Amherst College Alum to Speak on the Art of Forgery



September 5, 2013
Rachel Rogol, 413-542-2295
Hi-res images available upon request 


Amherst, MA -- "We need to take art forgers seriously as artists," says writer, art critic and conceptual artist Jonathon Keats in his new book, "Forged: Why Fakes Are the Great Art of Our Age." Law enforcement would disagree. Throughout most of the world, the law takes art forgers seriously as criminals.

The provocative question "Are Fakes the Great Art of Our Age?" will be the topic of Keats's lecture on Friday, Sept. 13, at 4:30 p.m. in Stirn Auditorium at Amherst College. The lecture is sponsored by the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College.

Keats is a 1994 graduate of Amherst College and has written several books. His writing about art has appeared in many journals and newspapers including San Francisco Magazine, Art & Antiques, Art + Auction and ARTnews. His work as a conceptual artist takes many shapes, from a ballet choreographed for honeybees to photosynthetic cuisine designed especially for plants. His original, some would say outlandish, art is precisely the sort it would be hard to forge.

Why the interest in forgery? For Keats, great art forgery is comparable to great art. Both of them, he writes, "provoke us to ask agitating questions about ourselves and our world." He says he does not value art as a "mere cultural trophy," but for its power to provoke thought, discussion and ideas. "To me there's no inherent value in an original, but there is immeasurable value in originality­-or independent thinking."

Dr. Elizabeth E. Barker, Director of the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College, also deemphasizes artist identity in judging art's value. While she in no way endorses forgery, she prizes superior quality over name recognition. "Like any museum curator, I'd rather bring a masterpiece by an unknown artist into the collection," she says, "than acquire the worst painting Picasso ever made, however genuine." Would the Mead keep known forgeries in its collection though? "Absolutely! As a teaching museum, we could make fascinating use of a forgery as a case study."

In "Forged" Keats rehearses the high points of art forgery in the Western world (he limits his scope to the West because in Asia, he says, art and forgery "belong to a separate tradition"). He starts with the work of copyists during the Roman Empire, when "an especially fine copy might even be boldly signed with the name of the copyist, who was admired in his own right." Forgers in later centuries include the restoration artist Lothar Malskat, whose "restored" medieval frescoes were widely admired in Germany after the war, until he finally, and with much difficulty, convinced people they were his own work. The Dutch painter Han van Meergeren was another notorious twentieth-century forger: van Meergeren forged Vermeers as a way of getting back at the critics who had turned against his own paintings.

The history of this more or less conventional art forgery shades into what Keats calls "appropriation art." Like a forger, an appropriation artist relies on a known original for inspiration. Andy Warhol's 36 silk-screened Mona Lisas in "Thirty Are Better Than One" is an example of appropriation art: Warhol was not interested in passing this work off as Leonardo Da Vinci's. Warhol even welcomed potential forgers to imitate his own artwork. "I think it would be so great if more people took up silkscreens," he said in a 1963 interview, "so that no one would know whether my picture was mine or someone else's."

"Forged" closes with Keats's discussion of street art and online artistic activity today that, as Warhol envisioned, can't always be traced back to a particular artist. No one knows the identity of the artist known only as Banksy, for instance, who is based in England, and whose anti-establishment stenciled graffiti has, ironically, churned tremendous interest in the art world, where it fetches high prices. Banksy's silk-screened ten-pound notes depicting Diana, Princess of Wales, in place of Queen Elizabeth II-"Di Faced Tenners"-sold in 2007 for £24,000. His version of Leonardo's "Mona Lisa," in which spray paint drips from the Giaconda's eyes, sold at Sotheby's in 2006 for over £57,000.

The question, then, remains: If the artist's name is a mystery, what's the value of authenticity? And what's the crime, you may ask-especially after reading Keats's book-in forgery?

"All books on forgery take it for granted that the copies are of less artistic value than the originals," says Alex George, the philosophy professor at Amherst College who taught Keats in the '90s. "Jonathon naughtily sets out to probe that premise and to suggest that, given a certain understanding of the aims of art in current culture, perhaps we ought to rethink it."

George has kept up with Keats for many years, and in a recent interview he reflected on how Keats's intellectual interests and allegiance to originality have remained the same over the years. "Jonathon was always very independent-minded," he says. "He refused to major in philosophy and instead designed his own major, which circled around the topics in philosophy about which he was truly passionate. He called his major Aesthetics. I believe he is the only student in the history of Amherst to graduate with a major in Aesthetics."

These days Keats divides his time between San Francisco and Italy. His art has been exhibited at museums and galleries all over the world, though when asked to name his all-time favorite museum Keats describes the obscure rooms of the Met in New York where he enjoys "getting lost . . . in a room
so out-of-the-way that I suspect even the curators have forgotten about it: a room filled with Egyptian scarabs or Byzantine weights, all covered in dust."

And what does he have to say about potential forgers trading on the Jonathon Keats name and style? Bring it on, is his philosophy. "
I would consider it an honor of course," he says, "though I'd probably like it even more if a company were to pirate a product I've made in conjunction with one of my art projects, such as my martian mineral water or one of my new time ingots." Those time ingots, if you're interested, sound readily forgeable. They have "absolutely no moving parts," and when placed on your desk or bedside table, they tinker with time imperceptibly, to the tune of one second per billion years-a baby step in Keats's larger time management project. "Ultimately," he says, "we'd like to manage time throughout the cosmos." 

The Mead Art Museum houses the art collection of Amherst College, spanning 5,000 years and encompassing the creative achievements of many world cultures. An accredited member of the American Association of Museums, the Mead participates in Museums10, a regional cultural collaboration. The museum and its gift shop-café are open Tuesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Friday from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. year-round, and until midnight on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday during the academic term.