movie “Shortcut to Hollywood”, Jan Henrik Stahlberg, spread on september 10th, information about a terrorist attack in a restaurant in the small Californian town Bluewater and referenced to the local station VPK-TV. The plan worked out, the canard was spread through different media channels like the german press agency (DPA). After the hoax was discovered, Stahlberg topped it off by faking the denial itself and claimed that the whole action was the idea of a rap group called “Berliner Boys”. For this remarkable stunt a fake website for the existing city Bluewater, a website for the fake tv-station (including fake tv-reports), a MySpace-site for the fake rappers (including a music video) and some fake Wikipedia entries have been made. But even if this huge hoax transports a critical attitude against the mass media, the final purpose was to promote a movie.
But it shows the power of fakes and how they work. Fakes find and infiltrate chinks in the system – and are spreading like a virus. The overkill of information on the internet and the worldwide media crises made it much easier for fakes. Most media channels in Germany get their information only from one source (DPA) and journalists have no more time verify the source, because the rat-race on the net is so hard and fast. After an information has been send through the DPA-ticker you`ll find the story five minutes later on almost every news site in Germany. Tom Kummer, the famous black sheep of german journalism, faked in the 90s dozens of interviews with stars like Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp or Madonna and argued later that he brought more truth to the media. “My interviews have been concept-journalistic spectacles, all of them little Warhols”, he said and quoted Ernst Bloch: “The only difference between an original and a fake is that the fake looks realer.”
When Karl Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jakob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg has been elected as the new economics minister, a journalism student tested his collegues and added one more forename (“Wilhelm”) to his wikipedia entry – 24 hours later Guttenberg had a new forename in all major newspapers. Besides Wikipedia also Twitter is the perfect new medium for Fakes. There are so many false celebreties that we only mention one case: The group Metronaut twittered more than one year in the name of german politician Franz Müntefering – to 5337 followers. And even if several newspapers already revealed the fake, his Tweets had been quoted again and again in several newspapers.
But all this is no new phenomenon: In 1973 the short text “The Fake as More, by Cheryl Bernstein” was published in the book “Idea Art” about american art theories. Bernstein is writing about the artist Hank Herron who debuted in a gallery in New York with replicas of Frank Stellas paintings. Only 13 years later an art historian discovered that the artist, his work, the gallery and also the author of this text had been fake. The hoax was made up by art historian Carol Duncan and her artist Hank Herron became one of the first fake artists – long before Harry Kipper (1995), Darko Maver (1998) or the “Entropa”-project (2009) of the czech sculptor David Cerný. For his installation at the atrium of the European Council building he invented the name and biography for 27 “up-and-coming” artists from the 27 member states – but created all sculptures himself.
Fakes are everywhere, on the street or on the net, and fakes can be commercial and critical. It always depend on the context. But all fakes rub salt into wounds, explore the soft spots, criticise the existing system, they can lead to another vision of reality. And artistic fakes, mostly appropriation art, have successfully destroyed the concept of authorship, the connection between genius and original. But most important fakes as an artistic strategy can enhance critical thinking because of its ambiguity: Everything has always to be questioned.
written by Alain Bieber