“Art attracts us only by what it reveals of our most secret self,” Jean-Luc Godard once said.
When watching Art and Craft, the deeply intriguing new documentary by Sam Cullman (If a Tree Falls), Jennifer Grausman, and Mark Becker, one wonders what the film’s odd but alluring protagonist Mark Landis would think of Godard’s weighty assertion.
Landis is disciplined and obsessive, as are many who follow the demons of artistic expression (as reading samplings of the Rail would surely prove). But Landis is not a painter of 15th-century icons, a Modernist, an Abstract Expressionist, or a cartoon artist—he is all of them. He is a master forger whose works throughout the last few decades could be found in the collections of museums all over the country.
As it turns out, Landis’s talent is not only in mechanically copying painting of all styles (along with techniques of distressing pieces with ingredients like instant coffee), but also in the art of pretext. What distinguishes Landis from other forgers who dupe auction houses, museums, and collectors and make away with wads of cash is that Landis, a small misanthrope-eccentric, goes out of his way to give the pieces away, creating complicated stories and documentation to assure the pieces become integrated into institutional collections. One of his pretexts is to dress up like a Jesuit priest.
Much of the narrative of Art and Craft follows the shenanigans of Landis while his foil, a burly former museum registrar and stay-at-home dad named Matthew Leininger, pursues him. (“He messed with the wrong registrar,” says Leininger in an already classic line.) Leininger is obsessed with Landis and the history of forgeries he wrought, even becoming an expert on Landis’s “foxing” techniques and other ways he made paintings look authentic.
Landis clearly has issues with his mental health. We see him with his clinician talking about medications, in his lonely apartment eating T.V. dinners. His drawling, taciturn manner belies the nature of his own internal alternative narrative. And as cliché as it may sound, his mother surely had something to do with it.
But what is more important for the story is what motivates both Landis and Leininger to pursue their time-consuming and non-paying pursuits. It’s one of the central mysteries of the film and one that inevitably centers on what distinguishes humans from animals: the purpose we need to have beyond survival and reproduction, no matter what the mental state. Landis started copying things at an early age and, as he found it “reassuring,” found something that gave him comfort and fueled an ambition. Leininger, for his part, found a calling to complement his status as a 21st-century stay-at-home father.
While Landis only slightly revels in the quasi-celebrity that comes to him (and the institutional blessing that goes along with it and becomes the culmination of the film), it’s clear that reaching that height is not his primary motivation. Rather, it seems to stem from some mysterious blend of an almost inimical need to both produce for and subvert the status quo of the institutional art world. And you can’t blame him for that.
Halfway through Art and Craft, Robert Wittman, founder of the FBI Art Crime Team, notes, “The art world is a very strange place.” Most people, including most in the art world, would certainly not disagree with that statement. And Wittman seems a bit amused by the whole affair as, he points out, Landis has not done anything criminal.
But while the film is not about a crime per se, the story does highlight issues about art and aesthetics versus art and commerce. If someone appreciates the aesthetics or challenging conceptualization of a certain piece of art, how much does authenticity really matter?
On the other hand, if you have a stake in the art market—especially in the tens of millions of dollars—then, certainly, authenticity is the central concern. In fact, it's where the value—however intrinsically ephemeral—lies.
Art forgers are certainly not appreciated by living artists or the estates of deceased ones, yet this fundamental difference holds true: If people are “duped” by a well-executed reproduction, doesn’t that piece of art still hold aesthetic and emotional power for the viewer?
So, next time you view a piece of art that stirs something in you, take Godard’s lead and first ask yourself if you are attracted to it because of something that it reveals deep inside your secret self.
Then ask yourself: would it really matter if it were “fake”?
Art and Craft opens at Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas on September 19th. www.artandcraftfilm.com
Williams Cole is a founding contributing editor of the Rail and a documentary filmmaker. His most recent film is Rebel Rossa.