Over the weekend, the New York Times ran a story that actor Alec Baldwin claims to have been ripped off by an art dealer who sold him a painting that was not exactly the one he had asked her to obtain for him. The art press has been weighing in on the somewhat confusing situation, since it is difficult to tell exactly what happened, and I won’t begin to try. However his tale of woe is based partially on the fact that celebrities can often fall victim to the silliness of Modern and Contemporary Art, in which all of the players can be easily manipulated into believing what they want to believe.
Baldwin of course is not the first nor the last celebrity art collector possessing wealth and resources that, in the end, have let him down. Comedian Steve Martin, who is well-known in the art world as a serious collector, purchased a painting supposedly by the German Modernist Heinrich Campendonk (1889-1957) for $860,000 which later turned out to be a fake. Tennis star John McEnroe was duped out of $2 million by a New York art dealer, who sold him half-interests in two faked paintings allegedly by the Russian Abstract Expressionist Arshile Gorky (1904-1948) for investment purposes. The ease with which art-collecting celebrities can be duped was wonderfully sent up by the late David Bowie a few years ago, at an event which you should recall the next time someone accuses you of being a philistine when it comes to Modern and Contemporary Art.
Back in 1998, Bowie and Iman hosted a cocktail party at the studio of artist Jeff Koons for the first book to be launched by Bowie’s new publishing venture. “Nat Tate: An American Artist 1928-1960” was the biography of a struggling, talented Abstract Expressionist painter, who burned almost every painting he had ever painted, shortly before committing suicide in 1960 by jumping off the Staten Island Ferry into the Hudson River. Guests at the reception included celebrities, famous artists, and the press, who were all mesmerized by Bowie’s presentation and reading from the book:
The crowd took their eyes off Koons’s colourful, kitsch sculptures of kittens, and listened attentively, then resumed drinking, networking and seeing who could impress most with opinions about Nat Tate’s life and work.
It was a glittering evening, probably the major event in that year’s cultural calendar, and beneath the glitz a poignant tribute to one of the 20th century’s pioneering artists.
There was just one problem: Nat Tate never existed.
The book’s author, the Bowies, and others who were in the joke wanted to show how easy it was to dupe the glitterati into believing that they knew all about an artist who was, in fact, nothing more than a work of fiction. While some feathers were undoubtedly ruffled by the hoax, it remains to date one of the best examples of how easy it is to fool the current gatekeepers of culture into believing their own hype. By using the kind of artspeak which the arts community has employed for decades now as a kind of shield against the intrusions of more rational minds, it is easy for those with bad taste and low standards to avoid admitting that they do not know what they are talking about.
This is not to say that Bowie himself had good taste. In fact he didn’t, as this slideshow of some of the works in his collection indicates. However in exposing how easily celebrities can be taken in, he did show that the rich and famous can sometimes turn out to be just as gullible as ordinary people.