Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A Forger and an Artist

The pianist Glenn Gould (1932-1982) profoundly affected the way people hear, perceive and appreciate music in one of the most unique and fascinating careers in the modern history of classical music. For most of his mature career, Gould did not perform live, reaching his audience instead through a remarkable legacy of recordings and broadcasts.

IN AN UNGUARDED MOMENT some months ago, I predicted that the public concert as we know it today would no longer exist a century hence, that its functions would have been entirely taken over by electronic media. It had not occurred to me that this statement represented a particularly radical pronouncement. Indeed, I regarded it almost as self-evident truth and, in any case, as defining only one of the peripheral effects occasioned by developments in the electronic age. But never has a statement of mine been so widely quoted -- or so hotly disputed.

The furor it occasioned is, I think, indicative of an endearing, if sometimes frustrating, human characteristic reluctance to accept the consequences of a new technology. I have no idea whether this trait is, on balance, an advantage or a liability, incurable or correctable. Perhaps the escalation of invention must always be disciplined by some sort of emotional short-selling. Perhaps skepticism is the necessary obverse of progress. Perhaps, for that reason, the idea of progress is, as at no time in the past, today in question.

Hans Van Meegeren was a forger and an artisan who, for a long time, has been high on my list of private heroes. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the magnificent morality play which was his trial perfectly epitomizes the confrontation between those values of identity and of personal-responsibility-for-authorship which post-Renaissance art has until recently accepted and those pluralistic values which electronic forms assert. In the 1930s, Van Meegeren decided to apply himself to a study of Vermeer's techniques and -- for reasons undoubtedly having more to do with an enhancement of his ego than with greed for guilders -- distributed the works thus achieved as genuine, if long-lost, masterpieces. His prewar success was so encouraging that during the German occupation he continued apace with sales destined for private collectors in the Third Reich. With the coming of V.E. Day, he was charged with collaboration as well as with responsibility for the liquidation of national treasures. In his defense, Van Meegeren confessed that these treasures were but his own invention and, by the values this world applies, quite worthless -- an admission which so enraged the critics and historians who had authenticated his collection in the first place that he was rearraigned on charges of forgery and some while later passed away in prison


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