What is Real? What is Right? Review of the Documentary Art and Craft

Day 16

I expected two things from Art and Craft, and it did neither. This 2014 documentary is about a skilled art forger, Mark Landis, who donated his work to museums, passing pieces off as original works of RenĂ© Magritte, Egon Schiele, and more. From the information and design on the DVD case and the film's website, I was expecting a detective story, the thrill of the chase, something a bit like Catch Me if You Can. While the film's tagline is "what's it take to catch a fake?" and it opens with jazz reminiscent of film noir in the background, the rest of the documentary doesn't go in that direction. We meet the man who first exposed him, Matthew Leininger, and hear he's "obsessed" with tracking Landis, but we see very little of his process. The other thing I expected -- maybe just because it interests me and I was hopeful -- was more of a discussion of what "real" means in art. I enjoyed Art and Craft, but I felt that it missed a lot of opportunities by not fully exploring either of these two paths.

Forgery in process: an image of an original piece of art on the left, while a man's hands hold a magnifying glass and paintbrush to a copy on the right.
Art and Craft, Purple Parrot Films, 2014.

Instead of what I expected, the film focused on the question: what would make someone do this? Landis wasn't getting money or fame from his art or his deceptions. He didn't appear to be playing a "gotcha" game, planning to humiliate the museums that accepted his work. In fact, in interviews he frequently referred to what he was doing as "philanthropy" even though he also talked about deception. He assumed various personas when meeting with curators and art collections managers, some of which were similar to his own; a man dealing with the complicated effects of grief over losing a family member. In interviews he spoke frequently of his late mother. Landis also took on the persona of a priest, saying that anyone who watched TV could be a priest. Late in the film, he mentioned that he was never treated with more attention and respect than when he was in the persona of an important art donor. At times Landis said a few things that could have been reworded as "nice guys finish last" and I wondered whether Landis would have been portrayed the same way if he had been charming, attractive, and young rather than awkward, withered, and old. The film walks a line between sensitive inquiry into Landis's life and his mind including his struggles with mental illnesses, most notably schizophrenia, and a sensationalist and voyeuristic portrayal of these same things. There were moments when the film felt like an understated and subdued Dr. Phil show. There's a lot here for viewers interested in exploring abnormal psychology, but it isn't perfect.

Art and Craft does flirt with the debacle of faked art, just not as much as I had hoped. A representative of one museum is quoted saying "if we show a fake, we are a fake." Mark Landis and Matthew Leininger finally, awkwardly met at an exhibit called Faux Real, which displayed Landis's mastery at forgery at the University of Cincinnati in 2012. Many people asked Landis why he didn't present his work to the world under his own name until he was approached for this exhibit. But beyond what it means for the museums, a lot of people get a special feeling when they encounter a piece of artwork or historic artifact that is important in its authenticity. We go to art museums to see the real thing. Sometimes, as with art that's incredibly famous like the Mona Lisa, people go just to be in its presence. In a painting, we get more from the brushstrokes seeing them in three dimensions, and knowing that the artist made the decision and put them there. Displaying copies as the real thing toys with people's emotional experiences on a fundamental level. Visitors might even have that special experience with an object that turns out not to be what they thought it was. I could imagine a forger in Landis's position exploiting that possibility for fun, as a prank or a statement about the nature of art, but that doesn't seem to be on Landis's mind. 

Despite the fact that I care a great deal about authenticity in my work in museums, and I get that special feeling around "real" historic objects or art myself, I freely admit that there's something a little irrational about the fascination with realness. If we get the same feelings from a forgery that we believe is real as we do from a famous piece of art, does it matter that it's a forgery? I believe that copies have their place only if they are clearly labeled as replicas. Yet questions about what authenticity means and why it matters never really go away.