Deceit, Parody and the Furtive Pleasures of Art

Article excerpt

There are simple jokes, and there are serious jokes. When an artist consciously puts together the two elements that Freud defined as the main characteristics of jokes, displacement and surprise, provocative questions are raised. Writers and painters often throw themselves into this form of play in order to shed their normal solemnity and reveal vagrant quirks of personality. Typically, artists start their careers in the earnest hope that they and their work will be taken seriously by the public. But when acclaim finally arrives it's often hard to handle ...

THE legend of Nat Tate was tragic, but it evoked hopeful memories of Van Gogh, whose early death and later resurrection became the model for what the art world considers a tragedy with a happy ending: a miserable life followed eventually by gigantic auction prices.

In Greenwich Village in the 1950s Tate painted in the Abstract Expressionist mode. He was friendly with his famous contemporaries and apparently accepted by them. He had the requisite affair with Peggy Guggenheim, who treated the New York painters roughly the way Catherine the Great handled the Russian officer corps. Tate seemed be on the way to success, at the side of Pollock, Rothko, and the rest.

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But the early interest in his work soon faded and along with it his confidence. He examined his paintings and judged them inadequate. In despair, he decided he would no longer burden the world with his presence. He burned most of his pictures and took a one-way trip on the Staten Island Ferry. His body was never recovered.

His story came to light in a handsome 1998 book by William Boyd, the English novelist: Nat Tate--An American Artist: 1928-1960. It included reproductions of the few surviving Tate works and carried on the cover an appreciative blurb by Gore Vidal. It was launched in a fashionable New York gallery, where David Bowie read excerpts from the text and John Richardson, Picasso's biographer, gave a talk about Tate's meetings with Picasso and Braque.

It soon developed that all of this was an elaborate work of fiction. There was no Nat Tate. The appearances of Bowie and Richardson were real, but they were there to play roles in an amiable game. Boyd, who was at the time on the board of Modern Painting magazine, dreamt up Nat Tate, executed his paintings, and plucked anonymous photographs from junk shops to serve as pictures of the artist.

This was both a hoax and a parody, two forms that intersect and can often be confused. It was a jeu d'esprit, like many hoaxes, but it was also a parody of art journalism. The artist's name was borrowed from two London museums, the National Gallery and the Tare; his biography was borrowed from the vast accretion of feature-story mythologies that gather around the making of art.

There are simple jokes, and there are serious jokes. When an artist consciously puts together the two elements that Freud defined as the main characteristics of jokes, displacement and surprise, provocative questions are raised.

Writers and painters often throw themselves into this form of play in order to shed their normal solemnity and reveal vagrant quirks of personality. Typically, artists start their careers in the earnest hope that they and their work will be taken seriously by the public. But when acclaim finally arrives it's often hard to handle. They find themselves drafted into the uncomfortable ranks of sages, expected to speak regularly and wisely on all manner of serious subjects.

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In a mild form of hoaxing, Graham Greene found his own way of resisting this fate. Whenever a London literary magazine challenged its readers to devise parodies of distinguished writers, Greene would submit a dead-on self-parody under a pseudonym and claim the prize.

Play of that kind reflects the humanity of artists and celebrates their autonomy. It's a knowing sideways glance at the audience, a furtively shared form of comic self-disclosure. …