David Grann’s Masterpiece Theater

Posted on | July 17, 2010 | 1 Comment slots jungle casino download

Perhaps it’s the heat, or a more general summer lassitude, or the fact that the fat Hungarian novel I’m reading keeps breaking down into unidentified sub-narratives that I can only sort of follow, but my attention span of late has favored the short.  The highlight of the New Yorker backlog that piled up while I was on vacation has been, hands down, David Grann’s masterly piece on Peter Paul Biro and the contested terrain of forensic art authentication.  It’s a feat not only of journalism, but of structural ingenuity: Grann gives us a straight-up profile of Biro’s ascendancy in the art world and then, with a twist that would make M. Night Shyamalan proud, systematically dismantles the legitimacy the subject he has just spent pages building up.  Biro, it turns out, is a fraud.  Grann has something of the Janet Malcolm about him—a kind of sixth sense for how the prerogatives of the narrator can mislead.  Here is Grann, on the journalist’s task:

Reporters work, in many ways, like authenticators. We encounter people, form intuitions about them, and then attempt to verify these impressions. I began to review Biro’s story; I spoke again with people I had already interviewed, and tracked down other associates. A woman who had once known him well told me, “Look deeper into his past. Look at his family business.” As I probed further, I discovered an underpainting that I had never imagined.

Whereas for Malcolm, these narrative fissures become the subject, Grann lets them hover in the background, hewing to the traditional demands of story-telling while always making clear that assembling an objective narrative is, fundamentally, a fishy enterprise. winpalace im banking

Grann’s final conclusion, in light of his complete demolition of Biro’s reputation, is that there’s ultimately something credible in the hazy practices of art connoisseurs: “Connoisseurship is not merely the ability to discern whether an art work is authentic or fake; it is also the ability to recognize whether a work is a masterpiece.  Perhaps the most uncomfortable truth about art is that such knowledge can never be truly democratic.”  Initially, this judgment didn’t sit well with me.  Connoisseurship may be more democratic than Biro’s purported science, but the end-effect of Grann’s article was, however unintentionally, to call into question the very concept of a masterpiece. If something looks like a Pollock, and we believe it’s a Pollock, why is it not as great as a Pollock?

I trust that there’s a difference, and I might even be able to pull a real Pollock from a line-up of fakes, but despite that I took an odd art history class here and there, I don’t know that I have the intellectual apparatus to formally distinguish one from the other.  Should I need it?  I’m not one of those people who believes aesthetic greatness is always a product of the dictates of taste, of cultural contingencies and herd mentalities.  But even granting that “masterpiece” is a true category (a can of worms perhaps best left for another post), the ineffability of what constitutes one is disconcerting.  Then I again, I guess that’s the whole point.


One Response to “David Grann’s Masterpiece Theater”

  1. Thomas W. Wilson, Jr.
    July 28th, 2010 @ 6:17 pm

    Per your article on the New Yorker story

    “David Grann’s Masterpiece Theater”
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    It’s dangerously libelous to say the authenticator Mr. Biro is a fraud. No where did the New Yorker journalist say “Biro, it turns out, is a fraud” as your article states. While I understand your need to spin the article into something sensational, Mr. Biro was never arrested or convicted of such crimes of “fraud” that you allege. Again, it is very dangerous for you to tread such ground, in more ways than one. us on line casinos

    Thomas W. Wilson, Jr.

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