David Lister: Might someone pay millions for a Nat Tate painting just to avoid looking ignorant?

The Week in Arts

David Lister@davidlister1
Monday 24 October 2011 23:31

Every journalist who lives, dies and goes to heaven, should have one scoop in their career.

My moment in the sun came 13 years ago when I revealed that the art world had been hoaxed by the author William Boyd, who had written a book about the American artist Nat Tate.

The book was launched at a glitzy party in Jeff Koons's studio in Manhattan, the launch party presided over by David Bowie. But Nat Tate, an American abstract expressionist and depressive who committed suicide by jumping off the Staten Island ferry, never existed. Boyd had made him up. It was a brilliant work of fiction.

My story went around the world at the time, and I was in no doubt it would all be forgotten in a few days. But, strangely, the fictional Nat Tate seems to keep popping up more than his real- life contemporaries. There have been two TV documentaries about him, the book itself was republished last year, and now some of his pictures (actually by Boyd) are to be auctioned for an art charity.

This week, Boyd wrote a piece about Tate in one newspaper, and gave an interview about him and the book to another. He described the launch party in vivid detail, though he wasn't actually there (he'd make a good journalist). And he referred to my revealing the hoax – though Boyd, who must have a different dictionary from me, now curiously denies it was a hoax – describing me as one of the "conspirators", implying that I was in on the secret and then sneaked to the world. Nope. Believe it or not, William, just occasionally we journalists do a bit of digging and find out things. Only once every 13 years, I grant you. But it does happen.

I'm glad that Nat Tate and his paintings are back, and not just because of my own lateral involvement in the affair. I'm glad because the success of Nat Tate highlights, for me, the greatest problem with the art world – fear. Unlike in any other art form, the words "I've never heard of him" are outlawed in the visual arts. At any private view, at the Frieze Art Fair, at the Venice Biennale, the throngs of people all feel they have to show a superhuman knowledge of hundreds of years worth of art and artists. We will all admit to not having seen certain plays, or to not having heard certain symphonies; but who would dare to admit to never having heard of a famous abstract expressionist?

I'm not sure why the visual arts should have a monopoly on this fear of failure. But I am sure that part of the success of the Nat Tate hoax, brief as it may have been, was due to the art world's desperation not to appear unknowing. Perhaps even now some of his pictures will sell for a fortune to unwitting buyers keen not to miss out on a rare appearance on the market of the works of a great and tragic abstract expressionist.

But I hope that Nat Tate's real legacy might be to make the art world take itself a little less seriously.

No need to be so chippy about Wales

The bronzed American composer Eric Whitacre must be contemporary classical music's biggest pin-up, though his wife – the equally talented soprano Hila Plitmann – is more than a match, in my view. I saw both perform at St David's Hall, Cardiff, last Sunday, with Whitacre conducting the excellent Cordydd choir in some of his own compositions.

It was a rousing evening, but why, I wonder, did the presenter on stage, Welsh broadcaster Beti George, go on about how this performance would show the world that Wales had wonderful music, and then wonder rhetorically why the world didn't acknowledge the music and poetry in Wales, and then ask Whitacre whether he was now convinced about the musicality of Wales?

What's with the inferiority complex? Surely said world is more than aware that Wales boasts wonderful music and famous poetry? It also boasts the occasional concert presenter with a chip on the shoulder.

The PowerPoint route to Hollywood stardom

The actress Emma Stone is clearly one of Hollywood's biggest rising stars. She has a lead role in The Help, which is out next week, and is soon to take over the female lead in the Spider-Man franchise. She was interviewed in The Independent this week, and something she said certainly made me sit up. She recounted how when she was 15 she gave her parents a PowerPoint presentation entitled "Project Hollywood" on why she should leave home, move to Los Angeles and go to auditions.

A PowerPoint presentation for your parents: that shows a certain amount of determination, I'd say. Perhaps the idea will catch on – PowerPoint presentations on why you've failed to do your homework, why you haven't tidied your room, why you need more pocket money. Emma Stone's fame may not only be on the screen, it may also be in changing the way teenagers ask their parents a favour.



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