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Who’s Afraid of the Art Critics? The Last Vermeer and Popular Art Skepticism

In Dan Friedkin’s 2020 historical drama The Last Vermeer, the protagonist Han van Meegeren (played by Guy Pearce) takes the stand to defend himself in court. Van Meegeren stood accused of selling paintings by Johannes Vermeer to Nazi officers, a crime of collaboration that carried the death penalty. In the film’s climax, Van Meegeren reveals that he did not in fact sell genuine Vermeers to the Nazis: he had forged every single one. Once his deception was revealed, Van Meegeren called out into the hubbub of the courtroom: “Only one minute ago, these paintings were considered sublime and priceless. Now they are worthless and not one brushstroke has changed!”

Set in the days following the Second World War, The Last Vermeer recounts the story of real-life art forger Han Van Meegeren (1889-1947.) Despite its occasional inaccuracies, The Last Vermeer faithfully reproduces one of the historical Han Van Meegeren’s strategies for getting the press on his side. Van Meegeren achieved media stardom and folk-hero status by convincing the court that he first turned to forgery to seek revenge against the critics who scorned his original works and to prove that he could hoodwink them all. While Dan Friedkin was happy to change many other elements of the film, this central trope of an artist outsmarting the critics remained intact. Why is this trope still as relevant to film audiences in 2020 as it was for the popular press in 1947?

According to the trial records, Han Van Meegeren confessed that he turned to forgery after he had been “spurred by the disappointment of receiving no acknowledgements from artists and critics.” The film version confesses something similar, adding that the critics derided him because he had painted from the heart, and had “failed to properly seek their illustrious approval.” The central trope here is of an artist with talent and creativity who refuses to cater to their whims to achieve commercial success.

Although there were some pre-modern artists who achieved their primary fame after their lifetimes, the media trope of wily artists being two steps ahead of stuffy critics took off in the modern era. This was based on some real instances related to the avant-garde: Contemporary critics roundly dismissed and sneered at the Impressionists. The early twentieth-century Fauvists derive their name from a scathing review by critic Louis Vauxcelles, who called them “fauves,” or “wild beasts.” 

These moments date from eras when critics represented the voice of institutions such as the French Academy. Academies and academy shows had specific rules for submission, and the artist’s success was judged by a panel that looked for artists to meet certain standards. By contrast, the modern era tends to prize individuality, innovation, and personal expression as the key indicators of an artist’s success. Any criticism of an artwork’s quality is liable to be met with the response “That’s their style,” or “That’s just your opinion.” Likewise, an artist who bows to the pressures of an institution, or is concerned with their income more than artistic expression, can be accused of being a fraud or a sell-out.

Yet not all avant-garde art is embraced by the masses. While working as an art dealer, I had numerous prospective clients who would conspiratorially ask me, “You don’t really like this stuff, do you? My five-year-old could have done that.” Articles regarding Maurizio Cattelan’s “Comedian”, the banana duct-taped to a wall at Art Basel Miami in 2019, are frequently met with a vitriolic comment section about how all modern art is a fraud. This fear of deception recalls Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes, a fable in which a team of huckster tailors promises the emperor that they will create a set of clothes that fools will not be able to see. The court officials and even the emperor himself pretend to be able to see the clothes, although the looms are actually empty, and thus the hustlers trick the emperor into walking around nude. Everyone pretends to see the clothes until a child, who is too innocent to hold up the charade, calls out that the emperor is nude.  In this analogy, the critics are the tailors who deceive everyone, the artist is the king who models the deception, and the average public is the crowd who are too afraid to speak up at the absurdity because of fear of being mocked for their ignorance. Folk heroes like Han van Meegeren are like the child who pulls the wool back from everyone’s eyes because of their refusal to abide by the status quo. The contemporary mood seems to be that everyone in the art world is trying to hoodwink unsuspecting outsiders. In this light, Van Meegeren’s story resonates: the point is not to show an artist overcoming adversity, but to point out that the solid foundation of expertise is just a combination of egotism, pretentiousness, and elitism. 

Art, which is a subjective and malleable field at the best of times, is a popular target for accusations of fraud. Talking about art requires a vocabulary that is both highly specific and easy to mock (one needs only screech “Derivative” to convincingly play a modern art critic.) Art is associated with the upper tiers of society, giving it connotations of exclusion and elitism. Art can seem simple and deceptively easy if audiences do not know the history and backstory of the ideas behind them. Let us also not forget that some artworks are celebrated despite being weird, off-putting, and silly. People need a level of cultural capital to discuss art. When people lack the necessary vocabulary to discuss art, the idea that other people do becomes difficult to fathom. Instead, it is more comfortable and convenient to take the defensive stance that the entire art world is a fraud. Even most dedicated art-folk agree that defining what is good and bad is subjective at the best of times, even when the language used seems concrete. Similarly, many art historians readily admit that the art world is filled with bias and tends to prefer glorifying the works of a few great “masters” who are invariably white European or American men. Academic art historians are caught in the crosshairs of defending their expertise against mockery while also doing the necessary work of deconstructing the accepted canon.

Being skeptical of expertise is not unique to the art world. Conspiracy theories have long derided the credibility of experts, from anti-vaxxers to flat earthers to climate change deniers. For some, the idea that someone might know more than they do is completely unfathomable, even if that person has specific training in the field. The more abstract, complicated, and theoretical the field, the more expert-denialism it faces. Instead, our culture prefers the outsider narrative, the underdog, and the successful “non-expert.” For as long as this is the case, the world will celebrate those like Han van Meegeren who tweak the noses of elitist critics and conspiratorially wink to the audience: Don’t worry, we know the truth.

-Mary Bedell

Sources

Cohen, Paula Marantz. “The Meanings of Forgery.” Southwest Review 97, no. 1 (2012): 12–25.

Friedkin, Dan, dir. The Last Vermeer. 2020; Santa Monica, CA: Imperative Entertainment, 2020, Digital.

Lopez, Jonathan. The Man Who Made Vermeers: Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han van Meegeren. New York City: Harcourt, Inc., 2008.

Wheelock Jr., Arthur K. “The Story of Two Vermeer Forgeries.” In Shop Talk: Studies in Honor of Seymour Slive Presented on His Seventy-Fifth Birthday, 271–75. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Art Museums, 1995.

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