By Kalev Pehme
The three pillars of life are nature, convention, and illusion (magic). The three are interdependent and cannot be separated from each other. However, in modernity, there is a very ambiguous attitude toward illusion. There has been a massive effort to create a philosophy that suffers no illusion by materializing life completely as Hobbes does, for example. At the same time, modern technology has provided the illusionist such power to create vast illusory worlds that we call it virtual reality. What we know today is that the surrealism, which began at the beginning of the 20th century, is now the most successful art movement in all of man’s history. It permeates everything from advertising to all forms of movie making. The surreal is the language and vocabulary of the 21st century technology. Computer power now makes three-dimensional movies in a virtual world in some distant galaxy seem so realistic. Hence, we have unparalleled abilities to make things that are totally imagined to appear at least in a moving image and even in moving sculptures as the virtual dinosaurs we find in museums or various shows.
When I say that it seems realistic, I do so with full knowledge that these imagined places and beings are only an illusion, and hence a kind of lie. I can say that because I have nature and convention to rely on as I look at what seems to be realistic. I have been thinking about this problem, because I have been watching and re-watching Orson Welles’s movie, F for Fake. I first saw it many years ago, and didn’t truly appreciate its brilliance, its fantasy, a word that is derived from the most potent expression of illusion, the Greek word phantasia. It is through phantasia that we are able to bring things that are absent to such a point that they seem to be present before us. This Greek word is derived from a verb that means “to bring to light” or “to make shine out” or to make something appear before the soul. It is almost synonymous with “appearance.” The fantasy of F for Fake is the illusionist’s trickery or fakery or lies. In the film, Welles brings together several fakers together, the art forger Elmyr de Hory; Clifford Irving, a great hoaxer himself, who wrote a book about Elmyr, Fake; a Yugoslavian actress Olga Palinkas whom Welles renames and relocates to Hungary with the name Oja Kodar; and, of course, Welles himself, who plays a magician.
Welles says in the film narration:
Every true artist must, in his own way, be a magician, a charlatan. Picasso once said he could fake Picassos as well as anybody, and someone like Picasso could say something like that and get away with it. But Elmyr de Hory? Elmyr is a profound embarrassment to the art world. He is a man of talent making monkeys out of those who have disappointed him. This film doesn’t exalt the forger. It denounces the art market, because it is elementary, isn’t it, that if you don’t have the market, then fakers couldn’t exist.
And Clifford Irving? He couldn’t make it with his fiction, but making a fake made him the best-known writer in the world. Who are the experts? Elmyr de Hory has dramatized the question of whether or not art exists. It has always existed, but today I believe that man cannot escape his destiny to create whatever it is we make—jazz, a wooden spoon, or graffiti on the wall. All of these expressions of man’s creativity, proof that man has not yet been destroyed by technology, But are we making things for the people of our epoch or repeating what has been done before? And finally, is the question itself important? We must ask ourselves that. The most important thing is always to doubt the importance of the question.
In the film, we see Elmyr paint or draw original works that are in the exact style of Matisse, for example. The style is so well copied that it could be taken to a museum and the curator would buy it. One of the most important points made by Irving was that “experts” really don’t know the works that they authenticate. There are dozens of Elmyr works that are hanging in museums or in galleries or in private collections. Of course, one problem is that Elmyr himself is his own creation, with other last names and a fake biography. At one point, Welles makes the point that if Irving, who was living on the island of Ibiza at the same time as Elmyr, had hatched his hoax before he met Elmyr that it might be that the book about Elmyr’s fakery may be a fake itself. Fake could be a fake.
There is a lot of editing tricks in the film, which seems totally to be sleight of hand, a sleight of hand that makes it seem as if there is no movie underneath the film. Ultimately, of course, Welles creates a work that suggests that the entire thing is an all-inclusive illusion. But it can’t be an illusion unless, of course, there are many things in the film that is real, so to speak. Welles makes the point at the end of the movie that what is real is the tooth brush sitting on the counter in the bathroom, while his movie is not real. Yet, it was true that Irving had hoaxed the world about Howard Hughes. It was true that Elmyr had created many, many forgeries that we taken to be original works by Picasso, Matisse, et al.. It is true that Welles created a huge sensation with his broadcast of The War of the Worlds. It is also true that most of the movie was not directed or shot by Welles. Most of the movie was actually done by the noted French documentarist François Reichenbach, who had shot an extended interview with both Irving and Elmyr. Reichenbach in the 1970s and then handed over all the footage he had shot to Welles, who added his own magic to create F for Fake. It is also true that Oja is not Oja.
One problem with illusion is that it appears to us primarily as real is because our minds are very selective and not very discerning, in great part, because we never have the full picture of what is true. But there is an additional problem: What is real, what is true, is not a particular, but a general or a universal. No particular is itself reality as all particulars depend on other particulars which in turn are also dependent on other particulars and so on and what is true is not simply all particulars added up. Thus, when we write about something or make an image or something, we do so with what are themselves lies. They are lies, because they cannot comprehend the whole truth and nothing but the truth, which is an indeterminate, a general or universal, not a particular. Even what I write here about what is true is false: The icastic trick, so to speak, is to use the lie in such a way that it negates the lie and points to what is true. The fakery around us intellectually is sophistry, which is the way to present a particular set of facts with no regard to the inner lie that inhabits everything. The Platonic dialogues and the Socratic method, for example, is the effort to show those lies and how they work within our lives. But the illusionist, like Welles, is not a sophist per se. No, his illusions are self-consciously managing the point of view and made solely for the sake of the illusion and its entertainment. The sophists don’t realize that they are sophists. They don’t realize what the magic is. They realize that they self-deceptive, while at the same time they create illusions that they pass off as true.
The biggest and harmful illusion that we have in our lives comes from television news. People make the news. There is practically no journalism any more, in the sense of trying to find out what is truly happening. Now, when people make the news, the media creates an event that is packaged and edited for a particular effect in the same way that a surrealist artist creates a collage or a diorama. The war in Afghanistan is a vast fiction where what is news and what is going on are totally different. We even have an entire television network, the Fox Fascist one, that creates an entire illusory political realm propped up by vast propaganda methods and big lies. Politicians want to make the news and therefore cater to the television technology and presentation. The war in Iraq is a fiction when presented on television, a fiction within which real people are killed all the time. The politicians on television are fictions. Can anyone really blame Clifford Irving for wanting to transform Howard Hughes into a fake, a hoax? It’s being done every hour of every day on television, and it is passed off as what is true and balanced and very profitable. Reality has presented on television now is not so much partisan as it is a very strange view that politics is all about conflict and combat, where someone has to win and someone has to lose. There is no compromise or compromise is being weak and losing. This lie is at the heart of the political approach in the media today. In other words, it is a form of war and chaos and it is apolitical and certainly not just. When I noted above that there is something very modern denying the role of illusion in life, it really comes down to the fact that there is no real effort in everyday modernity to distinguish between what is true and what is not. It is all relative to the selfish individual and what his desires are, especially his desire for money, the most conventional of all things. Reality is what you make of it and there are no real illusions, because there is nothing real. When there is nothing real, there is no nature. When there is no illusion and no nature, there is only convention. Our problem is that our politics and our thinking conventionalize the world. When there is only convention, there is no freedom; it is a tyranny, the worst that man could devise.