What is a hoax, and when does it cross the line between legitimate satire and a deliberate attempt to capitalize upon, or sway public opinion by, a piece of manufactured evidence which the creator knows to be fictitious?
Satires generally contain internal clues, recognizable to the majority of viewers, that the communication is not to be taken at face value. In a hoax, the clues are more subtle and the intent is clearly to convince large numbers of people that the communication is authentic, at least for a limited period of time, after which the perpetrator reveals that he has successfully foisted a fiction onto the public. The intent is usually to expose unquestioning acceptance of the dominant paradigm, creating doubt as to the reliability of the authorities who rely on it.
In a forgery, the perpetrator takes great pains to conceal that the communication is fictitious or an object has been recently crafted, with no intention of revealing the truth at a later date. If someone suspects the forgery, the perpetrator or the people who profit from it may go to great lengths to suppress evidence of the fiction, and the world at large is left with the impression that there is hard evidence for something which did not, in fact, occur; that evidence is in turn used to persuade people to make decisions and take actions in conformity with a current paradigm. When that paradigm is fundamentally flawed, the results of those actions can be correspondingly perverse and injurious to the public welfare.
That there is a continuum between satire, hoax and forgery is clear, with shifting transition areas that vary according to culture and context. There is, for example, an unexpected and to modern eyes unlikely amount of satire in the transcripts of debates in the House of Commons between 1812 and 1822, which gets lost on modern historians if excerpts from the speeches are taken out of context. The study of artifacts and documents from more remote time periods and very different cultures is even more fraught with misinterpretation, with unconscious bending of evidence of impeccable authenticity to fit a modern framework the originator did not anticipate occurring routinely.
These reflections were prompted by reading, in the context of a graduate level course at the University of Oregon on the Baroque Italian painter Michael Angelo Merisi di Caravaggio, what purported to be a scholarly article: “Recovering Lost Fictions: Caravaggio’s Musicians”. MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, Massachussets, 1997. The article claims that a second autograph copy of this famous painting was recently discovered and that x rays revealed a blatantly homoerotic underpainting. Current art theory interprets the original as homoerotic and the study of x-rays of underpaintings is an accepted, recent tool of the art historian. No one in a group of 30 serious students of art history suspected (or admitted suspecting) that this essay, in the form of an exhibition catalog, was a satire, hoax or forgery; I think I came closest by saying that I thought the interpretation of the underpainting was wishful thinking. In other words, I thought it was balderdash, but I assumed it was sincere balderdash.
The painting in question, which was indeed exhibited at MIT in 1997, is by the modern American artist and art restorer Kathleen Gilje “best known for her technique of appropriating famous paintings in ways that juxtapose historical provenance with contemporary ideas, concepts or perspectives”. A more recent work of hers, based on Artemisia Gentileschi’s “Susannah and the Elders”, has achieved some prominence by resonating with current memes about rape culture, taking a painting of a biblical story, painted by an Italian woman artist, a younger contemporary of Caravaggio who was a rape victim, and altering it to support the currently popular thesis that the trauma of the rape is a recurring theme in Gentileschi’s works.
Another concept which may be useful here is appropriation, or the use of the style of another artist, writer, or culture, in order to appropriate some of the original artist’s authority and capitalize on it, with no pretense that the product is anything other than a modern work. When a modern artist makes a copy of a historic work or (increasingly) takes one of the fine reproductions now available and embroiders on it, the intent may be satirical, as in Ward Kimball’s Art Afterpieces, though in that case, the satirical intent is obvious to most observers. Joseph Grigley’s museum catalog and Kathleen Gilje’s painting on which it was based more assume the characteristic of hoaxes, and to the extent that people believe the basis to be authentic, and to use it, for example, as authority to bolster the cult of Caravaggio’s homoeroticism, assume the character of forgeries.
This example is rather academic, though it has potential political ramifications since we are accustomed to using paradigms from the Italian Renaissance as authoritative for current practice. At the risk of inserting an excessively controversial element allow me to introduce a publication, usually labelled a forgery, which originated as an obvious satire but mutated into something which deceived millions of people and caused untold damage: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Originally published in France in the 19th century as a general commentary about the ways capital can undermine democracy and titled The Dialogue between Machiavelli and Montesquieu in Hell, the work was translated into Russian in Czarist Russia, adapted, given an anti-Semitic slant, and reissued as if it emanated from the World Zionist conference in 1903. Subsequent altered editions and translations, all purporting to emanate from that conference, helped fuel Nazi racial policies and ultimately genocide.
I routinely see people propagating authentic-looking but faked or misattributed pieces of information , in support of political agendas, through various media, especially the internet. When the fake is pointed out, they will say “it was only a joke” or worse yet, “maybe it didn’t happen, but it could have.” Falsehoods in the service of a good cause are still falsehoods, and if they continue to be published and circulated despite having been exposed, it calls in to question the ultimate righteousness of the cause itself.
Caravaggio: The Musicians – Wikipedia Public Domain
Satire on Vermeer – Art Afterpieces