Last Saturday I had the pleasure of going to a screening of Art and Craft at the Indie Memphis film festival. Art and Craft tells the story of art forger Mark Landis, who for at least two decades faked paintings and drawings and donated them to scores of museums and other collections. The film shows Landis at work: selecting frames, gathering pigments and brushes, aging canvases, and so forth. We also see Landis meeting with museum professionals, hear the yarns he spins about the origins of his fakes. His fraud having been slowly exposed over the course of the past seven years or so, Landis apparently no longer donates his works as originals, yet is still producing paintings and drawings. Although his dealings have been investigated by the FBI Art Crime unit, Landis has technically not broken any laws. (More on this below.)
I didn’t take any notes during the film and I have only seen it once. So while I have read a bit on Landis, what I write here is mostly an immediate impression of what I saw in Art and Craft. There are other threads in this story I will follow at a later date.
Landis’ story is particularly compelling for me because it differs from the familiar narrative of other art forgers: the disgruntled artist who can’t achieve success on the merits of his/her own original work turns to forgery to exact revenge on a corrupt and ignorant art market. The benefit of forgery is therefore at least twofold: there are the financial gains to be had, as well as a satisfaction in showing up the art professionals whose lack of connoisseurial eye and taste are demonstrated by the ease with which they are duped by the forger. There are many variations on this theme, but it is compelling how often the story of “failed artist turns to forgery” repeats itself.
Yet Landis apparently never attempted a career as an artist in his own right. He seems to have taken to copying early on, as a teenager, as just an exercise in hand-eye coordination, with no intent to deceive or to benefit financially through his skill in reproduction. Throughout the film, Landis refers to himself as a philanthropist; his gifts of paintings and drawings are his way of sharing beauty and art with a wider community and therefore any deception is for a greater good. While one could argue he could just as easily give away these works to friends and neighbors, it seems important to Landis that there be a public audience for his gestures of philanthropy and his skill as a painter and draftsman.
So why has Landis aspired so emphatically toward philanthropy? This brings me to some discomfort I felt during the screening of Art and Craft. Mark Landis suffers from a number of mental illnesses. Several scenes show him visiting a mental health clinic where a staff member (somewhat dispassionately) asks him about feelings of self-harm, of harm toward others, about hearing voices, about taking his medications as directed. Another scene shows Landis paging through a clinical report from the Menninger Clinic, where he was admitted at age 17. The report notes he has schizophrenia and suffered from catatonia and other issues during his stay at the clinic. As Landis reads through the report, he mutters with bemused self-deprecation about the various diagnoses. The movie audience chuckled along with him as he marveled at how he manages to function day-to-day, in spite of these rather concerning issues. At this point, I felt the film was somewhat exploitative, showing the forger’s fragile and tormented side as an explanation for his grimy living conditions, his monotone and mumbling affect, his uncomfortable devotion to his deceased mother, and so forth, without telling the audience how to resolve our feelings of pity for the man with our fascination with his artistic skill and his amusement at his methods of ‘philanthropy.’ One scene shows Landis gulping wine, hidden in a bottle of milk of magnesia, as a bit of ‘liquid courage’ before negotiating a donation. Other scenes show him smoking awkwardly to calm his nerves. The drinking and smoking might be more amusing were we not concerned about how alcohol might interact with his prescription medication and how Landis has chosen cigarettes over Xanax for anxiety because he has seen people in old movies smoking to ease nervousness.
Landis’ ‘philanthropy’ is not entirely a factor of his mental illnesses, of course. He notes at several points in the film that he donates these forged works so his mother would be proud of him, that this career began during her lifetime, and it pleased her to see him be recognized for his skill while at the same time making a beneficent gesture to a museum or other collection. That no money exchanged hands for his work made the forgery and deception more palatable, even admirable. Landis points out that after the passing of some years, his mother seemed to be less and less comfortable with the chicanery necessary for these philanthropic gestures (this included false names and even assuming the identity of a priest). He notes that as a child it was often observed he was ‘inclined to mischief.’ With the death of his mother in 2010, Landis seems to have entered into a profound depression, with a concomitant increase in the production of forgeries and donations. Again, watching the ways in which Landis struggles with the memories of both his parents, but particularly his mother, made me feel uncomfortably voyeuristic and concerned for his psychological state. It was something of a freak show.
Another troubling aspect of Art and Craft is not a fault of the film, but a distressing truth of the art world. In addition to following Landis’ methods and life, the film informs us of the cracking of the forgery case by former museum registrar Matt Leininger. Leininger’s blog posts and other resources reveal how he uncovered Landis’ deceptions, so I won’t outline that story here. What is most compelling to me about Leninger’s part in Art and Craft is where his passionate pursuit of Landis has ended (for the moment): with the loss of his position at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art and as a pariah in the art world. During a Q&A after the screening of the film here in Memphis, director Sam Cullman noted Leninger has been effectively blackballed by museums and now works for Amazon.com. Leninger’s intellectual integrity motivated him to follow the path of Landis and his Johnny-Appleseed-like trail of forgeries throughout 60-some museums in the United States. But as more collections learned they had been duped, the more vehemently they covered up their failings, swept their Landis paintings under the rug, and urged Leninger to keep quiet. The complex, ardent marriage of art and money means museums often lose sight of their educational charge to inform their audiences of all aspects of the economics and varied values of art, not just the ones that put them in the most favorable or ‘interesting’ light. Leninger is collateral damage in this tension of art, value, and expertise.
I saw the film with an attorney friend of mine and benefited from a short chat we had after the film, regarding the legal ramifications of Mark Landis’ forgeries and donations. Why Landis has not been charged with a crime is only briefly explored in the film, and I am sure others in the audience have been turning over this question in their minds since the screening. It is apparently simple how Landis has avoided legal action: no money is being exchanged for his artworks. Financial gain is at the heart of the definition of fraud, generally speaking, as there must be some ‘harm’ dealt to the victim. Since museums are not paying Landis for his pieces, they suffer no financial loss when the forgeries are revealed. Were Landis to take tax deductions for his charitable donations to museums and collections, there could be grounds for legal action. Yet as my attorney friend pointed out, it’s unlikely Landis even has enough income to have to pay taxes and to benefit from such deductions. I suppose that if Landis’ paintings ended up in commercial galleries there could be additional legal angles to pursue. When forgers like Landis flood the market with their work, it drives down the price of all related work. This could possibly be an avenue for prosecution, if the estate of one of the artists whose work is being faked wanted to press charges, or a gallery owner felt he/she had suffered financial loss because the value of his/her holdings had decreased as a result of ‘competition’ from Landis or other forgers.
It surprises me how few art historians are interested in art forgery as an academic topic, generally speaking. When I saw Art and Craft last weekend, I didn’t recognize any other art faculty or local museum professionals in the audience. Sure, it was a beautiful Saturday afternoon, but I feel if one values art as a historical document, one should also be concerned with the economics of art, today and in the past. Forgery (as well as theft, of course) has a real effect on the art market and art history, even if we cannot calculate that effect until after the forgery has been detected.