The lucrative masquerade of merchandise as art

With ersatz art fetching increasingly steep prices, Andy Warhol’s vision of art as business has come true

February 21, 2015 2:00AM ET
A big-eyed waif by Margaret Keane, titled “The Stray.” Her mid-20th-century paintings were clichés of pathos and more merchandise than art.
Margaret Keane

With expanding museums, skyrocketing auction sales and the rise of international mega-galleries, art today is indubitably a huge business. Last year auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s together had record-breaking sales of roughly $14 billion worth of art. Recent years saw Jeff Koons’ monumental chrome and stainless steel balloon dog sell for $58.4 million and Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted platinum skull with human teeth for $100 million. A $70 million state-of-the-art warehouse complex called Uovo, which is set to open an additional building this spring in Long Island City in New York, stores art bought not for display but as an investments. The business of blue-chip art is thriving.

But so is the business of what I call ersatz art: objects that masquerade as art but are simply decorative merchandise.

The most recent depiction of ersatz art is in the film “Big Eyes,” about Walter Keane’s and Margaret Keane’s big-eyed waifs, which traded profitably on maudlin sentimentality. The most recent example of contemporary ersatz art is a highly publicized $6.5 million nature photograph by Peter Lik; it is apparently the most expensive photo ever sold.

Lik’s work is representative of an embarrassing art-world underbelly that has long been ignored by reputable curators, critics, museums and galleries. Its resurgence is primarily about money. But it is also likely connected to the increasing mixture of high and low culture in the work of legitimate artists such as Koons, John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage and Jeffrey Vallance. Their works have blurred the line between the genuine and the ersatz and in the process helped make Andy Warhol’s vision of art as business come true.

Not quite art

Ersatz art used to be inexpensive. Its consumer was the man on the street who knew nothing about art but knew exactly what he liked. In the late 1970s, picture shops sprang up throughout Manhattan, selling what was billed as original oil paintings or sofa-size paintings for $35 or $45 apiece.  They were often made by immigrants working assembly lines in secret sweatshops; one person painted the red barns or square-riggers, another the sunsets or full moons. The artist’s signature was a sham, for no artist existed: The picture was nothing more than merchandise made by art mercenaries. At best, an ersatz picture was signed fraudulently by someone such as Walter Keane who — in the 1950s and ’60s — claimed his wife Margaret Keane’s paintings of big-eyed waifs as products of his genius. It was easy to ignore. 

Peter Lik’s “Phantom,” a hackneyed black and white photograph of an optical illusion that reportedly sold privately for $6.5 million, masquerades as art.
Lik USA / PR Newswire

But in our current overheated art climate, ersatz art has upped the ante. Take the $6.5 million sale of the Lik photograph in late 2014. Titled “Phantom,” it is tastelessly arty in the worst way, from its phony black-and-white conceit to its vacant aping of the obsolete 19th century concept of the sublime, which was often depicted as a grandiose awe-inspiring landscape. Lik sells his pictures in his eponymous galleries in very large unnumbered editions, and his website divides his generic photographic merchandise into equally generic categories: canyons, clouds, flowers, forests and waterfalls. Like calendar art, they’re all the same: inoffensive, picturesque and empty.

Jonathan Jones, writing in The Guardian of Lik’s record-breaking sale, called the work “hackneyed, clichéd and tasteless” and added, “It is this ostentatious artfulness that pushes it into the realm of the fake.” Lik holds four spots on a list of the 20 most expensive photographs, but because his sales are private, the owners and amounts cannot be verified. Jones is right about the tacky particulars, but I take exception to his conclusion that Lik’s work is proof that photography isn’t art. Some isn’t, but some undisputedly is, including photographs by Cindy Sherman (one of which sold for $3.8 million in 2013), Jeff Wall (one sold for $4.3 million) and Andreas Gursky (one sold for $3.6 million), all available in extremely limited editions. Ersatz art is not a matter of the medium but the message: It has virtually none except for a simplistic feel-good or feel-bad reaction, not unlike an emoticon.

Ersatz art is nothing but a commodity. All art is merchandise, but not all merchandise is art.

Meanwhile, the release of “Big Eyes,” directed by Tim Burton, gives us the ironic opportunity to note that this is a high-end film about ersatz artists. Walter Keane’s charade as the maker of Margaret Keane’s sad big-eyed waifs may have been despicable, but the truth is that whoever painted these images was producing kitsch, one step removed from a Hallmark greeting card. John Canaday, then an art critic of The New York Times, reviewed a picture titled “Tomorrow Forever” that was exhibited briefly at the 1964 World’s Fair, writing, “This tasteless hack work contains about 100 children, hence it is about 100 times as bad as the average Keane.” (Walter Keane pronounced it a masterpiece.) We must presume that Burton, who collects big-eyed Keanes, is aware that they qualify as camp objects and that his film presents a knowing melodrama of ersatz artists.

Thomas Kinkade’s heartwarming cottages with glowing windows are akin to a happy-face emoticon — pleasing but empty. They fail cultural critic Walter Benjamin’s definition of art, which he said gives off the “aura” of an original.
Thomas Kinkade

“Big Eyes” brings to mind another successful ersatz artist, Thomas Kinkade, known for his saccharine tourist views with pink-blue skies and bulbous cottages with glowing windows. Since his death in 2012, the Thomas Kinkade Co. has continued to produce new “Kinkade originals,” made by others. Kinkade, who opened his own museum with an accompanying gift shop (he sold $140 million in artlike merchandise in 2000), estimated that 1 in 20 American homes has one of the mass-marketed mail-order photolithographic reproductions of his pictures. For an additional fee, glitter, painted highlights or even canvaslike textures can be added. The art historian Monica Kjellman-Chapin has fittingly called them “almost-paintings.” But forgeries of Kinkade’s not-quite paintings as well as of Keane’s, mass-produced in Asia, prove that it is possible to rip off even art that isn’t really art. 

An eroding line

Above all, what ersatz art lacks is intentionality, a committed artist with a compelling concept. Lacking profundity, it wallows in the shallow and the superficial. (Sometimes a tear rolling down a cheek is just a drop of water). In other words, ersatz art is nothing but a commodity. All art is merchandise, but not all merchandise is art. Far from reflecting the present, predicting the future or conveying what once were called the human verities, such as the value of life and death, Lik’s pretentious canyon photo, like countless tourist photos of that canyon, is little more than a trite optical illusion. Margaret Keane’s waifs, meanwhile, are clichés of pathos. Genuine art has aesthetic value because it can stun or thrill you or make you view the world in a different way. As the cultural critic Walter Benjamin explained decades ago in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” art gives off the “aura” of a unique, meaningful original. Ersatz art — an imitation work of art, a naugahyde substitute — lacks that ineffable quality. 

Jeff Koons’ chrome and stainless steel “Balloon Dog (Orange),” which sold for $58.4 million, and Damian Hirst’s platinum skull encrusted with diamonds, which was sold for $100 million. The rise of such artworks, which explore the morality of art and money, has blurred the line between the genuine and the ersatz.
AP (2)

Ersatz and genuine art have traditionally occupied separate universes, each ignoring the other’s existence. But that line may be eroding, with business-savvy artists such as Koons and Hirst exploring the subject of mortality while exploiting the moralities of art and money. As art knowingly absorbs the trappings of popular culture, misunderstandings creep in — between earnestness and cynicism, celebration and critique. Meanwhile, in that other universe, miniature copies of Koons’ balloon dog can be bought online as bookends and Hirst’s spot paintings are being ripped off. In our overloaded Internet era of infinite images and endless copies without originals, the line between the two is continuing to blur. For a society that often spurns the authentic in favor of the easily digested imitation — addicted to reality shows, formulaic pop songs and high fructose corn sweeteners — perhaps this is exactly what our culture deserves. 

Kim Levin, a regular contributor to The Village Voice until 2006, is an independent art critic and curator. Her essays have been published internationally in journals, museum catalogs and books. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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