Art Thou Kidding Me?

Different Flavors of True-Crime

For years I’ve been using the image below as an exercise for my Governor’s School students.

I seat them in pairs, one facing the painting and one facing away. The one who can see the painting has to describe it in words (playing the left hemisphere). The other has to draw the painting, based only on the description. Sharing other information, like pointing or confirmation that an element is correct, is not allowed. Surprisingly, they generally do pretty well. Phrases like “two checkerboards” translate easily.

I mention this because Google Arts & Culture has a virtual exhibit on Kandinsky’s life and work. I never knew that he’d been recruited to join the faculty at Black Mountain College here in North Carolina. I also didn’t know that he was synesthetic. He heard colors and saw music. One fun aspect of the exhibit, which they call an “experiment,” is Play a Kandinsky, which uses machine learning to compose music based on Kandinsky’s theories about how color affects emotion. I’m listening to the Blue Movement right now.

I’m interested in the crossovers between art, technology … and fraud. While my wife is obsessed with Dateline, and my kid watches drug-dealer media like Breaking Bad and Ozark, my favorite true-crime stories are about con artists.

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Made You Look

This documentary, currently on Netfllix, follows what is possibly the largest art fraud in American history. The same gallery in NYC spent 15 years selling 60 fraudulent works in the styles of mid-century abstract painters like Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, among others, for a total of almost $80 million. In one sense, it’s nauseating to watch these rich people justify their petty status-seeking behaviors. In another, it’s hilarious that the so-called experts are no better than the buyers, with the possible exception of the scientists who do the chemical tests to determine where the pigments and canvases came from. The director discusses his process here. The thing is, these people are almost parodies of themselves. He doesn’t need to do a Daily Show comedy hack job on them. Their own words, and their own facial expressions as they say those words, do all the work.

One of the biggest questions for me personally is “Why is this authentic painting worth more than some copy? Or another painting done in a similar style?” Why do we treat these things as magical objects, when the digital photograph above is considered nothing? We haven’t figured out how to pay any artists in this digital age — not fairly. Substack is proof of the ongoing experimentation for writers.

Veritas

This book concerns fraud in a different arena, not the world of high art but of academic history, specifically the history of religion. Journalist Ariel Sabar follows the rise and fall of Harvard historian Karen King, who wanted to rewrite Christian history to include women in positions of power, and who was willing to ride novelist Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code coattails to do it, even before being taken in by a papyrus she sensationally labeled “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.” Sabar describes the seduction by e-mail, which had an incubation period of almost a year before King took the bait, and then escalated to the point where she convinced her new chair to pay almost half a million dollars for the collection. Quite an hourly rate for the forger.

It’s ironic (to me) that the people who own Hobby Lobby are part of the authentication machinery that uncovered the fraud. More interesting to me are the independent scholars who had a hand in the process as well. Another case of experts being taken in by their own greed and ambition.

Deepfake Technology

Yesterday NPR had a story about the latest entry in this escalating technological arms race. So far, they have been more amusing than scary, in part because lower-tech scams work so well they haven’t been needed. I get ten or twelve fake phone calls a day, usually from someone with an Indian accent claiming to be named “Mike” or some such ridiculous thing, though this week I got an Eastern European or maybe Russian accent who called himself “Walter.” Recorded messages saying my Social Security number has been suspended, or my car’s extended warranty is about to run out. If these cheap tricks work some percentage of the time, even a small percentage of the time, there’s no reason for scammers to upgrade. Their investment is low, so their payout can also be low. They have no need for grand long cons.

The Cruise deepfake artist, Chris Ume, isn’t trying to hide who he is, or to fool anyone. He’s almost a researcher, just playing with the tools to see what they’re capable of. His level of quality required months of work. But cheap point-and-click tools are probably on the way, eventually.