The Artist as Criminal

Thomas Mann began his Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man as a young man before WWI and finished it in old age. It is a series of stories of deceit, heists, cabals, double-dealings, some of them amorous, none of them lethal, perpetrated by the charming adventurer Felix Krull. In various interviews, Mann made it clear that he was playing with the element of fraud that was – often? usually? always? – involved in creating serious art. Who was better qualified to write such a book than a man who was a great artist himself. Goethe said he could not think of a crime he was not capable of committing.

Most of us who have seen gallons of paint splashed on a canvas have wondered whether we were being duped. “I could do this myself,” we said. And we were outraged when the canvas was auctioned off for thousands. And when John Cage wrote music consisting of silence he was playing with the same idea as Thomas Mann’s.

If a composer has a choice between going up or down and chooses up for no recognizable reason, is he a crook? Or if a painter gives a girl two noses, or if a poet writes a line that – to most of us – makes no sense at all should he – or she – be locked up?

Before you say yes, please consider this. No painter, composer or poet who wishes to be taken seriously works out of context, unhistorically. Each creation is designed to follow a precedent or model, to comment on it, add to it, do better. And wanting to show off is not a crime.

All the others, of course, should roast in eternal purgatory.


7 responses to “The Artist as Criminal

  1. Was it Manet who remarked, “In my lifetime, I created roughly two thousand paintings, of which four thousand reside in the United States alone.”

  2. Besides creating the forgery, the pretender must also create the artwork’s provenance; a task sometimes harder than making the tangible object.

  3. Surely Mann is not dealing with forgery, creating a work and passing it off as a work by a famed artist, but with the essence of art.
    If a no-talent charmer splashes paint on a canvas or creates a cacophony of notes and then sells that `art’ for a vast amount of money, does not the blame lie with the person paying the money?
    I believe that much of modern art is a con, but my art credentials are slim to non-existent and any evidence I might give with respect to a `crime’ would quickly be discredited.
    My words might, however, be valid as a comment on the `sanity’ or the `values’ of the buyer who, it is to be hoped, is at least wasting their own money.

    • FWIW, I can testify that the phenomenon you describe is alive and well in the world of contemporary “classical” music. Certain Canadian composers (“no-talent charmers”) get large grants for splashing a cacophony of notes on the page, and Canadian orchestras then get grants for “premiering” these “important new works,” which rarely achieve a second performance. The musicians hate this stuff, the conductors hate it, the audiences hate it even more, but everyone co-operates, despite some grumbling — all understand that the financial incentive (and the “Canadian content” imperative) is (are) all-powerful. (And the money involved — the grants to “composers” and orchestras — is largely from government agencies; in other words, it’s your money and mine.) All this is not (quite) to say that “Canadian composer” is an oxymoron, but one suspects that at least some of the “composers” involved know exactly what the game is and have no illusions about the real value of their works of “art.” Don’t Get Me Started!!

      • Michael Holliday

        Thank you curmudgeon. I fear it’s an international conspiracy. I’ve noticed it and I’m in Australia. Rgds Mike H