John Myatt and the Value of Art

Myatt’s strongest skill is adapting the styles of other people. He does it well, possessing the talent and mechanical skills which great painters must have. But isn’t an artist someone who creates something new, moving the ceiling of limitation, in the process revealing his inner thoughts and ideas in his art?

Artists
November 7, 2013
by Simona Horelicanova
Claude Monet, Waterlilies, 1904

Claude Monet, Waterlilies, 1904

If you’ve heard of John Myatt, the words, “value of art” may seem painfully ambiguous. In which ways can an artist, cited as “the biggest art fraud of the 20th Century,” relate to a term such as value? Original and fake paintings and there disparate prestige, are very popular topics of discussion, particularly when there are people willing to pay millions of pounds for an original work. Originals are priceless, and fakes are desperate attempts to generate revenue; imitating void of intention, meaning or struggle. John Myatt is a man whose story helps us to gain better understanding of this issue, whilst unveiling the real reasons as to why society values art.

John Myatt is a direct perpetrator of an art fraud committed in the 90’s. Myatt forged around 250 paintings, “collaborating” with John Drewe, who then sold them as genuine to various auction houses in New York, London and Paris. Some of his methosd include the mixing of emulsion paint with K-Y Jelly in place of the original pigments. Myatt himself admitted he found his fakes very poorly executed. This begs a question of misplaced worth in the evaluation of paintings; what matters more, the work itself or the certificate of authenticity? Obviously, for auction houses, it must be the latter. So long as it’s original.

You can certainly imagine that this affair made Myatt – a father who simply wanted to generate spare income – look criminal. After spending time in prison, Myatt only considered painting following his arresting officer’s confidence in “fake” art. It truly was, and still is, his flourishing. He claims that he is not copying, because he studies both the life of the artist and setting of the painting, imbuing his work with perspective.

What is it that makes a great artist? Myatt’s strongest skill is adapting the styles of other people. He does it well, possessing the talent and mechanical skills which great painters must have. But isn’t an artist someone who creates something new, moving the ceiling of limitation, in the process revealing his inner thoughts and ideas in his art? It definitely is difficult to decide, and there are no distinct definitions for these terms. My point simply is that Myatt is not a great artist, but a very good painter. It is probable that across the world, there are better artists and painters of the same quality, but who do not have their own TV shows, books, or movies made about them. Myatt does. Therefore, the only thing we can conclude is that Myatt was eventually rewarded for his criminal past. As his case became interesting and he became famous, in turn it became easier for him to get his business going. It is not wrong, but there appears to be a very real reason why we value someone as an artist nowadays: his case made him infamous and subsequently successful.

If we want to think about the value of art, we cannot tie it solely to the artist. Arguably, it should be more about the substance of the work itself. As discussed earlier, one factor that dentotes value is authenticity. We value original paintings because they are expensive. Why are original paintings expensive? Because the artist who painted them is currently prestigious. The prices of art are not stable, they fluctuate with changing culture. If society esteems particular qualities at a given time, the art or artist who possesses these qualities will be valued.

Art is a mirror of culture. Our society values everything that is famous. This alone makes it prestigious and then the artist successful. Art with these qualities is owned primarily by the upper class.

Voilà, welcome to 21st century.

Finally, let me cite John Myatt himself when he was asked in an interview with Samira Shackle if it is morally wrong to forge art:

“I don’t. A good fake is a good thing. It’s interesting that when it is revealed as a fake, people feel differently about it. I would gladly have a house full of good fakes. When very rich people buy these fantastic paintings, the first thing they do is stick them in a vault in the bank and have copies made to stick on the wall.”

As he said himself, original artwork is simply the domain of rich and powerful. But doesn’t that baseless attitude make art worthless instead of priceless?