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Modernist FraudHoax, Parody, Deception$

Leonard Diepeveen

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780198825432

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: April 2019

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198825432.001.0001

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Rereading the Shameless Puffery of Modern Charlatans

Rereading the Shameless Puffery of Modern Charlatans

(p.1) 1 Rereading the Shameless Puffery of Modern Charlatans
Modernist Fraud

Leonard Diepeveen

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Beginning with the work of art critic Kenyon Cox and then turning to the many accusations of fraud levelled against modernism, Chapter 1 gives an account of fraud discourse’s dominance in early twentieth-century culture. Accusations of fraud were commonplace, and unleashed a set of rituals; fraud’s unveiling and fallout is highly stylized, and both narrative and social. These melodramatic moments of modern fraud, for all their lack of nuance, did a lot of work, and are part of a larger category that extends outward, taking on ideas such as insincerity, unclear intent, mimicry, and deception. After presenting a theory of fraud and its enabling conditions, the chapter argues that fraud discourse profoundly shaped the initial response to modernism, the modern canon, and its justifying principles.

Keywords:   fraud, hoax, moral panic, sincerity, Kenyon Cox, Henry Savage

Over the past hundred years, high modernism’s approaches to and falls from critical grace have made for an uncertain procession. Initial critical skepticism was followed by decades of formalist and New Critical scholarship and its relatively straightforward canonization of high modernism’s now-classic works—in such equally canonical locations as Alfred Barr’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and Cleanth Brooks’s Modern Poetry and the Tradition—to be succeeded by modernism’s relegation to the status of embarrassing uncle during postmodernism’s heady years. Finally, at the end of the twentieth century scholars returned, with redirected energy, to the art and literature of the opening decades of the twentieth century. But it was a return with a difference, to modernism’s cultural context, and not with the goal of unproblematically reinstating its central texts, but of probing its enabling conditions. Not a return, in short, to High Modernism, but a turn to modernism, modernisms, and modernity. The return energetically re-engaged modernism with gender, popular culture, and race, and moved new artists and texts in from the periphery. Modernism’s cultural contexts, though, have more and less promising recesses. Modernist Fraud turns to what may be the least promising of these: to the ridicule, anger, and suspicion that initially greeted the modernist arts—high modernism most notably—and to the people who initiated this response, who would see cubism, for example, as “the confidence trick of the art world” (Cook 1911). Skeptical readers, at times uncertainly musing, at other times letting fly with a grand j’accuse, doubted not just the quality, but the very validity of much modernist art, suspecting it of “charlatanry,” created by “the faker and poseur,” by artists whose “origins reek with charlatanry and shameless puffery” (Untermeyer 1920: 126; Burton 1914: 163; Mather Jr. 1913b: 63).1 The accusations, directed both at artists and at the “timidity” if not the venality of the art establishment (Cortissoz 1913: 811, 815), did not immediately die out. As late in the day as 1931, poet and critic Herbert Palmer characterized a work that had become as central to modernism (p.2) as The Waste Land as “the most stupendous literary hoax since Adam” (Palmer 1931: 17). For these readers, modernism’s triumphal procession was that of an emperor, trotting out his invisible new clothes.

Apparent, probable, or real, modernism’s flirtation with fraud disqualified it from serious consideration. Modernism’s loudest skeptics didn’t see modernism merely as bad art, they didn’t see it as art at all; it belonged to some other sphere of human activity, such as fashion, or P. T. Barnum’s sideshows, or the mania for the newly invented crossword puzzle. These readers’ reading practices, the frustrated retort of what would become a lost aesthetic, permeated the opening decades of the twentieth century, being addressed not just to Stein, Eliot, and Joyce, but to Faulkner, Moore, Loy, and Cummings; and beyond literature, to Duchamp, Matisse, and Schoenberg; and finally to modernism and its movements in all the arts—futurism, imagism, cubism, and even, in an acerbic permutation, to a hoax called Disumbrationism. Citing their own integrity in the face of art, experts, and a public gone mad, and premising their evaluations on suspicion rather than on trust, these recalcitrant readers publicly walked away from modernism and the interpretive practices rising in its defense. These refusals form a massive, unexplored archive in monographs, anthologies, reviews, publicity blurbs, parodies, advertising, letters to the editor, and newspaper articles and daily columns.

But what might be gained from going back to these moments, to these ephemeral, never-substantiated comments made about modernist cultural icons by early readers and viewers venting reactions generated in the heat of the moment? While their wit is refreshing, their logic is insubstantial, and their assertions, apparently, off track. Other critiques have more weight; canonical modernist works and movements as elitist, certainly; as frequently anti-Semitic and racist, yes. But modernism as fraud? Ulysses a completely wrong turn, not just shoddy, or pretentious, or elitist art but fundamentally an insidious deception and mockery of all who take it seriously, a movement that moreover has successfully hidden its deception—from academic critics, at least—all these years? It seems an implausible strategy. Of course, these accusations may be a symptom of something else, some larger cultural anxiety, perhaps, in which case a hermeneutics of suspicion seems to be called for. But if a literal understanding of these accusations is off track, if these moments are instead meant as some kind of argumentative metonymy for, say, modernism’s retreat from the public sphere, why make that case via an unverifiable and never-pursued accusation of fraud?

Fraud accusations make for memorable one-liners, of course: Raymond Weaver, for example, wrote of Eliot’s Poems that “Mr. Eliot may cynically have perpetrated this slim volume in order to glean from the tributes of his admirers material for a new ‘Dunciad’ ” (1920: 130). But fraud’s work is more complex than that. Disentangling fraud’s puzzling work begins with understanding who was making these accusations. It is not often acknowledged that a skeptical reaction to modernism, surfacing as a distrust of modernism’s—particularly high modernism’s—intentions, had a wide base of support among serious intellectuals, extending to once-powerful literary professionals such as J. C. Squire (knighted editor of the London Mercury, which in the 1920s had a circulation rivaling that of the Times (p.3) Literary Supplement) and the most influential anthologist of the twentieth century, Louis Untermeyer (whose Modern American Poetry, for example, had gone into six editions by 1950).2 Even someone more closely positioned to high modernism than these skeptics, Alfred Kreymborg, mused whether Stein in Tender Buttons might “be playing a joke on the world” by creating “a new form of hoax” (1915: 169). F. Scott Fitzgerald, complaining about the undeservedly large presence of “insincere” experimental works, in 1926 reached to a by-now familiar discourse and noted with conflicted melancholy that

Now the business is over. “Wolf” has been cried too often. The public, weary of being fooled, has gone back to its Englishmen, its memoirs and its prophets. Some of the late brilliant boys are on lecture tours (a circular informs me that most of them are to speak upon “the literary revolution”!), some are writing pot boilers, a few have definitely abandoned the literary life…

(Fitzgerald 1926: 17)

Visual art exhibited the same skepticisms, pointing to the same cultural tensions. In 1911 The Times of London archly noted of Wyndham Lewis’s recent painting that “Mr. Wyndham Lewis exhibits three geometrical experiments which many people will take for bad practical jokes” (qtd. in Cork 1976: 16). Walter Sickert, a member of the Camden Town Group who early in his career excited controversy over his own work, traversed familiar conceptual ground in 1914 with his estimation of Cézanne. Reviewing Clive Bell’s Art, Sickert questioned not just Cézanne, but the art world more generally:

The posthumous Cézanne-boom raises questions of more general interest. Owing to skilful operations by the international holders of picture-stock, Cézannes have succeeded in setting the Spree, if not the Seine, on fire. The keen eyes of speculation are now set on John Bull’s pocket. It is the story of the Emperor’s new clothes over again. “If you are really intelligent,” runs the mot d’ordre, “you will see that Cézanne is the greatest draughtsman that ever was.” It was a bold bluff, for he is perhaps the worst.

(1914: 569)

Cézanne, Sickert argued, was nothing more than the nineteenth-century pretender Roger Tichborne, dressed up and reincarnated, and accompanied by a cheering section. Fraud, then, was an argument not just against, but within modernism.

Second, these comments, and their underlying aesthetic, performed work central to the rise of what would become canonical modernism. Forget their wit, and temporarily put to the side their dubious veracity—the point wasn’t simply that modernism was a fraud, it was that the accusations revealed and produced a crisis, a crisis which was undoubtedly set in motion by modernism’s usual suspects: these works’ newness, or their obscurity, or their apparent eccentricity. But underneath those famous features lay something deeper that unified them, something central to twentieth-century aesthetics. These features, understood as fraud, raised serious epistemological questions central to modernity, and that twentieth-century aesthetics would need to deal with: these features obscured the intentions of their creators. (p.4) This masking had big affective consequences: uncertain intentions caused anxiety, centered on ethics, and raised questions about how one might know the ontological status of the thing before one. These were not questions that audiences were used to asking, and their sudden eruption made visible and problematic what had been taken for granted.

Moreover, modernism wasn’t aloof from these accusations; it was engaged with and shaped by them. Understanding that engagement requires both nuance and distance. Despite the tempting melodrama of these accusations, this book examines modernism’s melodrama not on the stark terms of either its skeptics or its champions, but by considering how a wide spectrum of people involved in the arts engaged with, and at times even shared, key principles and anxieties, and by examining what the theatrics as a system was doing. That examination requires a large scope. While narratives of individual spectacular instances in modernism are often necessary to describe adequately what a particular moment looked like, this book moves beyond history’s rollicking anecdotes, and analyzes what the accusation of hoax as a category of response was like, and what its consequences were for modern culture as a whole. Assertions of fraud show much about early twentieth-century aesthetic culture, revealing not only the aesthetic principles that the accusation invoked and entailed, but also how modernism’s social conditions were understood, and how this understanding shaped modernism’s rise. These accusations performed mixed work. Positively, they led to an expansion of aesthetics into new areas, into interpretation of texts by a more professionalized art criticism, and to a large exploration of irony. Negatively, modernist criticism’s response (including the rise of an interpretive practice based on understanding the meaning rather than the effects of a work of art) led to the elision of affect and intent from serious aesthetic discussion, while modernism’s skeptics introduced a corrosive distrust of theory’s place in art, a form of suspicion that still exists today. Fraud, then, cut a wide swath.

The career and thought of Kenyon Cox exemplifies fraud’s work in modernism. Early in the twentieth century Cox was at the top of his form, a painter who had studied with Gérôme and Cabanel, painted Augustus Saint-Gaudens, created murals for the new Library of Congress and other public buildings, and whose works (though mostly in off-site storage today) were acquired by major collections such as the Metropolitan and the National Gallery. A widely-read art critic, Cox and his 1907 Painters and Sculptors were much admired. Cox’s opinions about art were substantial, prestigious, and, in the unruffled American art community of 1907, a model of Olympian generosity. In his preface, Cox mildly chastised aesthetic partisanship, arguing that “For downright illiberality there is nothing like a writer who has picked up a few catchwords from a coterie of artists he specially admires, and who uses these as a yardstick for the measurement of all men, ignorant that there can be any other standards than those he has learned to apply” (1907: xiv). Within a few years that largesse had withered, and by the second decade of the twentieth century Cox was eagerly sought out in the art world and the daily press because of his opposition to new modernist tendencies. In 1911, one year after Roger Fry’s Post-Impressionist exhibit, and two years before the Armory Show hit (p.5) North America, Cox memorably struck out at these new tendencies, with a speech he delivered as part of the Scammon Lectures at the Art Institute of Chicago. Speaking, then, from a position of power, Cox noted that he ordinarily “should not have felt it necessary to treat this, so-called, post-impressionist movement with any seriousness feeling sure that the mere flight of time must settle its business, and that without long delay” (1911: 152). But something troubled his confidence. Modernity’s excesses destabilized the aesthetic landscape, with the result that the test of time could not be relied on to work very expediently. The works were so outrageous, that, according to Cox, those who saw merit in post-impressionism must be either deluded or dishonest. The business of serious aesthetic evaluation was in trouble. The work might, eventually, be swept into the dustbin of history. But what do you do in the meantime?

In the meantime you nudge the process along. Sounding the alarm, Cox pointed to the worrisome influence of “a number of critics, some of whom have earned by intelligent work the right to be heard,” critics whose work had become derailed and were now “trying to convince themselves and the public that it [post-impressionism] is vital and important.” The instability had spread. According to Cox, other, lesser critics, more culpable because less sincere, were taking up the cause, doing so because they didn’t want to join history’s list of critics who had missed the bus, those critics who had reviled artists later seen as the embattled but eventually triumphant heroes of art history. Cox claimed of his disingenuous contemporaries that “one can only imagine that they are frightened by the long series of critical blunders that has marked the nineteenth century, and are determined, this time, not to be caught napping” (Cox 1911: 153). Nobody wanted to end up as a couplet in a twentieth-century English Bards and Scotch Reviewers.

To this plausible social situation, Cox envisioned these critics had issued the following call: “Let us hasten to show that we are not so stupid as our brothers of the past.” Their imagined moment of panic led Cox to unveil his culminating argument and moral lesson, a paraphrase of Hans Christian Andersen. In a lengthy passage which impressed him so much that he read it aloud as part of a newspaper interview two years later (in his highly publicized smackdown of the Armory Show), Cox argued:

In the tales of Hans Christian Andersen one may read how a certain monarch was supposed to be possessed of a suit of clothes of extraordinary richness and beauty but quite invisible to all unintelligent and stupid people. The King himself had never seen them, but as long as others believed in their existence he kept his mouth shut and received with complacence the glory which came to him as their possessor. The Prime Minister and the Lord Chamberlain and the members of the Privy Council were all equally blind to these wonderful garments, but each thought the others saw them, and so they joined in a chorus of praises, lauding the magnificence of the stuff, the splendor of the embroidery, and the perfection of the cut. Even the little page boys solemnly gathered up nothing, and pretended to carry the tails of the robe which they thought must certainly be there if only they were bright enough to see it. At last it was determined that his Majesty should walk in public procession through his capital, that every one might have an opportunity to behold the wonderful clothes. There were (p.6) heralds and trumpeters, making a great noise with their trumpets, and knights and men at arms and judges and clergy, and, at last, under a canopy, the King himself, walking very grandly with his head in air and followed by the three pages that bore the invisible train. And the people all rubbed their eyes and each one said to himself, “Dear me! Am I so stupid? I really can’t see anything;” and then they all shouted, “Long live the King and his incomparable clothes!” But presently the procession passed by a place where there stood a tiny boy in the street; and the boy, not being old enough to know better and, perhaps, not having been well brought up, spoke right out in a loud voice, saying: “But he hasn’t got anything on!” And then—well, then every one suddenly saw that his Majesty was walking through the streets in his shirt.

(Cox 1911: 154–6)

Aided by its slightly varnished language, which gives Cox the sound of a Victorian curate translating Latin, Cox’s retelling is meant as a timeless lesson, whose obvious, commonsensical application reflects Cox’s own understanding of art’s status as an eternal and universal human activity—always opposed to the equally timeless and universal activity of fraud.

Cox’s is a tale of power, social coercion, and a heroic yet simple response. The power in the Emperor’s kingdom seems self-appointed, bogus, and like much within this story, a little decadent (this is an emperor, after all, not a prime minister). In this kingdom—not a place of strenuous self-examination—the Emperor receives his “glory” with “complacence.” No surprise, then, that when the time comes for the procession the King walks “very grandly with his head in air” (1911: 155–6). He does not attempt to perform this deception on his own. Those who have something to maintain or gain, the powerful, enable this situation; in fact, the complicity of the Prime Minister, Lord Chamberlain, and Privy Council make this a tale of social coercion. The conditions at the court are propitious for fraud, and assent falls like dominoes, beginning with the King, who “himself had never seen them [the clothes], but as long as others believed in their existence he kept his mouth shut.” And so on down the line: “each thought the others saw them, and so they joined in a chorus of praises.” Everyone clambers up onto the bandwagon in the same way. Again and again, the story describes a moment of individual uncertainty, then anxiety, followed by panicked praise: “And the people all rubbed their eyes and each one said to himself, ‘Dear me! Am I so stupid? I really can’t see anything’; and then they all shouted, ‘Long live the King and his incomparable clothes!’ ” (The simple way causality and motivation are expressed in fables, here with a word as minimal as “then,” encourages the moral lessons to be understood as both timeless and unambiguous.) This social pattern, for Cox, demonstrates that the Emperor’s kingdom is not just the land of a natty despot, it is the land of mass culture and its abuses.

This pattern also reveals the Emperor’s new clothes to be ephemeral, stitched together by cowardice, the excesses of the court, and unstated social coercion. And, as many other skeptics of modernism would also insinuate, it was the outrageousness of the fraud that made it more rather than less likely to succeed. It can’t just be that these clothes are pretty good, with the people politely exaggerating their (p.7) praise.3 The clothes are invisible, but they are described as “incomparable,” and people shout their praises. This fraud is not an issue of forgery, based on close resemblance. Like the Emperor’s invisible clothes, post-impressionism is a spectacular violation, one so spectacular that, in interacting with it, traditional evaluative criteria are blown away, leaving in their place a set of aesthetic principles that are celebrated but unexamined, and, once the fraud has been exposed, do not bear scrutiny.

This unstable fragility called for nothing with as many moving and unstable parts as the fraud had. Something this insidious but fragile just needed a push from common sense to send it over the edge to oblivion. His gloss on the fable tells much not just about Cox but also about the typical positions taken by those who cried fraud during modernism:

Now it may be my own lack of intelligence that prevents my seeing the wonderful garment of art worn by some of the latest exponents of modernism. The rich stuff and the splendid embroidery, which others assure me they see, may really be there and I may be too blind or too stupid to perceive it. But if the gods made me stupid it rests with myself to be honest; and so I can only cry, with the little boy in the street: “They have nothing on! They have nothing on!”

(Cox 1911: 156–7)

Cox, at the height of his powers, in solidarity with the little boy who cried fraud: something seems odd here. What possible advantages are there to the fraud being dismantled by a boy? Couldn’t a wise courtier have done the job just as well, and with more aplomb? According to the terms of the fable, the boy is uniquely positioned to pull the plug: he isn’t old enough to know better, and perhaps wasn’t well brought up—details that place him outside the complicities of power and professional knowledge. Neither socially constrained nor an aspirant to the economy of power, the boy has nothing to lose or gain by speaking his mind. In other words, he shows that you need someone from outside the system, disinterested, and looking with an eye that is apparently not culturally conditioned, and capable of pure looking, to denounce the fraud. The tiny boy, then, stands in for the common reader and common sense. Modern culture didn’t need professionals to denounce the spectacular transgressions of fraudulent modernism—as would be necessary were modern art’s sins the nuanced deceptions of forgery—and many non-professionals and critics, dressed up as non-professionals, raised the cry of fraud during modernism from this, the only position (that of common sense) that they could wield with authority. In exposing a real-world fraud, then, you have to create the illusion, at least, of disinterested powerlessness. Cox does this in two ways. Disingenuously, (p.8) he posits his own “lack of intelligence,” and then asserts his own disinterestedness as the only thing he has left to lean on: “But if the gods made me stupid it rests with myself to be honest.” In order to dismantle the fraud, one needs a little bit of self-reliance, and the inner light that can be obscured only by power. Concomitantly, Cox asserts that post-impressionism is a fake kingdom, with bogus kings, ersatz splendor.

The denunciation needs no complications, no theoretical sophistication; it just needs common sense and its accompanying moral imperatives: “But he hasn’t got anything on!” Cox believes denouncing post-impressionism need be no more involved than that, and he wants his cry, like that of the little boy, to have the same instant consequences—not just to persuade, but to be in a sense performative. In the fable of the Emperor, once honesty kicks in and the disquiet everyone feels is simply verbalized, the fraud collapses. Immediately after the boy utters his cry, everything falls apart: “And then—well, then every one suddenly saw that his Majesty was walking through the streets in his shirt.” The boy’s words just blow the fraud away, and the nature of the fraudulent object changes, irrevocably: “every one suddenly saw” the Emperor in his underclothes. The causality is expressed simply, with the intertwined temporal/causal indicator “then;” post-impressionism deserves the stark causality of a fable, not the nuanced motivations of a realist novel. Cox’s cry against post-impressionism is intended to be similarly performative, with the same consequences as those that followed the little boy. And the people’s response to realizing they had been duped? Immediately, the clothes are no longer taken seriously (in most versions of the tale the people respond with laughter). Serious and unserious, then, exist in tension here: Cox takes the threat seriously, but not the art. These aren’t clothes, and modernism isn’t art.

Defining Modernism’s Fraud

Despite Cox’s eventual elision from art history—his accounts both of late nineteenth-century art and of modernism aren’t turned to today in order to understand the development of American art, and his paintings and murals are interesting not so much in their own right, as that they provide examples of a particular genre of academic American art—the story of the Emperor’s new clothes would echo throughout the history of modernism, not in the particularities of Cox’s assertions and targets, but in the typical structures and activities his argument deploys and unleashes. Cox’s fable is part of a larger fraud discourse, and it does the usual, complex work of assertions of this kind. Indeed, despite the idiosyncrasies of the local contexts that spawn them, individual assertions of fraud are never sui generis; they always participate in a larger pattern, a pattern that extends beyond the social boundaries of art and the chronological boundaries of the early twentieth century. That made it easy for writers to put ideas of fraud to work in predictable and easily understandable ways. Fraud and its enabling social conditions in modernity had a stable meaning in the public consciousness, allowing Cox to exploit awareness (p.9) of this pattern in his story, something Richard Burton in the Minneapolis Bellman also did in reference to Stein’s Tender Buttons:

Was there ever in the known history of man a time when the faker and poseur had as good a chance as he has today? … I think not. By “chance” I mean being taken with apparent seriousness by so many people, and given so much good space in the public print. It really makes one sad, because it implies that folk in general are so avid of something new, however asinine, as to prefer it to the sane, the wholesome and the beautiful.

(Burton 1914: 163)

Given that fraud is a timeless activity, interpreting Stein’s stance was easy, according to Burton, and he went on to analyze how she succeeded as “a poseur who laughs in her sleeve at the ease with which she fools misguided enthusiasts” (164). Frauds occur so often, and the behavior surrounding them is so predictable, that contemporary readers presented modernism’s frauds as ritualized, patterned behavior that, despite these works’ surface appearance and claims as advances in art, really presented nothing new. Modernism’s fraud may be dressed up in new clothes, but it grinds out the predictable routines that all frauds do. As well, the public perception of fraud as a ritual made invoking fraud discourse socially useful, and allowed the logic of those invocations to happen in shorthand, without needing extensive articulation. For example, fraud’s denouncers needed only to gesture toward their own implied innocence, or declare the culpability of an elite in perpetrating the fraud; they did not need to argue for these points, or articulate their concurrent nuances.

They used the shorthand language of fraud in many contexts. Modernism’s fraud had complex and varied presences, ranging from common and straightforward accusations of fraud, to actual hoaxes put into play by modernism’s skeptics (such as the Spectra and Disumbrationist hoaxes, designed to reveal the fraudulent nature of much modernist art), to parodies that presented a deceptive intent in order to point out the fraudulent intents of their sources, to assertions that a given work or movement was so shoddy that the mere act of attempting to pass itself off as real art constituted fraud, to a paralyzing uncertainty about the sincerity of modernism’s intentions. But all these diverse situations put a recognizable discourse into play, a discourse proceeding by recognizable moves, performing a kind of theory about modernism, artistic skill, sincerity, intent, and trust. Fraud was one of modernism’s dominant rituals.

Throughout the variety of ways fraud surfaced in aesthetic discussion, the analysis, language, and tropes remained constant, working with the same set of conceptual tools, attempting to do the same kind of work, raising the same questions about intent, sincerity, and the new. No surprise, then, that modernism’s skeptics, and modernists themselves, employed an implicit and publicly recognizable theory of fraud. As theory, it wasn’t imperceptive. For all the apparent Philistinism in its specific applications, this working theory has significant connections to current articulations of fraud theory, connections that illumine the kind of work fraud did early in the twentieth century. Not all contemporary theory is equally pertinent, of course: the activities of modern fraud discourse connect most clearly with pointed (p.10) theories of fraud as social interaction, as understood in law and sociology; in their addressing the wide variety of ways in which modernism behaved fraudulently, skeptics only partially overlap with current work on fraud that explores fraud’s possible ontological range. The range of this second kind of fraud theory is admittedly impressive. Beginning with a fundamental premise of duplicity, working out the varieties and distinctions among types of fraud has proven to be a bracing activity for analytic philosophers, and fraud’s perhaps parasitic relation to other forms of human communication has been a dizzying one for poststructuralists. In these traditions, the closer one looks at fraud, the more territory it covers. Fraud is a recurrent behavior, but (outside of theories based in law and sociology) theoreticians tend not to think of it as a narrow one. In the scholarly literature, a range of deceptive behaviors cluster around ideas of fraud, from forgeries, to hoaxes, to parodies, to very targeted activities like magic tricks and trompe l’oeil, and extending to more vaguely described ones—even, in Harry Frankfurt’s famous study, to bullshit. Thinking about fraud can transport you to some interesting places. Most notably, it can take you to the sense that art, by its very nature, is fraudulent. This, of course, carries one all the way back to a discussion that began with Plato, and even further—to the nature of language itself.4

One can reach impressive heights with these approaches, but the work of modernist fraud starts on a lower floor. While they addressed the question of fraud to a wide variety of modernist manifestations, modernism’s skeptics weren’t interested in the ontological questions such a variety of human activities might raise. Their implicit theory went to what fraud does, and, while it worked with a sense of fraud as a timeless activity, it was always directed to a specific, modernist instance. It’s always about this work, this artist, this movement—modernism’s skeptics never go back to the nature of art itself, and almost never stray from a sense that modernism’s fraud is an ethical failing. Thus, while art in general may be fraudulent in a broad sense, the frauds of modernism are more pointedly fraudulent—and that’s where the energies of modern response went. That pointedness reveals an important distinction between modernism’s fraud and the more general fraudulent nature of art. Most centrally, with the deceptions of “regular” art, of presenting a world that has an “as-if” status, there is no question about the work’s status as art, nor uncertainty about the work’s fundamental intentions to be a work of art, nor a sense that the work is attempting to put its audience at a disadvantage. Generally, these aspects of art’s contract with its audience are clear. (p.11) The standard deceptions of art create no uncertainty about the type of experience being proffered. When they were dealing with “real” art, people knew they were dealing with real art; when they were dealing with modernism’s fraud, audiences didn’t know what exactly they were dealing with. Modernism’s fraud was understood in a specific sense, as something that was not art, trying to pass itself off as real art.

Most important, modernism’s skeptics understood its frauds in a social sense, a sense that put a lot of weight on the differences between the fraudulent aspects of, say, The Mill on the Floss versus those of Tender Buttons. Reactions to modernism’s apparent frauds make it clear that there was uncertainty in an audience’s experience of art, and an adversarial, duplicitous slippage between audience and artist. The social aspect of fraud necessarily implies gaining or losing an advantage, something that is, at best, nebulous in “ordinary” art. Understanding modernism as fraud means that one sees it as a zero-sum game, one that results in advantages and corresponding disadvantages between two distinct entities. If Joyce wins—if you take Ulysses seriously—you lose. This social slippage is essential: if a fraud happens in the woods, and there is nobody to be taken in by it, it doesn’t really happen. To understand how fraud circulated in modernism, and how it shaped the twentieth-century canon and academic scholarship, one needs an understanding of its audience, and its audience’s anxieties. Fraud, as a social activity, needs to be understood as an interaction between two people, with the originating person’s intentions being inferred.5 Following how questions of fraud were activated in modern culture, Modernist Fraud does not focus on the significant questions of epistemology and ontology that different forms of fraud raise, then; it directs its distinctions to understanding the social activation of these ideas, to articulating the kind of work these modernist frauds did.

In presenting fraud as a social action, rhetoricians, sociologists, and theorists of law present a coherent body of fraud theory that works more with temporal narrative and social activation than do theories originating in analytic or continental philosophy. Perhaps unexpectedly, these socially and temporally based theories are also much closer to how fraud functioned in modernism. The narrative/social account of fraud is pretty simple: these approaches understand fraud to be a deliberate deception with the aim of gaining an advantage, the deception attempting to succeed by preying on a perceived social/personal weakness. By falling for the deception, fraud’s victims act in error, to their disadvantage.6 That deception and resulting disadvantage do not end fraud’s social narrative. A kind of denouement, (p.12) consisting of one of two possible later actions, follows from this initial act. One later action is that set in motion by a classic fraud, the other is that initiated by a hoax, which is an important subset/extension of fraud. I’ll begin with hoaxes. Elliot Schrero, in his study of the rhetoric of deceptive speech, refers to the hoax’s denouement as the hoax’s necessary “subsequent text” (1998: 22). The subsequent text of a classic hoax is its unveiling by its creator, demonstrating not only that a hoax has been perpetrated, but more importantly showing the corrupt social circumstances that allowed the hoax to succeed, and implicitly or explicitly suggesting a corrective course of action.

While this sounds a little gray as a rhetorical model, it takes on color when embodied in narrative. Consider the case of Paul Jordan Smith, founder of “Disumbrationism.” Smith found himself out of step with the art world after seeing the 1913 Armory Show in Chicago, and increasingly so a few years later, after reading a negative review of his wife’s traditional portrait painting. On a bet that he could produce plausible modernism by creating the worst painting he could muster, Smith set to work (Figure 1.1). He reports in his autobiography:

I borrowed some old brushes and a few tubes of scarlet, black, yellow and green paint, and on a discarded canvas of large proportions, I slapped out a picture of a savage woman with her arm lifted on high. The paint had a tendency to run, because in my haste to be done with the business I used too much thinner and dryer, so I had to lay the thing flat on the floor. I intended the woman to have a starfish in her hand but the running paint made it look more like a peeled banana. I added some touches and let it go as a banana. I placed a skull in the background, high on a pole to give a touch of cannibalism to it, and to help along the modernity of the creation I drew the woman a hut which appeared to be toppling over on one side. I made her eyes a ghastly Gauguinesque white and let one great breast exceed the other in size. When it was done I called the picture, “Yes, We Have No Bananas.”

(1960: 221–2)

Rereading the Shameless Puffery of Modern Charlatans

(p.15) Figure 1.1. Paul Jordan Smith, Exaltation (“Yes, We Have No Bananas”) Oil on canvas, dimensions unknown.

(Smith 1960).

Christening his movement “Disumbrationism,” and himself Pavel Jerdanovitch, Smith attained some critical success and serious attention—particularly, to his pleasure, in the French Revue du Vrai et du Beau. After a run of several years, Smith finally revealed his hoax to the Los Angeles Times in 1927. The Times reporter concurred with Smith’s sense of his hoax as a moral crusade, arguing that Smith had

proved his long-held contention, i.e., that much of the art of today is poppycock and that most of the critics know very little about art and are afraid to criticize rubbish as rubbish. He had no intention of hoodwinking the public, but only wished to make game of and expose the ‘fraidy cat critics and the poseurs. Incidentally he thinks it is interesting that France, the citadel of art, fell the hardest.

(Alma 1927)

Smith’s unveiling, and the chastisement of the art world it set into play, is central to Disumbrationism’s success as a hoax; without that unveiling Disumbrationism would have its place in history as a different kind of fraud, an attempt to create forgeries of modernist art. Disumbrationism has a level of performative meta-reflection common to many of modernity’s actual frauds. As Charles Bernstein points out, “outrage at the frauds of charlatans is one of the main sources of literary frauds, as if the only way you could exorcise the fraudulent is through fraud—to teach these snake oil salesmen a lesson” (2008: 213).

(p.13) While the larger success of a hoax like Disumbrationism depends on a later revealing/correction, successful frauds are the ones never brought to light. History reveals only discovered frauds. But the denouement that arises from the “discovery” of fraud is precisely what is crucial to modernism. In the early twentieth century this denouement performs the same function as the unveiling of a hoax, though with the important difference that it is the intended victims who unveil modernism’s fraud, and in so doing attempt to apply a social corrective and wrest back control of the event. New York Herald Tribune art critic Royal Cortissoz, for example, exhorted readers to act against the “unadulterated ‘cheek’ ” of post-impressionism, and he set their reaction in motion by asking the rhetorical question, “why must we sit patient, if not with awe-struck and grateful submissiveness, before a portrait or a picture seemingly representing a grotesque object made of children’s blocks cut up and fitted together?” His answer was simple: “The farce will end when people look at post-Impressionist pictures as Mr. Sargent looked at those shown in London, ‘absolutely skeptical as to their having any claim whatever to being works of art’ ” (1913: 812, 815). Cortissoz understood how the accusation worked. When one asserts that a work or an aesthetic movement is a fraud, one is not just asserting something about the physical qualities of that work; while the assertion no doubt addresses these qualities, more primarily, it unveils the fraudulent work’s enabling social conditions and motivating intentions, and sets in motion some (p.14) consequences—exposing what has made the fraud possible, and what should result upon its exposure. Denouncing something as a fraud is also an exhortation to action.

Although their denouements in modernism were structurally similar (differing primarily in who did the unveiling, and the direction of the social corrective), the distinction between a hoax and a fraud is significant, if a little tangled. While the unveiling and its consequent social corrective has a robust presence in sociological understandings of frauds and hoaxes, it is not central to law, which focuses its attentions not on the social corrective of hoaxes, but on the duplicitous intent of fraud, and the gaining of illegal advantages through that duplicity. The implied social corrective of a hoax is irrelevant, with the law being concerned with establishing that there had been an intent to deceive to gain an advantage, an advantage that is greater than simply a victim’s social discomfiture. That distinction governs why frauds are illegal, but hoaxes are not.

Art, in its social presence outside of a courtroom, has an unstable relationship with legal understandings of fraud, and it is not just because art itself is some kind of simulation. Visual art forgeries, particularly of modern art, are often not understood by the public to be frauds, but instead to be a type of hoax. There seem to be several reasons for this. First, art’s value for the most part is understood to be notional, not an inherent value—a function, in part, of the uncertain relationship deceptive forms of art (hoaxes, frauds, and parodies) and art itself have with actual truth statements. Second, in virtually all of these forgeries, their creators claim that the fraud they undertook was really easy to accomplish, with the implication being that either modernism itself is shoddy, or the art establishment doesn’t have real standards for judging quality. In either case, the art establishment should have known something was up. Finally, the argument proceeds with the claim that the real disadvantage was not thievery, but social embarrassment. What harm has been done? Did those taken in by the art fraud buy these fraudulent works because they thought they were good art, or because of the cachet of their purported provenance? Provenance doesn’t change the work, forgers argue; the works remain the works they were. With that logic, the public often understands the forger as a kind of Robin Hood, engaged in a social corrective directed at a corrupt art world.7 As this socially constructed definition of frauds and hoaxes suggests, the place of hoaxes and forgeries in modern culture depends on the right social conditions. When aesthetic standards are in flux, moving to something new, or radically unstable, hoaxes are more rather than less possible, exploiting the conditions of the new, the shiny things that excite a public.8

Fraud Theory

Fraud theory analyzes fraud in terms of four central aspects: fraud’s deliberate intent; its intended deception; its attempt to gain an advantage over an audience; and its surrounding social conditions, which encourage fraud and enable it to succeed. These characteristics of fraudulent actions have substantial resonance, and, it will become clear, sharply illumine the rise of modernism. To start: fraud brought instability into the heart of the creative process, giving intent a pivotal yet shaky role, one that modernist artists exploited, and, later, New Criticism, would nervously address. When Shane Leslie used the pages of the Quarterly Review to famously indict Joyce for writing Ulysses as a “gigantic hoax,” he put in motion some hefty, commonly held ideas about the place of intent in aesthetic creation:

Our own opinion is that a gigantic effort has been made to fool the world of readers and even the Pretorian guard of critics. Of the latter a number have fallen both in France and England, and the greatness of their fall has been in proportion to their inability to understand what perhaps they cannot have been intended to understand.

(Leslie 1922: 209, 207)

In accusing Joyce of a “deliberate bamboozlement of the reader” (210) Leslie works squarely within theoretical understandings of the place of intent in fraud. Theoretical research on fraud, as well as legal definitions of it, note that works have to be created with a deceptive intent in order to be fraudulent; concomitantly, one needs to postulate an intent to deceive in order to accuse something of being a fraud (Schrero; Gordon Stein; Truzzi). As Harry Frankfurt succinctly puts it, “What is wrong with a counterfeit is not what it is like, but how it was made” (2005: 47). Ulysses wasn’t just lousy art; more was at stake. Intent is definitional both to fraud and accusations of fraud, and it has big consequences, not least of which is that intent opened the way for fraudulent modernism to be understood as a social and an ethical act.

Modernism’s skeptics understood modernism’s intent in this strong sense, being (quite reasonably) unable to imagine accidental frauds, the product of chance, untethered to conscious intent. J. C. Squire, reviewing The Waste Land in his London Mercury, characterized that poem of looking like “one of those wantonly affected productions which are written by persons whose one hope of imposing on the credulous lies in the cultivation of a deliberate singularity (Squire 1923a: 655); and a writer in the Los Angeles Times argued that Stein’s “ ‘Tender Buttons’ may be highly recommended to the posing class which is deliberately unintelligible in the hope of being thought elusively wise” (“Futurist Essays” 1914). It was crucial that works like Tender Buttons or Ulysses be understood as frauds, not only because of the later entailments such accusations generated, but because in the commonly accepted, default aesthetic of the time, asserting the deliberateness of a work of art (p.16) was in itself a way of casting doubt on that work’s sincerity. Deliberate intentions, particularly those that worked outside of the times’ default aesthetic (and as a consequence looked more deliberate), implied insincerity, and turned art into rhetoric.9 According to its skeptics, fraudulent modernism had a highly specific goal, being intent on producing a pragmatic and pointed affect—not the great affects of pleasure, or sublimity, or comedy, but the more dubious one of credulity. A 1917 Literary World reviewer of Prufrock and Other Observations, for example, claimed:

Mr. Eliot is one of those clever young men who find it amusing to pull the leg of a sober reviewer. We can imagine his saying to his friends: “See me have a lark out of the old fogies who don’t know a poem from a pea-shooter. I’ll just put down the first thing that comes into my head, and call it ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.’ Of course it will be idiotic; but the fogies are sure to praise it, because when they don’t understand a thing and yet cannot hold their tongues they find safety in praise.”

(“Rev. of Prufrock and Other Observations,” 1917a: 74)

Much of the reviewer’s stance is implausible, of course—even from this distance we know that the reviewer for the Literary World has got youth argot all wrong, and has also probably miscast the typical reactions of fogies. Attempting to quote hipness rather than actually being hip oneself always has the danger of sounding a false note. But by imputing a specific, deliberate intent on Eliot’s part, the review’s imagined conversation fits smoothly within fraud discourse.

It was questionable enough for a highly specific intent to motivate an aesthetic work, but modernism compounded its awkwardness by intending to deceive. Fraud’s deceptions depend on its audience’s lack of knowledge, creating a distinction between audience and artist that, initially at least, only the deceiving side knows about. (Elitism, then, or at least coterie culture, is never far from accusations of modern fraud—although modernism’s proponents presented it as expertise.) As Cox and many others pointed out, even those appreciative critics who enable the fraud may be fraud’s dupes, unaware that a fraud is being enacted. Fraud’s deception is therefore always about slippage, about hiding, which modernists accomplished, skeptics argued, using deception’s classic forms: through misdirection (as when reviewers argued that the Homeric references in Ulysses distracted readers from the blatant nonsense and pornography of the book as a whole); or blankness (as with those texts, such as The Waste Land or Tender Buttons, that presented such a puzzling surface, with so few interpretive footholds, that positive critics apparently felt trapped into blurting out anything to avoid looking foolish); or through adding distracting “noise” (as skeptics claimed Eliot did with his notes to The Waste Land); or exploiting cultural instability (as when Stein was accused of manipulating the social/aesthetic situation created by Futurist artists, in whose context anything had become possible).10

(p.17) Fraud’s intent to deceive points to a central aspect of its work in modernism: that fraud is not just a series of properties; it is a pointed, practical action. Central legal definitions describe fraud as an attempt to “induce” someone to act to his or her disadvantage (“Fraud” (1384 [1984]; 2005). In modernism, the charge went, this disadvantage was most typically attempted by causing fraudulent work to be accepted as serious art. According to Leslie, Ulysses attempted “to fool the world of readers and even the Pretorian guard of critics,” and, given that “the French and many of the English have taken it seriously” (1970: 207, 209), it had at least partially succeeded (for many in Anglo-American culture, French critics were the emperor’s paradigmatic, presumably well-dressed, courtiers). Modernism’s skeptics, however, typically portrayed the “actual” goals of fraud as more wobbly than that, and particularly early in modernism it is difficult to find accusations that state the fraud’s end goal as straightforward canonization. Canonization on the wrong terms can never be real canonization, and modern culture, with its time-bound goals of publicity, réclame, and advertising, ensured that this new art was looking for canonization using the wrong means. Kenyon Cox complained that the culture of the modern exhibition “has made art, what it should never be, competitive, and has set each artist to outshriek his rivals in the bid for public notice.” The results were less than impressive: “it has seemed that modern art is bent upon emulation of the Gadarene swine and is rushing down a steep place into the sea” (1911: 19, 20). Modernist artists were perceived to have less noble goals than serious acceptance, then—some of their goals being publicly discernable, while some of their more devious ones were private. In his regular column in the Chicago Record-Herald, S. E. Kiser featured a cartoon in which one befuddled observer, standing in front of a faux Futurist painting, asks another:

“What do you think of the post impressionists?”

“I think they must be having a good laugh at the people who are taking them seriously.”

(Kiser March 3 1913)

The balance sheet of advantages and disadvantages was suspect. E. Wake Cook, writing profusely of Roger Fry’s 1910 Post-Impressionist exhibit, made the following claim in the New Age:

The show of the Post-Impressionists, engineered in the interests of the dealers who own nearly all the works, will sadly besmirch the reputations of all who have had any hand in the matter—except the dealers themselves, who may be commended for their acuteness in gaining the succés de scandale, at which they aimed, and in getting columns of free advertisement out of the controversy which the works were perpetrated to produce.

(Porter 1910: 119)

According to its skeptics, modernism’s larger social context also enabled fraud to do its work, being so necessary, in fact, that the social context inevitably formed (p.18) part of the characterization of fraud. Royal Cortissoz, who had been embroiled in the 1913 Armory Show controversy, took up his earlier stance again in 1926, on the occasion of the Brooklyn Museum’s Société Anonyme show, which featured work by the likes of Léger and de Chirico. Asserting the “dead level of bizzarerie” that characterized these works, Cortissoz argued that modernism “thrives on scared credulity:”

Inexperienced souls who cannot understand what it is all about are impressed by the propagandists. Others who ought to know better are drawn into the cult through that human foible which we have before this ventured to designate as “bandwagonomania.” They hate to be “left out” if anything “new” is toward. In short, the things in Brooklyn are significant not so much of a state of art as they are of a condition of mind in and out of the studios.


“A condition of mind in and out of the studios:” as Cortissoz’s comments invoking the social nature of fraud suggest, the frenzy of modern public aesthetic discourse is such that, even should the fraud succeed, serene canonization is hardly one of its possible accomplishments. (Indeed, public discourse is so frenzied that Cortissoz places its central attitudes in scare quotes, giving himself a little antiseptic distance from the groupthink they imply.) The fraud’s attempted gain is inevitably tainted, its “brush and chisel sensationalism” (“Not Art, but Sensationalism” 1913) unable to rise above the limited attainments garnered through publicity and fashion. E. Wake Cook, always able and willing to turn a good phrase, grumbled of modernism’s “orgy of log-rolling mendacity unparalleled in the history of criticism” (Cook 1910b: 167). Real art, or even forgeries, would presumably look higher, for a more stable and lofty attainment than those afforded by the mere publicity of Cook’s “Poster-Impressionists” (Cook 1910c).

Mere publicity—something was wrong with social conditions that allowed modernist fraud to come so close to success, and success of this kind. For modernism’s skeptics, this was a time depressingly susceptible to fraud. Writing in the British Mayfair in 1913, under the title “The Truth about the Post-Impressionists,” an anonymous critic claimed “This is a credulous age. It is also a sensational age. The credulous public are being hoodwinked by the sensational painter” (“The Art World” 1913: 283). In modernism’s gaudy environment the fraud didn’t even need to be that clever to succeed—it just needed to exploit a social condition. Writing in response to Roger Fry’s second, 1912 Post-Impressionist exhibition, a reviewer in The Tatler claimed:

The fear of being looked upon as a Philistine will always provide adherents for no matter what idiotic cause … For it seems to me that the extreme Post-Impressionists seek to baffle their public in the hope that by so doing nobody will ever find out that in spite of all their theories they never had anything really vital to say.

(“The Post-Impressionists” 1912: 72)

Responding to the same exhibition, a writer for the National Review asserted that “In a sceptical age there is nothing people will not believe if it is only sufficiently ridiculous” (Montpelier 1913: 120). This indiscriminate rush to belief—improbably (p.19) occurring in a skeptical age—extended to people’s acceptance of the defenses of the new art. Not content with lambasting Fry’s curatorial choices, the critic also addressed Fry’s writing style:

This is an example of the most irritating of all modern affectations; the word-game which consists in arranging a certain collocation of pompous words and pretending that they have a meaning, a sort of post-intelligent composition. When from all this pretentious stuff any meaning escapes, the nonsense is obvious and the absurdity of the school is patent.

(1913: 117)

According to its near-victims, modernism’s deceptions preyed on a social weakness, not just of the general public, but, often more importantly, of those in power. Leslie, remember, argued of Ulysses that “French and possibly American critics will utter their chorus of praise in proportion to their failure to understand” (1922: 211). In one of his verse editorials, the London Mercury’s J. C. Squire turned his attention to the sham products of the current art world:

  • The cubist cul-de-sac, and, what is worse,
  • The spate of senseless and amorphous verse,
  • Writ by ambitious simpletons who’ve found
  • That if you once abandon sense and sound
  • And put down linkless words in disarray
  • The critics really don’t know what to say,
  • Fearing that if they do say what they think
  • Their names may, later on, be made to stink,
  • Because their crassness failed to recognise
  • The fire of Shelley in a Snooks’s eyes—

(Squire 1928: 337)

For modernism’s skeptics, complicity was both rampant and predictable. A Detroit Free Press review of Tender Buttons made the following accusation:

The most remarkable thing about this “new literature” is that there are people who pretend to understand that in which there is nothing to understand, and thus help on the sorry jest. Naturally, having accepted Futurist art, those forever on the lookout for the new thing must read meanings into another form of the unintelligible. With most amazing facility the world “puts up a bluff” and gets in line with new fashion.

(“Futurist Literature,” 1914)

Those implicated in modernism’s frauds are necessarily described as powerful, having enough clout to enable/exploit the conditions under which a fraud becomes believable.

Modern culture’s rush to believe in the newest charlatan to step forward showed the workings of power of a particular and distasteful kind; the rising power of fraudulent modernism was seen as deliberate and striving, arising from anxiety, and consequently having too much noise associated with it. It was socially obvious. Modern fraud’s was an imputed power, of course—more notional than actual in the century’s early decades. Describing the social conditions that enabled modern fraud, an assertion whose reach always went beyond a simple characterization, was part of the fraud accusation’s stock-in-trade, one always made from the vantage (p.20) point of an innocent, standing outside of modernity’s shoddy social context. Descriptions of this wider social context had the added function of bolstering arguments about individual artist’s deceptive intentions, by demonstrating/asserting the insincerity of the conditions under which a work had been produced. In order to argue that something is a fraud, pointing to the inadequacy of the surrounding social context is a much more demonstrable project than uncovering the private motivating impulses at the moment of a work’s creation. And, the context pointed back to and clarified those murky impulses: in the tawdry context of modernism, a work with as bizarre properties as those of The Waste Land, for example, could plausibly only be the product of fraudulent intent.

According to modernism’s skeptics, these social conditions allow the fraudster to perpetrate not a forgery, where the signs of inauthenticity are hidden, but a version of a hoax, where there is a sense that people ought to know better, ought to recognize the signs of fraudulence. “Ought” is important. Classic hoaxes require this possibility of discovery in order to function properly. As Schrero argues, not only do hoaxes need to incorporate “misleading signs” (otherwise there could be no deception), but a fair hoax also needs to include “corrective signs” (1998: 22), signs that something is amiss. The idea of fairness is essential to the kinds of accusations made by Squire and others. Leslie’s fawning critics deserve to be taken in, not only because of their willingness to praise what they don’t understand, but because the work itself gave plenty of hints that it was a fraud. According to Leslie, “Parody is so discernible in the book that of itself it should convince the reader that a gigantic hoax has been played on the French, English and Irish public” (Leslie 1922: 209). In accepting a text like Ulysses, readers aren’t innocent victims; they are culpable, exhibiting what Schrero describes as the typical characteristics of those taken in by a fair hoax: “overweening pretension, irresponsibility, carelessness, willful ignorance, dishonesty, greed, or other moral faults” (1998: 22). Modernism is a kind of clumsy hoax/fraud, its accusers claim, a fraud bristling with the signs of its fraudulence, signs obvious because they nearly always violated bedrock aesthetic principles and common sense, signs which made modernism a matter not of aesthetic greatness, but of culpability.11 “People should have known better”—this aspect of modernism’s social conditions, the social weaknesses that allowed the fraud to succeed, justified modernism’s skeptics simultaneously to unveil the fraud and administer a stinging social corrective.

This larger social situation illustrates the lengthy reach of fraud accusations. After complaining in regard to Gertrude Stein that there had never been such a glorious time for the “faker and poseur,” Richard Burton argued that “really, we have fallen on evil days when she is possible!” (1914: 165). For modernism’s skeptics, its frauds can be generalized. The work is never just itself. One writer described (p.21) Stein, for example, as “merely a red flag waved by the Zeitgeist,” and Arthur Waugh memorably argued that “if the fruits of emancipation are to be recognized in the unmetrical, incoherent banalities of these literary ‘Cubists,’ the state of Poetry is indeed threatened with anarchy which will end in something worse even than ‘red ruin and the breaking up of laws’ ” (“Flat Prose,” 1914: 439; Waugh 1919: 39). This kind of talk raises the stakes for modernism, extending the fraudulent work’s significance, and in some predictable ways. Not only are the works seen as symptoms, they are seen as part of a larger threat—the work is part of a tendency that threatens social values, and its exposure and denunciation has a consequent moral element.

On multiple occasions, then, people early in the twentieth century looked at new forms of art and repeatedly did the same thing: suspecting insincerity of intent, they perceived a threat in an individual work or movement, generalized about it as a symptom, analyzed it and its larger situation in ethical terms, and proposed/enacted some kind of urgent solution. This repetition of fraud discourse in numerous contexts—in effect, the rationale for this book—gave fraud discourse a social presence and function that goes beyond what theories of fraud can offer, since they describe the function of individual frauds, and don’t deal with what is, in effect, fraud culture. Denunciations in fraud culture perform a particular kind of work, work best understood through the lens of moral panic theory. The outlines of moral panics are clear: building on Stanley Cohen’s 1972 inaugural study, sociologists James Lull and Stephen Hinerman describe moral panic as “a reaction to an apparent social movement which generally and permanently threatens the stability of the dominant morality” (1997: 4). The moral panic not only defines a threat, it perceives it as serious, and expresses anxiety over the large numbers of people implicated in it. The articulators of moral panic always present themselves as being on the side of the normative and tradition, which, to quote McRobbie and Thornton, means that a moral panic can “act as a form of ideological cohesion which draws on a complex language of nostalgia.” Presenting itself as speaking for a “dominant social order,” it does so by “orchestrating consent” (McRobbie and Thornton 1995: 562; qtd. in Lull and Hinerman 1997: 5). Moral panics, then, do some heavy lifting.

The work of moral panic makes its presence felt in modernism’s fraud discourse. Accusations present fraudulent modernism as deviating from tradition, from a commonly understood and communally held position. No surprise, then, that the more conservative or immersed in a present ideology one is, the more likely one is to claim something is a hoax, frauds typically being associated with the new. They offend on multiple levels. In his series of Chicago Inter-Ocean articles discussing the arrival of the Armory Show in Chicago, University of Chicago Art History professor George B. Zug saw the work of the European avant-garde as being “only unparalleled cheek,” and, moreover, a violation of law: “The grammar of painting has been formulated after centuries of experimenting and I do not believe that it is to be entirely altered by a few unskilled, or even crazy, experimenters nor at the break-neck speed implied by some writers.” Concluded Zug: “Let others take cubism seriously, but for myself I am convinced that it is merely a refuge for bunko artists” (p.22) (March 16, 1913). In a situation of aesthetic orthodoxy—real, or desperately asserted—violations were seen not just as wrongheaded, but as perverse.12 As late as 1920 Bliss Perry of Harvard was still suspicious enough of free verse to grumble:

That free verse has now and then succeeded in creating lovely flowering hybrids seems to me as indubitable as the magical tricks which Mr. Burbank has played with flowers and fruits. But the smiling Dame Nature sets her inexorable limits to “Burbanking”; she allows it to go about so far, and no further. Freakish free verse, like freakish plants and animals, gets punished by sterility.

(1920: 219)

Modernism was violating a powerful tradition, but one that was apparently also both lovely and vulnerable, and inevitably nostalgia never wanders far from fraud discourse. Arthur Waugh, dedicating his 1919 Tradition and Change: Studies in Contemporary Literature to his son Evelyn, for example, saw the advent of “the unmetrical, incoherent banalities of these literary ‘Cubists,’ ” as threatening “the state of Poetry” with “anarchy” (1919: 39). Waugh suggested that Evelyn focus instead on the lessons of his nursery, which as a youth Evelyn had “frescoed with strange Cubist pictures:”

In memory of that room, and of all that it has seen, I should like to offer you this book, which is, in its way, only another tribute to the passage of Time, the certainty of Change, and the imperishable influence of Tradition. You are born into an era of many changes; and, if I know you at all, you will be swayed and troubled by many of them. But you are not yet so wedded to what is new that you seem likely to despise what is old. You may copy the Cubist in your living room, but an Old Master hangs above your bed.

(1919: vii–viii)

As violations of the dominant ideology, works exposed in the context of a moral panic were necessarily understood to have big consequences, be they social or aesthetic or moral. Late in the day, Oliver Gogarty, still smarting from his modulation into Ulysses’ Buck Mulligan, mused “I wonder what all the worshippers of Joyce would say if they realized that they had become the victims of a gigantic hoax, of one of the most enormous leg-pulls in history” (1950: 674). Herbert Palmer, in his Cinder Thursday, a collection of satirical verse that includes his take on The Waste Land, opined:

  • I refuse to be taken in by The Waste Land,
  • I refuse to pretend that I am not taken in.
  • I refuse to praise what I think I freely understand,
  • A hoax,
  • The most stupendous literary hoax since Adam.

(1931: 17)

(p.23) “Stupendous,” but not an isolated incident: modernism’s fraud depended on more than just the “unparalleled cheek” of individual artists. Modernism’s fraud—putative or real—is, like other objects of a moral panic, understood to be a complex organism. It needs not just an emperor, but sycophantic advisors and cheering subjects.

Moral panics always imply further action, demanding a collective response. The rituals of fraud accusation did this work admirably, but never to prove or even investigate the fraud accusation. The exposure, in modernism, was always intended to have different, and highly particular pragmatic consequences: Shane Leslie, for example, exposed Joyce’s fraud in an attempt to discomfit the pretensions of high modernism’s proponents and shame the world into a sober return to serious art. Accusations of fraud put two actions into play. First, and nimbly, they put to the side whatever had been the evidence for fraud, and replaced it with another issue, moving the interaction to a completely different plane. As Charles Bernstein points out, “Accusing someone of being a charlatan, rather than simply a bad artist or one who has ideas with which you disagree, is the fastest way to end discussion: it short circuits the kind of ideal speech situation envisioned by Jürgen Habermas or Richard Rorty” (2008: 213). It changed the nature of the interaction with the putative fraud; interactions with it were no longer understood to be happening in good faith, a change that had further consequences. The offending work, artist, or movement needed to be expelled from serious consideration. This call to action was so based in normative, commonsense beliefs (ostensibly representing an aesthetic and social code that had overwhelming social agreement), and had been violated at such a fundamental level, that the exhortation was not so much an argument or even a call to action as much as that it believed it could perform what it was arguing: saying modern fraud should be expelled from serious consideration in effect meant that it had been expelled.

Modernism violated common sense so spectactularly that the accusation, in fact, evinced a belief in its own performative qualities. The more grievous the offense was perceived to be, the more performative the denunciation, a high point (or nadir) being the “trial” of Henri Matisse at the Chicago manifestation of the 1913 Armory Show. Students of the Art Institute, furious with the Institute’s decision to bring the show to town, “determined to present a public rebuke … to all cubist art and artists in general” (“Students Wreak Vengeance”), and put “Henri Hair Mattress” on trial. Hair Mattress, accused of “artistic murder, pictorial arson, total degeneracy of color sense, artistic rapine, criminal abuse of title and general aesthetic abortion” (“Cubist Art Exhibit Ends ‘at the Stake’ ” 1913), and was found “Guilty of everything in the first degree and sentenced to be artistically executed” (“Students Wreak Vengeance”). That verdict, of course, was predetermined, and the judge, before pronouncing sentence, cried “ ‘My one regret … is that you have but one life to give for your principles’ ” (“Cubist Art Exhibit Ends ‘at the Stake’ ”). While most reports follow the verdict with an account of Hair Mattress’s works being burned in effigy, one report states that it was Hair Mattress himself who “was convicted of vagrancy, arson, treason and a hundred other crimes. He was stabbed (p.24) and otherwise thoroughly killed and dragged about the terrace of the institute” (“Art Institute Students ‘Kill’ Cubist in Effigy”).13

While the Hair Mattress trial is an extreme version of a denunciation’s performative ambitions, it explicitly uses language that many other moments in modernism share. There were in fact many public spectacles (art and fashion shows being the most common) that dramatized arguments, and in their dramatization extended beyond standard accusations into something, that by its enactment, was not so much an argument as a demonstration. Not exceptional cases, these dramatizations clarify the work of other fraud accusations, which by relying on common sense and orchestrating public consent, turned fraud discourse not just into an accusation, but attempted to call into being actions that necessarily followed from that accusation.

It wasn’t just that modernism was bad art, then—its insincerity meant that it shouldn’t be taken seriously. Writing in his diaries of a visit to the second Post-Impressionist exhibit, W. S. Blunt grumbled that, “while critics have been found sufficiently uncritical to treat the exhibition seriously,” Blunt himself noted that “these, as art, are mere nonsense … Degeneracy cannot go further than this, and it is mere stupidity to talk of it as art” (1921: 382). Refusal to consider this art on the terms with which, as a work of art, it apparently tried to offer itself—refusal to take it seriously—inevitably removed such a work from an aesthetic interaction, and to the kind of activity which one critic, in the face of the 1910 Post-Impressionist exhibit, described as having been created “merely ‘to flabbergast the inhabitants of villa-dom’ ” (Porter 1910).

Thus, a basic principle of modernism’s skeptics was that insincerity (understood in very specific ways) removed a work of art from serious consideration as art. Generic aspects of fraud underscore that importance. The accusation that something is a fraud implicitly claims that a particular kind of sincerity and trust, in a reciprocal quid pro quo, are essential to the normal functioning of the now-violated enterprise. Modern art was not exempt from that entailment. Particularly from today’s vantage point, the accusation of modernist fraud, by invoking the default aesthetic’s understanding of sincerity of intent, is strikingly an ethical, not a purely aesthetic principle (if we, at least temporarily, understand “aesthetic” in an admittedly problematic formalist sense). Violations of ideology are always initially understood as ethical violations, and the relationship between sincerity and art would have a profound effect on modernist aesthetics.

In the early twentieth century sincerity was the default aesthetic’s starting and central evaluative criterion; sincerity, as Chapter 4 will show, was so crucial to the offended aesthetic that to accuse an artwork of being insincere was the most fundamental charge possible, taking everything else off the table. Sincerity, indeed, wasn’t just an evaluative criterion for art, it was definitional. Thus, on the occasion of the Armory Show’s arrival in New York, Theodore Roosevelt’s basic objection (p.25) was that he doubted these works’ fundamental sincerity. Judging the artists to have used some of the tools of the “paleolithic artist,” Roosevelt argued that working with such techniques today could only be the “smirking pose of retrogression,” and he maintained that “why a deformed pelvis should be called ‘sincere,’ or a tibia of giraffe-like lengths ‘precious,’ is a question of pathological rather than artistic significance.” As a consequence of their self-conscious insincerity, Roosevelt argued, “The Cubists are entitled to the serious attention of all who find enjoyment in the colored puzzle pictures of the Sunday newspapers” (1913: 719–20). Without sincerity, works like those of Matisse and Duchamp, in a fundamental sense, were not art. This may account for the probably apocryphal but evocative account given by William Zorach (an exhibitor in the Armory Show) of Roosevelt’s spectacular physical reaction to the show. According to Zorach, Roosevelt “waved his arms and stomped through the galleries pointing at pictures and saying ‘That’s not art!’ ‘That’s not art!’ ” (qtd. in Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute 1963: 94). The fundamental but problematic question “is it art?” which reverberated throughout the twentieth century, is at times a question of a work’s formal characteristics or its place in a tradition, but in modernism it was additionally, and more primarily, a question of the work’s sincerity.

When removing modernist works and movements from the realm of serious art, modernism’s skeptics created alternative interpretive frames. In his diaries, W. S. Blunt also recalls his visit to London’s first Post-Impressionist exhibit:

To the Grafton Gallery to look at what are called the Post-Impressionist pictures sent over from Paris. The exhibition is either an extremely bad joke or a swindle. I am inclined to think the latter, for there is no trace of humour in it. Still less is there a trace of sense or skill or taste, good or bad, or art or cleverness. Nothing but that gross puerility which scrawls indecencies on the walls of a privy. The drawing is on the level of that of an untaught child of seven or eight years old, the sense of colour that of a tea-tray painter, the method that of a schoolboy who wipes his fingers on a slate after spitting on them.

(1921: 329)

In articulating modernism’s fraud, these interpretive frames turned not just to the concept of schoolboys, but to models like fashion, or sterile experimentalism, or things “French.” In an article originally written for The Nation but republished in For and Against: Views on the International Exhibition held in New York and Chicago (a publicity brochure for the Armory Show), Princeton art professor Frank Jewett Mather Jr. wrote: “These paintings, so far as genuine, are merely expressions of anti-naturalism reduced to the absurd along ratiocinative lines, just as Post-Impressionism is merely the emotional reduction to the absurd of the same anti-naturalistic fallacy” (1913a: 62–3). As it is here, such reframing was always about reduction. When they reframed it, modernism’s skeptics did not admit of nuance: things were totally defined and hermetically sealed in by their new, lesser, assigned context: “mere charlatanism,” for example, or “merely impertinence” (Cox 1911: 20; “The ‘Post-Impressionists’ at the Grafton Galleries” 1910a: 546). The activity was one of turning the radical public uncertainties about what modernism was into something pure.

(p.26) Virtually all reductionist reframings turned not only to the works themselves, but even more important, to what had motivated them. The reframing focused on attitude, and the manner and intent behind the presentation. Writing in The Independent, Mather reduced the complex intentions of creating art to the simple intents of fraud: “It is conceivable that an occasional Cubist, like Picasso, their leader, may believe in this geometrical mode of expression, but in the main this perversely ingenious work seems a mere hoax of mechanical draftsmen” (1913a: 511). The more outré the art, the more simplified the intent became, reaching its apogee in the response to Stein’s Tender Buttons. Richard Burton, for example, argued:

When you stop to think of it, what she did, looked at as mere advertisement, was quite clever. She saw the cubist and futurist and post-impressionist and the rest of the man-monkeys in art having their little day; and she said to herself: “Why not the parallel fake in letters? They will stand for it, for they stand for it in painting and sculpture.” Whereupon, knowing that it must be done quickly if at all, since you can’t fool all the public all the time, nor a part of it for more than a limited period, she gets busy and produces masterpieces called “Three Lives” and “Tender Buttons.” And, when tackled by the men of the press, she talks so sensibly and seriously about it all that really you are almost converted--until you turn back and read something like this: “Come and say what prints all day. A whole few watermelon. There is no pope.” Then you know again Gertrude is a prize bamboozler, and nothing else.

(1914: 164)

“A prize bamboozler, and nothing else:” reductive reframings of modernist art led to the kinds of defenses modernist artists and critics presumably wearied of making, defenses for which modernism’s skeptics had irritatingly set and limited the terms. While remarkably unperturbed by the ridicule directed at her throughout her career, Gertrude Stein responded to a heckler in 1934, “Present day geniuses can no more help doing what they are doing than you can help not understanding it, but if you think we do it for effect and to make a sensation, you’re crazy. It’s not our idea of fun to work for thirty or forty years on a medium of expression and then have ourselves ridiculed (“Gertrude Stein Rebukes”). This air of defensiveness—and this kind of defense—goes deep into the canonization of Stein and modernism. For example, Kate Buss in 1922 defended Stein both by letting the fraud accusations set the terms of the discussion and by participating in a central modernist reframing of what it meant to be serious. She did so by presenting Stein as one who was pursuing serious inquiry. Stein, Buss argued, “is a student of people, an intellectual therefore not a dilettante to be amused to play a lifelong joke upon herself” (1922: 11). (Stein, remember, described herself as working “for thirty or forty years on a medium of expression”—the difference between working on a medium versus in a medium tells much about modernism.)

Suspicion’s residue shows up in more resonant places, beyond quick assertions that casually reframe a work’s context, or sidestep questions of intent, or appeal to the test of time. In their 1927 Survey of Modernist Poetry, an attempt both to establish a high modern canon and the practice of close reading as a necessary corollary, Laura Riding and Robert Graves begin by proposing a “careful examination of poems that seem to be only part of the game of high-brow baiting low-brow” to see if they are, after all, “merely a joke at the plain reader’s expense,” and offered a close (p.27) reading of Cummings’s “Sunset” to show that it was “poetry” and not a “literary trick” (1927: 10ff). They argue strenuously that “Cummings, to disregard the satiric hilarity in which many of his poems are written, really means to write serious poetry and to have his poetry taken seriously, that is, read with the critical sympathy it deserves” (24). Riding and Graves define taking Cummings’s work seriously as reading it with “critical sympathy,” and doing so by attempting to establish a new kind of reading practice, one based not on affect, but on interpretation of meaning—a turn that suggests the concept “serious,” recalibrated to a modernist sense, rather than default understandings of “sincere.”

Even a contrarian like Wyndham Lewis took up the issue of fraud, setting as one of the central purposes of Time and Western Man the construction of “an almost fool-proof system of detection where contemporary counterfeit, of the ‘revolutionary’ kind, is concerned.” Lewis optimistically predicted, “If it is the good fortune of my critical system to be adopted or used by a certain number of people, it should make certain intellectual abuses, humbugs, and too-easy sensationalisms henceforth impossible” (1927: 39, 38). Lewis was not simply arguing from a position of common sense; to argue against broad attacks on contemporary art Lewis presented a critical method that enabled one to tell the difference between sham and real. And, like Graves and Riding, Lewis turns to close reading as a way of demonstrating the difference—comparing, in a passage-by-passage analysis, Composition as Explanation with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in order to unveil Stein as a “sham” (66). As a form of writing and use of evidence to detect fraud, this differs from the marshaling of common sense that someone like Cox used.

Lewis, Graves, and Riding are symptomatic of a larger change. They and others had no choice but to address issues of fraud and seriousness, however frivolously skeptics brought them up. This was due not only to the frequency and public nature of these charges, but also because addressing these charges was part of a larger strategy of creating a new aesthetic framework, one that could deal with the new structures of modernist works of art themselves. As a result, during the course of the canonization of high modernism central aesthetic terms like “serious,” “sincere,” and “intent” remain in the aesthetic repertoire, though modulated up a key or two. Sincerity’s central place ensured that early positive discussion of works like Tender Buttons or The Waste Land were loath to leave sincerity behind, and modernism’s champions often presented such work as sincere, although it often involved laboriously recalibrating what aesthetic sincerity and seriousness meant.

Henry Savage’s Complaint

As many of the names cited in this chapter indicate, the history of modernism’s apparent fraud is also a history of modernity’s discards, of careers that began in hope, with writers working competently within the standard aesthetic positions of the time, garnering respectful reviews pointing to future promise—but careers that slowly, inexorably, ended, ground down, in failure. Modernism’s fraud is littered with the careers of people who once were plausible, who, at the end of their careers, (p.28) looked back and needed to make sense of where they had ended up. They often did so by turning to understanding their career as a manifestation of sincerity. When fraud has triumphed, when your performative denunciations have not performed, the only thing you are left with, to hang on to, is your integrity—and perhaps, the later judgments of the test of time.

Consider the career of Henry Savage: journalist, poet, editor, and serial litigant. Forgotten now, Savage wasn’t unconnected, as a sometime friend and correspondent of D. H. Lawrence and Dorothy Richardson, and as editor of The Gypsy, a little magazine that survived two issues. Generous to his friends, Savage tirelessly promoted the work of the poet Richard Middleton, whose suicide devastated him. He also had a temper that was, well, savage. Most famously, he launched a suit against Orage’s New Age, and unsuccessfully sued Lord Alfred Douglas for libel. His temper aside, and with the possible exception of the remarkable immaturity of his erotic verse, Savage was a typical man of letters of the time. Any look in early twentieth-century anthologies will show writers with Savage’s career trajectory—the career of the once-plausible poet. Young at the beginning of modernism, Savage was doing unimpeachable if unremarkable work. His 1915 volume Escapes and Escapades began:

  • I saw the clouds go driving by,
  • Pale ships upon a sea of blue;
  • My heart went sailing, sailing, I
  • Was off across the world with you.
  • But thus the end of it! I knew
  • Too soon, though paradise may gleam
  • Before our eyes’ enchanted view,
  • We never leave the ports of dream. (9)

With praise that in retrospect seems charmingly tepid, but that, really, was something to be pleased with, Ford Madox Ford wrote “I will pontify to the extent of saying that Mr. Savage is almost as good as Heine.” The Times wrote of Savage that “His temperament—not unlike, we suspect, that of another poet of his name—is the stuff of which before now great poets have been made.”14 The year 1915 was Savage’s banner year, the year in which he also founded the little magazine The Gypsy. Sounding remarkably like The Egoist, Savage’s journal highlighted its integrity, proposing to direct its attention to “a public which appreciates good work, sympathises with our attempt to produce it, and does not expect to be placated or pandered to” (qtd. in R.H.C. 1915b). The Gypsy’s integrity looked for its validation inwardly, and in permanence: “there is only one method of conducting a periodical that is to be more than ephemeral: its producers must endeavour to satisfy, not others, but themselves” (qtd. in R.H.C. 1915b).

Hopeful words, but their sound was soon drowned out by the noises of incipient modernism, particularly that of free verse. In the years that followed Escapes and (p.29) Escapades Savage couldn’t find venues for his verse. And he couldn’t help but notice that the material of other writers, seemingly effortlessly written, was effortlessly finding publication, attention, and praise. By 1922 Savage was irritated enough to write A Long Spoon and the Devil, parodies of Edgar Lee Masters’s hit Spoon River Anthology. As did many parodists, Savage insisted his spoof was easy, claiming to have tossed off his book in a week. They are not very good parodies, but they tell much about integrity in modernism. In these poems Savage performs his integrity in a series of startling moments of denunciation. Savage’s temper and affronted integrity trump his parody, and, as are most gestures of integrity, Savage’s are based on a contrast, in this case a refusal to participate in what he presented as the easily imitated work of modernism.

For Savage, integrity in art was difficult, marked by rarity, and work like Masters’s that was easy to produce had no integrity:

  • See here, Edgar Lee Masters!
  • You of the leaden Spoon River,
  • Did you think, when you first started fishing
  • In those delectable waters,
  • That you would be able to preserve them for ever?

Easily reproducible, Masters’s work incited Savage to conclude:

  • You are not the only pebble on the beach, my dear Edgar,
  • Not by a long peb.
  • And besides, it’s so damnably easy!

(Savage 1922: 1)

Masters’s modernism was easy, but easy in a particular way. Savage’s parodies, like many others of the time, portray Masters’s aesthetic—and modernism’s more generally—as a system that one could use to churn out poems. He thought of modernists not as having integrity, but as being ideologues, because in their devotion to a method they didn’t adapt to the pressures of the material at hand. An easily-marshaled technique couldn’t be sincere, and without sincerity there could be no integrity, and no art.

In his parodies Savage argues that one can churn out this kind of work, modernism having borrowed mass culture’s plenitude, plenitude without distinction, without features. Savage’s ending poem reads:

  • But for the limits of physical endurance,
  • Shame, for the price of paper and eke ink,
  • Piracy, barratry on the high seas,
  • And other reasons too many to detail,
  • I do not see why this nonsense
  • Should not go on till the Greek Kalends,
  • Or David Copperfield is attributed to Thackeray,
  • Or David Lloyd George is found out,
  • Or David H. Lawrence gets within an aeon or two
  • Of the real value of sex;
  • Or till my debts are paid,
  • Or the moo-cows come home.
  • (p.30) But if the pundits are right in their assertion
  • That we can have too much of a good thing,
  • Does it not follow with dreadful logic
  • That too much of a thing like this
  • Might even have more dire results
  • Than the stuff which mainly inspired it?
  • Wherefore, reader—

FINIS (1922: 55)

Plenitude tells us something about fraudulent modernism: Savage’s parodies argue that Masters’s work lacked integrity because it had been contaminated by a larger social context, such as inept reviewers, insincere publishers, and the thirst for fashion. Art generated by a larger social context always sacrifices integrity—such art is the corruption, the contaminant that threatens aesthetic purity. Savage understands integrity (as did many high moderns) as resistance to the contaminations of power, fashion, and the pernicious aspects of mass culture. Consequently, if one can explain a work by a larger context, and not a personal one (as Savage argued in his opening editorial for The Gypsy), then that work’s integrity is in question. Integrity is internal, uncontaminated by the vicissitudes of change.

For Savage, art was eternal, and in modernism art was changing, responding to the pressures of mass culture and advertising. Integrity demanded that one resist these pressures. Bump that up against both Savage’s failure and his sense that integrity was self-evident, and his increasing bitterness is inevitable. His “Grand Guignol” sets the tone for the rest of his career:

  • Why did I slit the man’s weazand?
  • My Lord, it was all owing to a formula,
  • Invented back in the Dark Ages
  • By some one who hadn’t the wits of Machiavelli.
  • Now that the deed is done
  • And the brief insanity is over,
  • I can see it wasn’t the fault of the poor devil who suffered,
  • And, incidentally, suffers no longer
  • Now that he is past editing the brightest of the All-Colour monthlies.
  • But I kept on getting slips of paper
  • Saying how he “regretted” not being able to use my stories.
  • And with ruin staring me in the face
  • (The price of stamps, my Lord),
  • So I began to wonder,
  • And wonder led to brooding,
  • And brooding led to a sulphur melancholy,
  • And that led to madness.
  • Till, one day, seeking him out,
  • Asking point blank if his regret was sincere,
  • His silly explanation so made me all goosey,
  • That the silver chord of reason was loosed
  • And the golden bowl of sanity broken—
  • And now, my Lord, judge me!

(1922: 9)

(p.31) Following these parodies come thirty more years of Savage being unable to find a publisher for his poetry. Seeing the twilight of his life approaching, and about to leave England to spend the last twenty years of his life wintering in Tenerife, in 1946 Savage self-published a collection of his work, Songs and Satires (also, by the way, the title of an unsuccessful 1916 book by Masters), prefacing it with an analysis of his failed career that is defiant, touching, unwittingly hilarious—and a curious performance of integrity:

The poems which follow were written at various times during the past thirty years; and some explanation of their previous non-appearance in book form may be not without interest to the reader.

The revolt against beauty and the singing quality in poetry began, roughly-speaking, after the 1914-18 war with Germany; and my work, good, bad or indifferent as it may be, is in the tradition of song and beauty. I remember my surprise in Paris soon after the war when a youthful and able contributor to that then revolutionary organ, “transition,” said, with every appearance of sincerity, that he had “no use for Keats.” Again, just before the centenary of Swinburne’s birth, I was further surprised when offering to edit the new edition of that poet’s works, which I fondly imagined would be issued by the owners of the copyright. One of them demanded scornfully, “Who the hell reads Swinburne nowadays?”

In the meantime, having some sympathy with revolutions, and wishing to keep step with the time-spirit, I studied the work of many modern poets and began to see more clearly why my “hue was not the wear.” Not that it worried me much. It did, however, dawn on me that much work, inferior to mine, was being published and acclaimed, and that—as it isn’t always virtuous to turn the other cheek—indifference to the fact would be more reprehensible than commendable. I therefore tried out the poems, some few years ago, on a publisher whose reader returned them with the meaningless comment that they were “without sufficient personal distinction”; and as it then became obvious to me that, in literary circles, there must be quite a number of similar nitwits clothed in a little brief authority, I haven’t tried them out since.

They are being published now mainly because of what may be a pardonable vanity, and because it occurred to me recently that, as I am in the evening of my days, some perhaps unpleasant person may benefit by them excessively when I am dead; weeping the while for Hecuba, so to speak, bragging that he “once saw Shelley plain,” and joining his grave-faced listeners in wondering why merit isn’t recognised as it should be until too late. Humbug and unpleasant persons being always with us, I ought not to worry about possibilities of the kind mentioned, but I won’t deny myself a certain satisfaction in being able to anticipate them.

Here, at any rate, are the poems. They have pleased a few readers and are therefore likely to please others. With which, apparently, there is no more to be said.

(1922: 7–8)

Beginning by positioning his poems against large cultural forces, Savage sees his residual status as a sign of his integrity, and his defiant indifference, a further sign of his being uncontaminated—though I’m not sure that defiant indifference is a plausible standpoint. Savage’s principles didn’t change (he remained the same person), but they did bump up against a new kind of power, that of “nitwits clothed in a little brief authority,” working out the logic of artistic “revolutions.” Savage has (p.32) in the last twenty-five years reconceptualized modernism from being a producer of lightweight and fizzy texts that by their characteristics attract publicity, to an institution of power, a movement that denies access.

In his preface Savage presents his public failures as a series of emblematic moments that demonstrate his integrity. With a series of allusions that ally him with literature’s eternal values, Savage argues that his integrity is demonstrated in his repeated resistance, over time, to modernism’s power. He remains uncontaminated. The eternal also remains uncontaminated: the Keats and Swinburne examples, the several allusions to Shakespeare and Browning, all show the unchanging value of art—of art’s integrity. A stalled career can be a sign of victory for integrity, when integrity is seen as allying oneself with the eternal values of art. And, Savage modestly proposes that the eternal will kick in again, after he has died. Savage shows integrity—not a desire for réclame—by publishing these poems, an act which he hopes will prevent, in the far future, “some perhaps unpleasant person” from “benefit[ing] by them excessively” by “discovering” Savage’s unjustly neglected merits, and furthering a modest scholarly career on them. Awkward, that.


(1) In this book a good number of the quotations from daily and weekly journals come from three archives. The Ryerson and Burnham Libraries of the Art Institute of Chicago have a substantial archive of clippings related to the arrival of the 1913 Armory Show in Chicago; the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale houses a massive collection of clippings related to Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons; and the King’s College Archive Centre of Cambridge University contains clippings related to the 1910 and 1912 Post-Impressionist exhibitions. Each of these collections of clippings clearly identifies the sources and date of each item, but original pagination has typically not been included by the original collectors—a gap that my list of works cited replicates.

(2) For more information on Untermeyer’s place in constructing the modern canon, see Craig Abbott’s “Untermeyer on Eliot.”

(3) Borges takes up these issues in “The Improbable Imposter Tom Castro,” his treatment of the nineteenth-century fraudster who presented himself as, and convinced others that he was, the real Roger Tichborne, who had been missing at sea for years: “We know for a fact that Bogle produced a fat, flabby Tichborne with the sweet smile of an idiot, light-brown hair, and a thoroughgoing ignorance of French. Bogle knew that a perfect facsimile of the beloved Roger Charles Tichborne was impossible to find; he knew as well that any similarities he might achieve would only underscore certain inevitable differences. He therefore gave up the notion of likeliness altogether. He sensed that the vast ineptitude of his pretense would be a convincing proof that this was no fraud, for no fraud would ever have so flagrantly flaunted features that might so easily have convinced” (Borges 1998: 15)

(4) The diversity of writing on fraud ranges across multiple disciplines, and is thus shaped by disciplinary instincts. The central legal definitions of fraud, which all follow the same basic outlines, can be found in Black’s Law Dictionary, West’s Encyclopedia of American Law, Bouvier’s Law Dictionary and Concise Encyclopedia, and W. T. Scott’s “The Literary Fraud: An Intractable Problem for Law and Semiotics.” Critics whom I have found useful to engage with from within philosophical and literary theory include Giorgio Agamben, Charles Bernstein, Stanley Cavell, Denis Dutton, Harry Frankfurt, Paul Grice, Eric Hayot, Tom Leddy, Jerrold Levinson, Paisley Livingston, and K. K. Ruthven. Elliot Schrero presents a rhetorical analysis of the language of deception. Ray Hyman and Marcello Truzzi present useful overviews of the sociological and psychological aspects of fraud and deception. Thickly contextual and culturally immersed accounts of fraud can be found in Michael Leja, Miles Orvell, Susan Stewart, and Jeffrey Weiss.

(5) As W. T. Scott argues, literary fraud has such resonance because trust is essential to the enterprise; “trust informs text-author and text-reader relationships.” In literature, we operate with “the understanding that what is offered is offered in good faith by the person offering it” (304–05).

(6) Black’s Law Dictionary provides the paradigmatic definition of fraud: “1. A knowing misrepresentation of the truth or concealment of a material fact to induce another to act to his or her detriment. Fraud is usu. a tort, but in some cases (esp. when the conduct is willful) it may be a crime. 2. A misrepresentation made recklessly without belief in its truth to induce another person to act. 3. A tort arising from a knowing misrepresentation, concealment of material fact, or reckless misrepresentation to induce another to act to his or her detriment. 4. Unconscionable dealing; esp. in contract law, the unfair use of the power arising out of the parties’ relative positions and resulting in an unconscionable bargain” (“Fraud” 2005: 548)

(7) Such has been the response to the German art forger Wolfgang Beltracchi, who in 2011 was convicted of defrauding Sotheby’s, Christie’s, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a series of influential collectors who included Steve Martin. To the public, the large sums of money forgotten, the fraudster emerges as some kind of hero, a hoaxter on the side of common sense—to the frustration of the German police and prosecutors.

(8) Uncertain standards and public desires conspired in the greatest forgery disaster of the twentieth century. Early in the twentieth century the Dutch forger Han van Meegeren discovered an astonishing number of Vermeers and sold them to an art world hungry for this newly rediscovered great Dutch artist. The works, however, were van Meegeren’s own forgeries. But what was accepted as an authentic Vermeer back then, looks much like a travesty now—the works seem clumsy, betraying an ignorance of Vermeer’s style (even his early style). In retrospect, the van Meegeren forgeries (which would eventually involve not just the institutional art world, but also Hermann Goering, and a spectacular post-war treason trial) have the appearance of a hoax on an art world that wanted to believe too much.

(9) For an account of the early twentieth-century struggle over the place and definition of rhetoric in culture, see Peter Howarth’s (2005) British Poetry in the Age of Modernism.

(10) In “The Sociology and Psychology of Hoaxes” Marcello Truzzi cites Barton Whaley to enunciate a taxonomy of deception: “(1) dissimulation (hiding the real) and (2) simulation (showing the false). Under dissumulation he includes: (a) masking (hiding the real by making it invisible), (b) repackaging (hiding the real by disguising), and (c) dazzling (hiding the real by confusion). Under simulation he included (a) mimicking (showing the false through imitation), (b) inventing (showing the false by displaying a different reality), and c) decoying (showing the false by diverting attention)” (1993: 293)

(11) In law, this obvious culpability raises the question of whether the deceptive action ought indeed to be considered a fraud: “A misrepresentation as to a fact the truth or falsehood of which the other party has an opportunity of ascertaining, or the concealment of a matter which a person of ordinary sense, vigilance, or skill might discover, does not in law constitute fraud” (“Fraud,” Bouvier’s Law Dictionary 1305 [1984]). In other words, if you think you just bought the Brooklyn Bridge, you’re on your own.

(12) The harsh language of some of their fraud accusation at times suggests an evocation for such writers of what Pierre Bourdieu terms “doxa:” “[I]n the extreme case, that is to say, where there is a quasi-perfect correspondence between the objective order and the subjective principles of organization (as in ancient societies) the natural and social world appears as self-evident. This experience we shall call doxa, so as to distinguish it from an orthodox or heterodox belief implying awareness and recognition of the possibility of different or antagonistic beliefs” (1977: 164).

(13) The balance of journalistic evidence seems to suggest, however, that it was just the paintings that suffered this fate, that the students were persuaded by the police to eliminate the hanging in effigy of Matisse. As it is, the wit of the whole performance was ponderous enough—brutalizing Matisse’s effigy would have been overkill.

(14) Excerpts from these reviews are printed as blurbs at the back of Savage’s 1922 Richard Middleton: the Man and His Work (London: Cecil Palmer).