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How fake can we be? A philosopher counts the ways.



All forgeries are fakes, but not all fakes are forgeries. In fact, there are so many ways of being fake that it's a wonder we manage to navigate a world so rich in falsehood and illusion.

A smile or a gesture is fake when it is insincere. A person is fake when pretentious or histrionic, a poseur or a pseud. Salinger's Holden Caulfield was neatly comprehensive: for him, just about everyone was phony because conventional or bourgeois.

A mirage in the desert is a fake of the eyes, a hallucination one of the mind. A literary or artistic hoax is fakery, creating a non-existent author or artist. But this is different from the fakery of trompe l'oeil or a photoshopped picture--two kinds of artistic illusions that are themselves distinct kinds of faking, as are faked-up Doric columns on a suburban house.

A quarterback fakes the run when he executes a play-action pass. A pitcher fakes a fastball when he throws a changeup--but a curveball, while deceptive, is not fake. The bogus hero, lauded for something he did not do, is yet another species of fake, though not as distressing as the untrained chancer who poses as a doctor, or the bigamist who fakes his own death.

Loose philosophy and hackneyed music will earn the judgment of fakery. But this is not the same as massaging experimental results, plagiarizing a paper, or creating false citations--three more ways to fake. And strangely enough, at a certain point faking it becomes admirable or at least cool: casually fabricating "expert" conversation about art or politics.

So what distinguishes art forgeries among these many ways of seeming false? They have a deliberate intention to deceive--not shared with all fakes--combined with the passing off of a worthless object as some valuable original. Forged artworks are in the same category as celebrity impersonators, androids, paste pearls, retro restaurants, pleather, and Canal Street designer knock-offs.

As these last examples hint, sometimes fakery can become weirdly desirable: oversized fake pearls with visible plastic seams, mock Louis vuittons sporting intentionally incorrect logos. These kitsch "genuine fakes" are then like Tex-Mex tacos, mock turtle soup, or Chinese-Canadian chicken chow mein, valued on their own merits. On the other side, a perfect copy of something--a genetically identical clone, say, or a print rather than a painting--is not considered fake at all.

In this play of simulacra, do we observe a dismantling of the age-old reign of the singular real thing? Is the semi-sacred aura of the unique artwork finally dispelled, as Walter Benjamin suggested, leaving something even better than the real thing?

Perhaps. But you can't pretend to be Picasso or van Gogh unless there are authentic artworks out there to imitate, just as you cannot lie unless there is such a thing as the truth to twist or evade. The real enemy of truth, as the philosopher Harry Frankfurt argued in a bestselling 2005 book, is not lying but bullshit. This form of meta-fakery does not reject the authority of truth; it pays no attention to that and just makes things up.

Originality issues from something that can't be imitated. It creates its own artistic truth.

Which sounds good. But what about those notorious cases where a valued work is suddenly revealed as a fake? It's still the same painting as before. Was our initial appreciation real, or fake?

Or was it, maybe, bullshit? Ouch.

MARK KINGWELL is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto and the author, most recently, of Glenn Gould in Penguin's Extraordinary Canadians series.
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Title Annotation:Opinion
Author:Kingwell, Mark
Publication:ROM Magazine
Date:Dec 22, 2009
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