Mark Landis and the art of freedom
Mark Landis walks with a lumping, purposeful stride, a steep hump, and a sad look. His clothes hang a little loose, but like his beard, they are neat. He is skinnier than he ought to be. In his jacket pocket there is a cough-syrup bottle that he fills with alcohol to drink before he meets people. Sometimes he poses as a philanthropist, sometimes a priest. His story is less analogous to fiction than to the hidden lives of Joseph Mitchell’s profiles. He has been written about in the Financial Times, New York Times, and The Art Newspaper. For decades he donated plagiarised works of art to small museums across the USA. Some of them declined his donations; many did not.
Landis never committed any crime. He took no money. He was pursued for years by Matthew Leininger, who worked at one of the galleries where Landis donated. Eventually, because nothing could be done to stop Landis, an exhibition was set up to expose his work. The result has been that, ten years later, Landis has recently had an exhibition of his own, original, work.
Landis has many mental health troubles. As a teenager spent eighteen months in a psychiatric hospital and was diagnosed with several serious disorders, including schizophrenia. Throughout the documentary Art and Craft he is mourning his mother. Even the way he paints with the television always on, always playing something classic, something from his childhood, is like a form of nostalgia that’s indistinguishable from grief.
He told The Art Newspaper recently about the realisation he had when his new show was put on, “I could just become a real artist, which never really occurred to me.” His story has often been framed as right and wrong, good and bad, of forgeries and plagiarism. Here’s how Landis was first written about:
Museums and universities across the US are being targeted by a suspected art forger who has tried to donate works, complete with auction house records, that the museums now believe to be fakes
And Leininger, the man who made Landis’ exposure possible, saw it all in similarly black and white terms.
My dream would be to get all these works from all the different museums, host an exhibition in his name and invite him as the guest of honour. Then he’d really have heart problems.
That exhibition happened. Landis was hosted as guest of honour. In the hotel room before he arrived he was nervous. A man who spent his life sitting in a cluttered and squalid flat making swift and compelling copies of art works, who turned up at galleries and acted the part of a man whose mother or sister was dead and had left some pictures in their will, who did all of this to soothe his loneliness, his inability to hold a steady job, his lost chances as an artist, his grief, his series of psychiatric disorders that made life difficult for him, was about to be exposed. His Camel cigarette made him feel faint. He hadn’t eaten properly. He felt dizzy. And yet, when he got in there, after swigging from his cough syrup bottle, dressed the part in a red patterned scarf, he was a star. He quoted the film Dracula. He complimented people. He told stories. He worked the room. It was like he did this all the time. He seemed happy, at ease almost. You can see it all in Art and Craft. Best of all, he didn’t have heart problems, he ended up having a new career as an artist.
The truth is, this is not one of those stories of opposites, moral and personal, black and white. Leininger and Landis are remarkable similar. They are both obsessives; they are both slightly maladjusted to their work because of their obsessions. Leininger was let-go from his art gallery position for pursuing the Landis case too strongly, he implies. Make of that what you will. It suggests to me the same thing that the framing of the Landis story suggests: people in the art world sometimes lack imagination. Landis was dishonest. But the curators were bad at their jobs.
Whose fault is it that these curators accepted, and sometimes displayed, works of art later considered to be fraudulent? If we accept the argument that what Landis did was wrong because it tricks or deceives people into accepting his pictures as something they believe to be something else, it must surely matter, and perhaps matter quite significantly, that most of the people who looked at the picture couldn’t tell that it wasn’t the real thing. “I should have looked at it more closely,” one of the curators says in the documentary.
The problem is not that Landis replicated art works. If he stayed at home doing that, no-one would object to his “plagiarism”. It is the public presentation of these works as being by other artists that raises the moral concern. That is as much the responsibility of the curator as of Landis. He displayed great skill and acuity. This is not the unskilled plagiarism of copy-and-paste. They were the ones lacking in ability. Perhaps they are the real plagiarists, passing off what he told them as the truth.
A lot of what got exposed in Art and Craft was not Landis. Landis knew he was wrong. He told the Art Newspaper he felt more like a crook than an artist. What got exposed were the people who accepted his work, for whatever reason. And the reasons are weak. Gifts aren’t scrutinised as much as purchases. He knew all the right things to say. His works are really very convincing (if you don’t examine them scrupulously. These are excuses, not reasons. Only one person in these exchanges was paid to use professional judgement about the art they accepted for their gallery.
Landis had no other outlet for his talent, so he believed. He had learned young at Sunday school that you have to make the most of your gift, and after a series of set-backs — art school was of little use, he couldn’t keep his job for more than two weeks, he had an almost desperate need to please and impress his mother after his father died when he was seventeen — this was how he used his gift.
Many people at that expose exhibition encouraged him to make work of his own. But he already had. Many artists live somewhere between the truth and fiction. Many of them lie to journalists, put on a pose to the world, use performance art to control their public image. The fact that Landis took this to the lengths of gifting his copies to museums who couldn’t identify them as copies is less a cause for outrage about plagiarism and more an invitation to ask — is plagiarism a moral absolute?
There are many other ways Landis’ life could have gone. He might be lucky not to have been kept in a medical facility. He takes medication and sees doctors. But it wouldn’t take much for his life to be significantly less within his control. As it is, he is able to be self-directed, self-determining. Why is it that when someone like this appears — “odd” as one of the curators describes him and with a strange but undeniable talent — it has to become a moral mission to expose him?
Landis wasn’t practising plagiarism. He was a performance artist and a mimic who worked on the art of freedom. He kept himself steady and productive, despite his many challenges. “What else are you going to do, you know? You just sit and watch television”. Many people without his problems do indeed just sit and watch television. Perhaps more of them would be better off as plagiarists.
All artists imitate. Walk around any art gallery and you will see art students sketching the paintings. Most of them move on after learning the techniques. Landis went too far. For many reasons, he never quite graduated to “honest” art. I’m not saying what he did was fine. But it also wasn’t the usual plagiarism. Landis was a late bloomer.
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