RSS Feed

Imitation Isn’t Always the Sincerest Form of Flattery

Ernest Hemingway with his son John Hadley Nicanor (Bumby), 1927.

One semester I had a student who turned in a story that I believed was plagiarized from Hemingway. The student had frequently spoken of his admiration of the minimalist master, and the story he turned in had the tell-tale traits, at least superficially. I had seen (even assigned) emulations before, but usually they were ham-fisted, amateurish, and identifiable as copies. Usually my students couldn’t keep their own personalities from peeping through. I had also seen completely plagiarized stories—once a student had turned in an entire Stephen King story with even the title intact. So I began searching for this Hemingway story.

I couldn’t find it. And I had to admit that if I couldn’t find it, the student probably hadn’t found it anywhere either. Creative writing students seldom plagiarize, and in my experience they never do so with enough leisure to hide their trails. The story, I decided, also didn’t quite have the Hemingway attitude toward women. I finally came to the conclusion that this student had just written a very good stylistic emulation of Hemingway. The following year I had him in another class, and by then he had begun to write like himself.

This is the usual trajectory for writers. But it might be different for a talented painting student.

At any rate, the production of fake manuscripts by dead famous authors is not a big business. It’s been known to happen, but the difficulties seem to surmount the temptation. Even though the Antiques Roadshow estimates that the lost suitcase of a pile of Hemingway’s manuscripts might reap $3 to 4 million if it was ever found, no one has tried to fake it. Instead, literary hoaxes tend to be more of the James Frey variety, with an author claiming a realm or set of experiences themselves that are false. These are the cases that seem to most common in accounts like Melissa Katsoulis’s Telling Tales: A History of Literary Hoaxes.

However, in the world of the visual arts, this kind of forgery is not at all uncommon. It’s one of the fundamental differences between the various arts, and it is based on the reproducible nature of the written word and music. Original manuscripts and scores may be valuable, but the real money is in an original artwork like a painting. A literary work may be experienced a million times over with the same power even from a cheap paperback copy, and the power of music lies in the details of its performance, but the original painting can only be experienced first-hand, in person, in the flesh. Even rough, imperfect, one-of-a-kind preliminary sketches made in preparation for prints can take on more value than the prints that were their ultimate end.

The New York Times covered such interesting happenings in the art world this week, with a different kind of retrospective from that of Cindy Sherman—an account of what is evidently a fraud perpetrated on the art world for nearly twenty years. A small-time art dealer, Glafira Rosales, is now tangled in legal troubles for numerous paintings she sold as works by some of the best-known Modernists—Rothko, Motherwell, Diebenkorn, de Kooning, and Pollock. Ann Freedman, former president at the famous Knoedler gallery, was evidently drawn into the fraud, bought several of the paintings herself, and helped to sell others for millions of dollars. Now Knoedler has closed and many of the paintings’ purchasers are suing for their money back.

And yet, the case points out the extent to which artists can be imitated, just as writers can. Pastiche, in fact, frequently forms part of an artist’s tutelage, and sometimes people are very good at it. What is viewed as a helpful learning practice becomes criminal, however, if someone gets too very good at it. And in the art world large profits can be had in this way.

In the recent case reported by the Times, there is no conclusion. No forger has been revealed, and some still claim that these paintings might, somehow, be authentic, even though some of the paints used in them were not available commercially at the dates they were claimed to have been painted. But I am compelled to think about that forger or those forgers and how he or she or they decided to produce these masterful paintings and put masterful names on them. These are paintings that fooled some of the world’s experts, and someone decided that money and the satisfaction of skill and cleverness would prevail over someone’s performance of his or her or their own talents. Well, being able to fool the experts is, I suppose, a talent of its own.

I can see the appeal, actually, of working for a fame in someone else’s name.

Of sticking it to an art world where fame and income are restricted to a very select few even though many have talent to spare.

Of playing a trick on a universe where work that is done out of deep, self-motivated reaches of the imagination is then commodified and traded like so much chattel.

And yet…

There is such a hateful despair in the theft involved. It’s hard for me to see one artist doing this to another or to herself or himself.

These cases seem to me to illuminate the chasm between the two channels of art: the need to communicate through whatever medium, on the one hand, and the business of buying and selling and making contacts and fostering fame on the other. It’s not a new conundrum, and different writers and artists and musicians have answered it differently over the centuries.

For myself, it is true that I would love to sell another book sometime, to be paid for my labor. But that isn’t why I do it. I watch so many of my cohort desperately scratching at the door, and I both admire their business sense and wonder what their work would be like without it. Obviously, balance is in order—I would not have all my writer friends starving and homeless, and I would enjoy a world where expertise and skill in the arts were respected far more than they are these days. I know that a lot of writers, musicians, and artists do what they think they have to do to survive and thrive. But I would not have us all pretending to be Motherwell or Rothko or Hemingway, in either name or fame. And I have a sneaking suspicion that the artist who engages with the world without constantly grasping at fame—whether in his or her own name or that of another—is all the more free to pursue the ragged path of art.

9 responses »

  1. I read once that one of Hemingway’s sons said a whole trunk of his fly fishing gear was stolen (he shipped it via the RR) and he took that pretty hard. I often wondered what happened with it; if the thief knew the owner, or if it just got sold to some guy in a bar for peanuts… I don’t know if any of his possessions have made it into auctions or whatever (my only interest in collectables are toys I can play with; I have my own fly fishing stuff that is quickly attaining antique status).

    • Ah, the lost trunks! I spent some time as a graduate assistant trying to locate a trunk that had been lost by ex-pat author Kay Boyle. I was helping transcribe her letters for a faculty member, and we both got all excited about the correspondence about the lost trunk, which was filled with manuscripts and personal items and which was never found. Wouldn’t it be great to find these things that have probably long ago been burned or rotted?

      I think the allure of that possibility drives all kinds of history buffs and treasure hunters, and obviously many people have a longing for any “find” to be real, whether it is or not. Probably there are people who fake trunks of things like Hemingway’s fishing gear as well as art masterpieces.

  2. Did you see this article? Some interesting stories of internet authors getting caught plagiarizing:

    I figure undergraduate students must find themselves imitating their favorite authors pretty often–I sure did. Just a natural part of discovering your voice. I still do it all the time. I read a book I really like, and for weeks I’m writing like that author. Sometimes it’s subtle, other times it’s like a bad caricature. I take it as a sign that I’ve still got plenty of development to go.

    • Thanks for the heads up on the Guardian article. I had not seen it, and it’s fascinating, almost like those folks that I’ve blogged about before who feign serious illnesses for the attention and donations.

      The case the Guardian reports is not anywhere near the fine line, but, of course, there is also the phenomenon outlined by Harold Bloom in The Anxiety of Influence, whereby poets write derivative work based on the earlier poets who inspired them. I think you’re absolutely right that imitation is a “natural” phase that all writers go through. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. In a way, writing is a sort of conversation about writing, whether that’s articulated or not.

      I don’t know exactly how this translates to the visual arts. On one level it’s a similar issue–you can copy a painting exactly–here’s another Starry Night or you can produce something else that follows Van Gogh’s style and might be taken for a long lost original. In writing the former is condemned, but the latter is harder to know what to think as long as it’s identified as a pastiche. I know that I have had a few students do brilliant pastiches of, for instance, “Hills Like White Elephants,” where they obviously get Hemingway’s habits, but somehow also use that to leap forward to something their own. I guess visual artists can do that kind of referential work, too, but I think it is more often frowned upon.


  3. Copying the masters is a centuries-old tradition, originally serving the need that reproduction prints now serve. What this tradition implies, to me anyway, is the tension between craft and art. The craft of painting is both a severe limitation (most people cannot paint with the control of a master) and a severe temptation (those who can paint with the control of a master can make more money if they fake the master’s vision, rather than explore their own vision).

    I could be wrong about this, but I think that writing bears less of that tension, since the craft of writing fiction seems easier to master for beginners, and so the burden of artistic vision, of creativity, feels all the greater.

    The reproducibility of prose itself makes such hoaxes seem redundant, and we don’t venerate discovered texts by the master writers the way we do paintings. Hemingway’s posthumous book True at First Light was released in 1999. The book was excellent, in my opinion, but hardly influenced the literary landscape.

    And forging literary documents seems to require a different skill set than the plagiarist or imitator might possess—that would require an archeologist, or an archival specialist. For some reason, I imagine a twenty year old twit trying to hawk the Macintosh Performa 575 that Hemingway wrote A Farewell to Arms on.

    • Great point about the way that writing seems easier to beginners. That’s not only true for aspiring writers, but it’s true for “outsiders” as well–because the medium is somewhat familiar to many more than is paint (or the skill to play an instrument), people think writing is easier than other arts.

      I will imagine all day today “a twenty-year-old twit trying to hawk the Macintosh Peforma 575 that Hemingway wrote A Farewell to Arms on”! That’ll be fun, but, yes, I agree that the skill set necessary for a text forger would be so different from that of a writer in general. I do remember a Law & Order episode about some forgeries of documents related to the Mormon Church. I would imagine forgery of that kind of document is more common, based on archivists’ and historians’ more applicable obsessions and knowledge.

      • According to wiki, the forger of the fake Hitler diaries (~1983), Konrad Kujau, opened a studio after he got out of prison, selling “original forgeries.” I’m sure the post-modernists approved.

  4. I am an artist and believe that there is a lot ot learn from many of the masters. I flirted briefly with “drip splat” painting but found it unsatisfying to my own sensibility. what I mean to say here is that some of the abstract expressionists can be imitated, but each artist has an individual stamp that comes through. Even in Pollock. Color, and most of all the gesture give it a unique look which I’m afraid most often reminds me of good linoleum. The most gross forgeries I’ve seen are of Van Gogh. Granted he did some work that in my view lacks total finish, but there is a strength of composition and color in most of his pieces unparalleled.

    The scandal in NY about the Knoedler forgeries strikes me as basically about Greed. It’s the parable of the Emperor’s New Clothes. I hate to be cynical, but there are a lot of artists who are inimitable. The kind of things being resold at such astronomical prices are parodied most successfully in the first of Oliver Stone’s films “Wall Street.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: