A Great Swindle: From Pickled Sharks to Compositions in Silence, Fake Ideas and Fake Emotions Have Elbowed Out Truth and Beauty
We live in a world where great art good art, bad art and everything in between are a part of our culture. What is most interesting is how we have democratized art in so many ways. We often give bad art the same stature as great art. How did that come to be and what does it say about our culture?
Of course, the problem doesn’t only apply to art. It has become hard to distinguish between pop scholarship and serious academic work. As a result, truth becomes a fungible commodity and searchers seeking answers pay the price. Our culture allows us to conflate opinion and truth or fact.
We watch a 2 hour documentary on environmental concerns and suddenly, we are experts on the subject. Never mind the lifetime of work spent by scientists or researchers- our opinions are just as valid, we believe. We use Wikipedia and believe ourselves to be knowledgeable and cut down anyone with a different insight, correct understanding or a more educated opinion.
Why does it matter? Simply stated, it matters because we are becoming incapable of seeing real beauty or discerning real truth. Beauty and truth are now in the purview of those withe loudest voices- and it turns out, not much else.
A high culture is the self-consciousness of a society. It contains the works of art, literature, scholarship and philosophy that establish a shared frame of reference among educated people. High culture is a precarious achievement, and endures only if it is underpinned by a sense of tradition, and by a broad endorsement of the surrounding social norms. When those things evaporate, as inevitably happens, high culture is superseded by a culture of fakes.
Faking depends on a measure of complicity between the perpetrator and the victim, who together conspire to believe what they don’t believe and to feel what they are incapable of feeling. There are fake beliefs, fake opinions, fake kinds of expertise. There is also fake emotion, which comes about when people debase the forms and the language in which true feeling can take root, so that they are no longer fully aware of the difference between the true and the false. Kitsch is one very important example of this. The kitsch work of art is not a response to the real world, but a fabrication designed to replace it. Yet both producer and consumer conspire to persuade each other that what they feel in and through the kitsch work of art is something deep, important and real.
Anyone can lie. One need only have the requisite intention — in other words, to say something with the intention to deceive. Faking, by contrast, is an achievement. To fake things you have to take people in, yourself included. In an important sense, therefore, faking is not something that can be intended, even though it comes about through intentional actions. The liar can pretend to be shocked when his lies are exposed, but his pretence is merely a continuation of his lying strategy. The fake really is shocked when he is exposed, since he had created around himself a community of trust, of which he himself was a member. Understanding this phenomenon is, it seems to me, integral to understanding how a high culture works, and how it can become corrupted.