All mouth and no trousers

Alice Beckett's 'Fakes' makes bold claims about the modern art business, but offers little hard evidence to back them up. A new show by Gilbert and George, meanwhile, is no more convincing
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The Independent Culture

GENUINE art is so much more interesting than false art that I cannot understand how an enquiring woman like Alice Beckett could have chosen to write her first book about forgery. Perhaps she likes the art world more than art, as many people do. Or perhaps she was attracted by a whiff of criminality. Certainly she's eager to find crooks and is not much interested in aesthetics. She was first an arts correspondent and then, as she writes in her preface to Fakes (Richard Cohen, pounds 18.99): "Behind the glamorous facade I discovered a parallel, seamier world, highly secretive, sometimes violent and frequently immoral."

What sort of "immoral"? And is the word "seamier" well chosen? Beckett has done some reading and conducted a few useful interviews, but she does not write thoughtfully and is careless when presenting her evidence. I recommend her book not so much to art lovers as to those who are already convinced that collectors are gullible fools, that dealers are venal, that modern art is a sham and the whole art business fraudulent. There are many such people, and Beckett knows how to address them. In a newspaper article last week she stated that "some experts believe that 50 per cent of goods sold on the market may not be 'right' " - ie that they are faked. She produces not one of these experts, doesn't say what she means by "the market" and indeed provides no evidence for her assertion. Yet the claim is printed, and there are those in her audience who will find it comforting.

Irresponsible though she is, Beckett produces one or two amusing vignettes of fakers and their front-men or agents. Here is Elmyr de Hory, Budapest-born (maybe), an aristocrat (almost certainly not), an art student in Paris in the 1920s and 30s (maybe) who was a friend of Picasso's (certainly not), who could supply clients with works from the collections of impoverished ancient families (lies) and whom we factually know to have died in Ibiza in 1976 (murdered, says Beckett's informant) - here, with all the stylish brouhaha of a lifetime of money earned untruthfully, is a story that some smart person might make into literature.

In the world of forgery the entrepreneurs are usually more memorable than the artists they represent. They are seen and known in salons and auction houses. De Hory was exceptional because he was a social fabulist as well as a faker in the studio. In my experience dealers in forged art are lunatics, chancers, adventuresses. You weary of their tales of rich friends. But they are not so wearisome as the actual fakers, who are always sullen and resentful chaps - faking is mainly a man's business - and remind one of servants in some great house: hating their superiors, nicking silver and claret whenever possible, quite proud of their self-education yet seeing no future for themselves except in petty theft.

There's a class structure in the forgery business with, as usual, the producers at the bottom. The trade is also shot through with snobbery. Forgers like to target the nouveau riches, with their show-off tastes, shallow culture and quick cash. Their prestige target, however, is any museum. For if a forger can place a work in a public gallery he has the satisfaction of being able to crow over "the so-called experts", to use a phrase often encountered in this book. Since they are proud of their own skills they dislike other people's expertise, and anti-intellectualism is common to all forgers of whom we have record.

However skilful they may be, forgers are always failed artists. They lack the inventive capacity. When they attempt invention they are most likely to be detected. Little wonder, therefore, that they are drawn to repetitive, "trade-mark" artists. If such artists are popular and expensive, so much the better. If they led wayward lives and were known to have exchanged paintings for rent or drink, that would be best of all. This explains the attraction of Utrillo and Modigliani. Beckett reproduces a Modigliani by de Hory and another one by Susie Ray, a young woman who is one of a new brand of open forgers or copyists. She makes candid replicas of famous paintings for pounds 5,000 and upwards.

Most of Ray's commissions are for Impressionist and Post-Impressionist canvases. She is copying the artists who do best in the auction rooms. She's not a true forger because she doesn't try to deceive. Beckett's book begins to raise interesting questions when it comes to the problems of contemporary art. Rightly or wrongly, she suspects that some famous artists are charlatans. They forge themselves, as it were, and are taken up by a public that knows no better. So she examines Jeff Koons, she watches the Turner Prize award "with fearful fascination", she asks whether Rachel Whiteread's work "is really art" and wonders whether the collector Charles Saatchi is "testing his puppets to see how far they will go in faking art".

I don't believe that the artists Saatchi buys are fakers. They're just not very good. Since they all strive to be original they obviously don't wish their work to be mistaken for anyone else's. Their tactic is self- promotion. This, again, is unlike the secretive ways of the forger. Saatchi- type artists need to keep up with publicity that, by its nature, moves on to the next new thing. This is Koons's difficulty. It is also a problem for Gilbert and George, whose career has now reached an impasse. Or such is my impression after looking at "The Naked Shit Pictures".

Very large photographic panels show the artists taking their trousers down, posing naked, bending down to show their bumholes. There are a lot of black youths and dark brown motifs that might be shit or might be painted French bread. Who cares? The subject matter does not make the work more challenging. Aesthetically, G & G are dead. In this respect they do resemble forgers. And like forgers they have an antipathy to knowledgable discussion: 25 years after they became famous I have still never heard them say anything worth considering. It's still the old mixture: winsome, boastful, ingratiating, childish and would-be shocking. So they are also as boring as forgers are.

! 'The Naked Shit Pictures', South London Gallery, SE5 (0171 703 6120) to 15 Oct.