Friday, September 27, 2019

The Story

I am fond of repeating the notion that Art exists inside of and as part of a culture. It is inextricable from that culture, and derives much of its value from it.

There was a man named Han van Meergeren who famously made some fake Vermeer paintings. They were very good fakes, lots of experts considered them authentic. Let us suppose for the moment that these paintings were and are the aesthetic and technical equal of genuine Vermeers. These paintings were extremely valuable when they were thought to be authentic, but their value dropped precipitously when the forgery was revealed.

One way to consider this is that the story behind the paintings ("Vermeer made this") lent value to the painting. The story, revealed to be false, is pried off the painting. A new, less desirable story ("Some rando made this"), adheres now to the painting, and the value of the painting is accordingly less. The painting has not changed, only the story. The price tag, without a doubt, lost a zero or two.

I do not know, but it would not surprise me to learn that van Meergerens have been rising in value over the decades, as this new story acquires a patina of romance and interest. Certainly it would be perfectly reasonable.

This goes up and down the scale. Alain Briot, writing for Luminous Landscape a few years ago, told us that selling a photograph is best done through stories. Tell the story of how you took the picture, and if it overlaps or intersects with the customer's story, you've got a sale. His picture of the Grand Canyon isn't a picture of a hole with a river in it, it's a picture of this one guy's memory of how he proposed to his wife just a few yards to the left of where the photograph was taken, just at sunrise.

Photographs, even more than paintings, rely on these stories, because they are themselves like stories. They are little slices of truth. The true story surrounding a photo is intimately tied up with the true story of the photographed, it is a natural extension of the true story the picture comes from. Set aside for this discussion that a photograph can also be bound up with an explicitly fictional story (fashion, Crewdson, etc.)

Capa's pictures of D-Day, the story of D-Day itself, and Capa's stories about the pictures he made, were all the same story. It is a powerful story, a genuinely historical moment, a moment all of the good guys could be proud of, could look back on with pride and honor. These stories are intricately connected to the value we find in the pictures he made there.

The fact that it turns out that Capa's little slice of the story is a pack of lies damages that value.

Coleman's work on this has ruffled a lot of feathers, angered some. Many are prepared to dismiss Coleman out of hand, because they cannot bear the thought that he might be right. Others are angered that Capa sought by way of his false story to ride on the shoulders of the true story to lend value to his pictures. Stolen Valor.

Capa's fabulism, though, does not change the larger story. It only damages his little slice of it. The larger story is safe. The pictures remain the same. Capa himself is dead and past caring.

The only thing that changes, really, is that the social value we place on his handful of frames is lowered. Like van Meergeren's "Supper at Emmaus" their social value has taken a dive. We are left with several uncomfortable realizations:

   1. That we were fooled, and
   2. That the value of these things does after all depend on the story.

But these, in the end, are OK. Everyone was fooled, so what? And, the value of things changes over time, it is inevitable. The stories evolve, or are lost entirely, and we recall only, maybe, that the object itself was valuable once, and then that too fades away.


  1. I do not really agree about the comparison between Capa's "D-day" picture and the Meergeren's "Supper at Emmaus". The possible forgery of Capa did not really diminish the market value of the picture, it mainly damages Capa's reputation. For van Meergeren, it is the opposite story : it decreased the market value of the painting but it increased van Meergeren reputation (he was ironically considered as a hero in his country afterwards, as he contributes to save paintings from the nazis by providing them forged paintings). So IMVHO we are mixing several very different things I believe in your article : the social value of an widely art production (that depends on the public taste at that moment), the market value of an art production (mostly disconnected to public taste and even from pure artistic qualities in modern art), and the social recognition of the artist. These are different aspects.

  2. I had this idea for a comic novel about an artist down on his luck. To increase interest in his work, he starts to do forgeries of his own paintings. He leaks word about the forgeries, and suddenly galleries and collectors start to take notice of him because they think he must be important since someone is taking the trouble to forge his work.
    So far, that's all I have.