————-—If you cannot learn to love real art, at least learn to hate sham art and reject it.
————-—There are many sham diamonds in this life which pass for real.
————————–——William Makepeace Thackeray
————-—Being has become mere appearing.
Sham the First: Beckford’s Folly
IN 1813, THE NOUVEAU RICHE BRITISH MILLIONAIRE William Beckford completed the infamous Fonthill Abbey, a palatial residence then the largest in the world. Its structure involved neither font, nor hill, nor abbey, though it was in the environs of the anciently named village of Fonthill Gifford, once the site of a spring. In appearance, Beckford’s palace mimicked a Gothic cathedral: the great central spire recalled the churches at Ulm or Vézelay; the tall, flat facade recalled parts of Orvieto or Rouen; vast east and west wings evoked the arms of a gargantuan cross. But the building was, of course, secular to a fault, and much of its stonework was really plaster. In 1825, its brittle tower collapsed. It has lain a ruin ever since.
“Beckford’s Folly,” as the mansion was called, is a classic example of sham. It was authentic in neither spirit nor substance: meretricious sacredness veneered a structure of low integrity. When its spire crumbled, destroying half the building with it, locals murmured that Beckford had gotten his just deserts. Falsehoods like that couldn’t be allowed to stand—at least, not for long. The disaster was a form of justice.
The word sham, perhaps derived from shame, apparently emerged in the late seventeenth century. Succinct and cynical, it has a Shakespearean flair, but Shakespeare himself seems to have predated the word. It was coined to label specimens of low trickery and deception: falsified documents, fraudulent treasures, and, later, cunning and inauthentic human actors.
By the early nineteenth century, in the era we call Romantic, sham was associated not only with wickedness but (perhaps worse) with bad taste. It was anathema—disgusting!—to aesthetes like William Morris and Oscar Wilde, who (from their very different political perspectives) agreed that honesty and transparency were paramount virtues and that good art had to be honest, whatever else it may be. Moreover, this honesty, this fearless authenticity, was not just the province of words and stories; it should extend to the treatment of matter. Thus it was not only bad to feign, say, religiosity or propriety for self-serving reasons; it was also bad to declare that plaster was stone, or that painted tin was fine china. Labels should never seek to overwrite substance, for reasons practical as well as spiritual. For one thing, substance was obstinate and would always show its true colors. But second and more importantly, substance was glorious! Its glimmering, granular properties should not be overlooked.
Sham, then, occurred when form did not follow function. It was the province of hucksters touting miracle cures, crafty sellers of paste diamonds, and mountebanks making love to rich old women. All these things presented a false face. Morris and Wilde, sensitive and intelligent men, saw sham everywhere—even, perhaps, where others didn’t notice it (or chose to ignore it). Its asymmetries grated on their fine sensibilities. And though both Morris and Wilde were frauds themselves sometimes, they never ceased to call out sham. Even the contradictions within themselves, it seems, spurred them to sharper critique of the filigreed fakery of early industrial England.
For the next century or so, avant-garde culture, in the footsteps of Morris and Wilde, would set itself against sham. Modern writers fearlessly plumbed ever-inkier depths of confession and self-disclosure. Musicians and dancers embraced improvisation, emotive gestures, cathartic and dissonant crescendos. Modern artists channeled soul through expressive marriages of inspiration and medium (viscous paint, gnarled wood, shearing stone), such that each flowed with the other and divulged hidden properties.
Today this earnest pursuit of harmonic, stacked, angsty authenticities (in spark, structure, substance) feels old-fashioned and almost distastefully ascetic. That’s because it’s difficult. Unyielding. Overserious and often humorless. The hopes of this late Romantic project (which extended, I think, into the mid-twentieth century) were dashed by pop art prophets like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Jasper Johns, whose work glossed America’s increasingly shameless celebration of “fake,” manufactured consumer culture. Warhol was easy, glib, and funny. So was Roy Lichtenstein, with his comic-book appropriations, and the British artist Richard Hamilton, who made witty and titillating collages from magazine ads. Though the Warhol generation tinged its pop-culture commentary with an existential darkness, its successors would not be so ambivalent. Contemporary artists like Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami (and, I would say, architects and designers like the ultra-artificial Frank Gehry and the Shoplifter collective) seem to embrace the consumerist fantasy with all-in exuberance.
Still, the severe honesty of late Romantic aesthetes like Morris and Wilde has its adherents. They wait, their earnest brows furrowed, for a turn of the tide. Maybe they sit wet-eyed in darkened theaters or symphony halls, relishing the finest specimens of the flautist’s, or violinist’s, or pianist’s art (keeping in mind the range and emotional potential of each instrument). Or maybe they gape in abandoned museums, searching rivulets of paint for the undeniable, crystalline structures of a secret, stubborn universe joining liquid and mind. Or maybe they wander through ancient temples, amid hordes of selfie-stick-wielding tourists, examining arabesque-like patterns and the rhythms of compound columns, marveling at ancient artisans’ feel for different personalities of stone. Convinced of the virtue of their position, they wait for their day to come again.
Sham the Second: Three Graces
In my office hangs a drypoint etching by Pablo Picasso titled The Three Graces. The drypoint printing method is renowned for its ability to generate mass-produced authenticity in both form and spirit. In this, it is paradoxical. To make a drypoint, the artist uses a diamond-tipped stylus to firmly draw, with true but forceful spontaneity, on a soft metal plate—often copper. The stylus smoothly etches the yielding surface, creating a design that exactly reproduces the artist’s flowing strokes. Unlike engravings or woodblock prints, which required laborious incisions into the printing matrix, and which often separated the role of artist from the role of plate-carver, the drypoint print was a true, autographic work of a sovereign, uncompromising creator. In early modernity, it became prized for its ability to multiply and distribute the traces of “authentic” genius in a pliable medium well-suited to gestural élan.
Pablo Picasso, who loved both dabbling in all kinds of media and propagating his personal brand, was a natural fit for drypoint. Over the course of his life, in fact, he designed hundreds of drypoints; it was his preferred mass-production method until he discovered the even more gestural technique of lithography late in his career, where the hand and spirit could dance with even greater spontaneity.
The drypoint print in my office comes from a plate etched by Picasso in the 1920s, arguably his most poetic and iconic period of printmaking. During this time, Picasso indulged his love for Greco-Roman mythology with elegant, voluptuous, almost classical forms that nevertheless coursed with a liquid simplicity that was distinctively modern. The most esteemed of these would come to be called the Vollard prints, curated by the famous dealer Ambroise Vollard, and would be sought after by museums. My print is in this vein.
But my print is marred, puzzlingly but faintly, by a giant X. The arms of this X extend from corner to corner, bisecting the torsos of the Graces on left and right. Its center hovers right above the middle Grace’s right knee. It is faint, indeed, but impossible to miss once you have seen it. It is a spider-web barrier to immersion in the Graces’ Elysian world.
What does this mean, this X?
It means my Picasso has been canceled.
When mass-market printing was invented in the 1400s, no one really thought of canceling—or deliberately marring—printer’s plates. Plates were used until they were worn out—or until demand dried up. After all, the medium was new—and spectacular. A plate was a treasured resource, and publishers and artists alike wanted to extract as much from them as possible.
However, with the eventual establishment of intellectual property law and a bona fide art market, plate canceling became a common practice. It evolved to both safeguard artistic intention and to create valuable limited editions of prints. Artists consigned their plates to publishers, who inked, pressed, and distributed the artist’s design. The artist oversaw quality control, determining how many prints could be extracted from a plate before the design lost its integrity. Sometimes, of course, artist and printmaker colluded to keep numbers small, making their commodity rare.
Consequently, once a plate was declared spent by the artist, it was incised with an X and either discarded or archived. This meant that further prints from the canceled plate would wear their ignominy like Hester Prynne’s A. They would be known as faithless and false: the work, perhaps, of cunning pillagers, or unscrupulous publishers violating the terms of their employment. Accordingly, the canceled versions of my print, though designed by Picasso, are simply labeled “after Picasso” by many dealers and connoisseurs. The market is not comfortable declaring canceled prints to be the real thing.
Like Beckford’s plaster “cathedral,” is my Picasso etching a sham?
Unlike Beckford’s Folly, an artless pastiche, my print is indeed a faithful record of an artist’s (a famous artist’s) design, bearing real, complex traces of a deeply felt creative process. The paper I own was pressed intimately, comprehensively, insistently, against a metal plate that Picasso himself rubbed with his fingers and lovingly carved with a diamond-tipped pen. I can see the long strokes of Picasso’s hand tracing the stretched back of the rightmost Grace, skimming her buttocks and descending into her thigh. (Picasso was renowned for long, confident strokes from which he never lifted his hand.) I can see the faint, hatched scratches on ankle and breast where he labored to render effects of shade.
Yet…Picasso never meant for my print to exist. He had declared the plate spent before my impression was made. Perhaps the matrix had lost its fineness, like an aged penny. Or perhaps Picasso simply wanted the motif to end. No more Three Graces—of this kind anyway. Maybe Picasso had moved on.
So, my print is a sham—but a half-honest one. In substance, at least, it does have some authenticity, pulsing darkly from a surface overworn by time. In spirit, however, its deception is clear. This is especially true because, most egregiously, my print was made two years after Picasso’s death, in an extravagant edition of fifteen hundred, by a moneymaking scheme dubbed the “Collector’s Guild of America,” which sniffed out low-risk, low-profile canceled plates from a range of famous artists: Diego Velásquez, Georges Rouault, Salvador Dalí. In 1986, the CGOA was even suspected of fraud, passing off forgeries as real.
My Picasso, then, exists on a sham continuum. And it seems aware of the fact. It looks out from my wall, embarrassed, like Eve banished from the garden, hotly aware it has fallen from—yes—grace.
Which makes me wonder?
Was the postlapsarian Eve a sham of her former self?
Sham the Third: The Author
Speaking of former selves: in December 2019, as I celebrated the holidays with my family, I had two breasts and long, golden-brown hair that extended halfway down my back.
In February 2020, after a Christmas Eve diagnosis, I had one breast and short, oily, brittle hair that fell like pine needles from my scaly head. Like a canceled plate, I had become marred, permanently scarred, my former appearance slashed. Had I become a sham?
I had cancer, and it changed me. It changed me spiritually and intellectually, first and foremost. But it also changed me physically, in a thousand ways. Chemotherapy triggered premature menopause by killing off my ovarian reserve. This set in motion a range of psychological and physical reactions, as well as a fundamental reconsideration of my womanly identity. Medications made me swell, flush, and gain weight. My complexion grew paler, and my hair became dark—almost black. And then, of course, there was that missing breast, now replaced by a smooth, nipple-less expanse reminiscent (at least on that side) of the sunken chest of a consumptive Victorian boy.
I remember looking at a photo taken shortly after my treatment was completed, where I sat side-by-side with my three- and seven-year-old daughters. I hardly recognized myself. My face was strangely plump, capped by short, dark “chemo curls.” My eyebrows had only just begun to grow in and looked pencil-thin, as if I were (at least in that respect) trying to channel some plucked and painted silent-movie star. My skin was pale, sallow, and poreless.
I didn’t look grotesque, really. I wasn’t a monster. I just looked like a different person. No longer myself.
What does it mean for a human to be a sham of her former self? Does it mean anything at all? Is it possible for a person to be a mere faded copy of herself, in the way my Picasso print is a faded copy of an earlier, more authentic original? Can a person, surgically augmented or transformed, begin to approximate Beckford’s Folly, whose plaster towers echoed earlier towers of stone? And if I am a copy, a sham, of my former self, does that assume that somewhere, perhaps in the mind of God, there is an ideal me from which I’ve diverged? Does she, wispy and angelic, look down upon me with eternally youthful but judging eyes?
Had the postlapsarian Eve become divorced from some essential Eve that somehow preceded her, persisted in spite of her, and passively condemned her, as she hid from her strolling God, naked, thorn-pricked, and fiercely ashamed?
Questions like these are central to our time—a time of relentless self-fashioning and refashioning according to ideals, archetypes, stereotypes. These are lodestars, fixed yet ephemeral, existing only, perhaps, in striving imaginations. These ideals are like restless, chthonic gods stirring from long, deathlike sleeps, now to be reborn. Or maybe they are angelic spirits (both good and evil), emerging at last from the shadow realm where they have jousted for centuries unseen. Sometimes they point us toward the sublime transcendent, so that we bow with courtly humility and piously, innocently, wholesomely put on our Sunday best in celebration. (In an earlier essay I called this an aesthetics of lack.) Other times, they are lies given to torment us, telling us we are not good enough and bidding us to hide behind ever more elaborate façades.
Sham the Fourth: Liquid Promises
Sham is, by definition, an appearance. It exists in and for the eye of the beholder, and it has no regard for substance. It wishes, rather, to obscure or overwrite substance; it wishes to seize substance’s birthright, enjoying its inheritance, without the hard work of giving birth to a deep, integrated, bloody, cellular self.
The pop art era’s celebration of sham was (I think) dissonantly prophetic. Wealthy, confident, and glitzy postwar America promised full participation in the fruits of capitalist empire at the low, low price of proper social coding. “Fake it till you make it” was a proverb. The suit, it was said, could really make the man. In the liquid, cosmopolitan world of global business, anyone could be anything if they played the game. And the game was a game of signals. All one had to do was be in the know. (Such is the way with all empires, worldwide, from the beginning until now, which almost by definition replace local traditions and embodied lifeways with standardized “techniques.”)
By garishly manifesting absurd endpoints in the high-promising, modernist pursuit of effective self-coding (think Hamilton’s candy-wielding bodybuilder of 1956, or Warhol’s neon-tinted Marilyns), the pop art generation exposed the naïveté of respectable striver culture. The right outlines and the brightest colors didn’t matter, one realized, if there was nothing stable underneath. In this respect, tragic burnouts like Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe were perfect subjects for pop art irony. Their fleshly lives, finally annihilated by devouring personae, eloquently proved the point.
Sham the Fifth: Chthonic Gods
Thus the severe priests of authenticity have watched and waited. Their vocation, it turns out, is a scientific one that loves measurements, microscopes, and plain dealing. Plaster is not stone. Tin is not porcelain. Silicone is not mammary gland, and a canceled print is not, exactly, an original.
But none of these assertions is a true negation. For then a new discourse follows: what is plaster in itself, and how are its qualities best manifested? What is tin in itself, and what can its flat shine divulge? What is silicone, that paragon of malleability, translucent, smooth, and jellylike, vaguely aerodynamic, one feels, shearing through successive forms like water in the wind? These questions are worth asking, for substance—all substance—is full of glory. Sham obscures some things in pursuit of others; in doing so, it wrongly assumes a zero-sum game.
So what am I, in myself—a woman who has undergone cancer and its treatments; miscarriages, infertility, menstruation, and childbirths; abandonments, sharp instructions, deserved punishments; baits and switches, miraculous healings and forever woundings? What am I, in myself? I am not the cold goddess of my younger self, wrinkling her nose at all the traces of decline. I am not some ineffable thing, a will-o’-the-wisp, that the platform of my body strives to grasp that it might find some elusive fulfillment; nor am I simply “mother” or “wife” or “professor” according to received social codes. No: I am rather the sum total of my gradual becoming, as ordained and allowed by God, achieving in myself a complex, harmonic, stacked and slow authenticity that, in the end, will crystalize some facet of the infinite—some facet of a God who broke himself into shards that he might behold and adore each one forever.
Sham is subtractive, covering and erasing, waving misdirecting hands (abracadabra!) in pursuit of illusion. But beauty, I think, is the “splendor of being” (as the followers of Aquinas have written), and it finds its highest form in the embrace of natural harmonics, quirks and complexities. If we grow impatient with being, covering it up, it is because we demand simplifications, instant gratifications, that feed the sloth of spirits no longer able to rise.
Sham is subtractive, but I, a being, am aggregate. Creation is aggregate. Human creativity is, in its deepest dynamics, aggregate and productive. Let us ornament ourselves, yes, but not toward the end of erasure. Let our adornments extend our penumbrae, our enveloping souls, into the ether that melts into heaven, stacking glory upon glory as cell and organ, skin and fur, aura and crown. Let us radiate the Life that animates all.
Yet: ever bloodthirsty and cruel are certain chthonic gods. Once, after Eden, they sprang (it seemed) from the ground. They hoped to drown out the earth’s own lumpen voice with shortcut promises at once glamorous, diademed, and embalmed. They said to ruthless ancient kings: give me hearts and I will make you gods. They said to ash-faced shamans: slit some throats, drain the blood, and I will give you power. They say to each of us: erase yourselves and we will give you glorious substitutes. These are nothing but fallen angels, it turns out, sent to tempt us from the narrow path: the via crucis awaiting every soul.
Beckford’s Folly was a ruin from its conception: a Frankenstein’s monster of other things, older and more sacred, whose haloes it aimed to steal and hoard. It spoke into the ruin of postindustrial England, a place of shattered traditions, estrangement from the land and tremendous social upheaval. When its tower collapsed, however, the Folly was a sham no more. Now its appearance bespoke its true substance. Today, it is a melancholy relic in the English countryside, attracting pilgrims who admire it crumbling walls. It has been made an honest dame.
Sham in its full flush, meanwhile, quails at the frankness of ruin—ruin owned and accepted. It quails at the fate that will meet us all. It says: “you are young forever”; “you can be whatever you dream”; “flesh and matter must bow to you”; “the shaping will is all.” Yet corruptible flesh is meek and lowly of heart, and so (as the Gospels say) it is blessed. Its mulishness is a check on our quasi-demonic will to power, our satanic and infantile demands for instant-everything-winningest-best. My own flesh is a ruin—a noble ruin, by God’s grace. And it is also my kind companion, my Brother Ass (to use Saint Francis’s phrase), that sags and plods in its constant march toward humility, where humility is not self-abasement but rather surrender to a greater love.
I like to think of Whitby Abbey, sometimes, on the Yorkshire moors, the wind blowing through its great arches, the moor grass licking its ancient piers. It is open to the sky now, and its weathered stones are crumbling. It no longer pretends to magnificence—but the sunlit air around it whispers of eternity. Its bricks, their fine texture picked out in westering light, bear marks of smoke from centuries; its soil holds treasures of wax and cloth and bone. Its beautiful dilapidation was not hasty or surgical but dignified and hard won.
Authenticity is perilous, and late modernity has hated it. The demons, especially, hate it with a slavering hate. For true authenticity is nothing but unfurling martyrdom: a martyrdom that “fills up in the flesh” the creaks and groans of the whole universe in its slow becoming. Here, on this dolorous road, the stubborn redemption of everything, under the sign of the wounded God, proceeds apace through all the eons. And so it will be, relentless and grinding, mountains falling and rising, seas lapping and churning, until the full measure (as the prophets promised) has come in. Amen and Amen.
Katie Kresser is a professor of art history and visual studies at Seattle Pacific University. Her work focuses on art theory, modern and postmodern art, and the intersection of material culture with theology, religious practice, and anthropology. Her books include the award-winning Bezalel’s Body (Wipf and Stock).