‘To censure an artist for forgery is to confuse an ethical with an aesthetical problem.’ Oscar Wilde.

Sam Leach recently caused a fuss by winning the Wynne Prize for Australian landscape painting with a work that replicated a 17th century Dutch painting, Adam Pynacker’s Boatmen Moored on the Shore of a Lake, but with the figures removed. The work caused mixed reactions in the art world and the newspapers, which splashed the story across front pages around the nation – not a common fate for artworks in Australia where mainstream papers usually couldn’t give a flying Albert Tucker about landscape painting.

People were variously outraged that $25,000 went to a sneaky copy cat, that Leach didn’t reference his source, that a non-Australian landscape won a prize for Australian landscape painting and that the judges didn’t have the expertise to recognise it as a copy, homage, quotation, fraud or hoax – depending on your position.

The incident raises interesting questions about authenticity in art and what a real work of art is, ethical questions of attribution and an artist’s responsibility to the audience and questions about how we appraise a work of art.

The idea of a fake work of art is interesting. It implicitly suggests there is such a thing as a real or authentic work of art. The bluster about how terrible and harmful fakes are is partly a way of bolstering the fairly flimsy idea of ‘real art’.

These questions come to the fore whenever there is a hoax or deception of some sort in the art world. Simon Caterson’s recent book, Hoax Nation: Australian Fakes and Frauds, from Plato to Norma Khouri, gives a wonderful tour of some of the artistic world’s most successful and disastrous deceptions in and about Australia over the last two millennia.

Hoaxes may be thought of as a particular kind of fraud with their own set of rules, although distinctions between hoaxes and other deceptions are slippery. A pure artistic hoax, though, is not lucrative and is always intended to be found out. The entire point of an artistic hoax is to sell the self-styled emperors of literature the non-existent clothes, then point and laugh as they march down the street in them.

Caterson makes the point that hoaxes can ‘intentionally or unintentionally expose sham and hypocrisy and false values in general.’ Of the ‘hoaxes’ Caterson deals with, very few are idealistic ones that intend to be found out. More commonly, the hoaxes seem grubby attempts to make a quid, or else old-fashioned orientalism projecting a fascination with sexuality or cannibalism or – insert taboo – on a fabricated Other.

Hoax Nation includes an array of frauds: 19th century publishing scams selling fake accounts of life in the new and terrifyingly barbaric colony, written from the comfort of a London home; accounts of the Chinese experience in Australia, written by enterprising European Australian scribblers; myths about bunyips and other fabulous animals. There are also some interesting non-artistic hoaxes about magic potions, such as UNIQUE water, which ‘cured’ any ailment without so much as a homeopathic treatment and which was sold at exorbitant rates to queues of credulous Australians.

Caterson has little room in this pocket-sized book for analysis of what makes a hoax (and, from what he has included, his definition is broad), but in a rare contemplative moment he suggests:

Hoaxes originate in response to a demand, or are created to fill a perceived gap in culture (in the 1980s and 90s, there’s little doubt the advent of multiculturalism coincided with a proliferation of ethnic and indigenous identity frauds in the arts, especially literature – impostors, in particular, flourish when we regard the background and identity of the singer as being as important as the song).

Norma Khouri and Helen Demidenko/Darville, as well as falsifiers of indigenous artworks for lucrative markets overseas, spring to mind as examples of pinching cultural cachet to sell your work.

If particular places and times provide richer environments for hoaxes to flourish, then, given the title Hoax Nation, Caterson presumably sees Australia as a particularly fecund environment. The fact that an entire book can be devoted to our hoaxes can be seen as an argument in favour of this idea, but it would be interesting to know why he thinks this might be the case.

If it is true that we have more hoaxes than elsewhere, what might it reveal about our culture? Is our cultural establishment easy to hoax, or are we good hoaxers? Does it reflect our uncertainty about our cultural identity and our art world’s desperate celebration of received European cultures, or is it a sort of literary larrikinism ­– another avenue for the oft-referenced tall poppy syndrome? It is also worth pondering why we are so keen to rebuke fakers of artworks for what are undeniably creative acts.

One problem is that hoaxes are so various. There are obvious artistic and ethical differences between the racism of the Demidenko affair and Gwen Harwood’s pair of poems published under the male pseudonym Walter Lehmann in the Bulletin, which acrostically read FUCK ALL EDITORS (who would have thought acrostics could be subversive?).

The greatest example of an idealistic hoax – and the most famous hoax in Australia’s history – is the Ern Malley affair, in which conservative poets Harold Stewart and James McAuley aimed to debunk the ‘bosh, blah and blather’ of modern poetry, as the Bulletin charmingly put it at the time. The Malley poems were written using random phrases, lines and words from a dictionary, military pamphlets, a collected Shakespeare and whatever books happened to be lying around in an afternoon. The whole saga was so incredible that when Michael Heyward wrote his wonderful account, The Ern Malley Affair, an English copy editor thought the book was a ‘dashing and unusual work of fiction, itself a hoax that had fooled the august house of Faber & Faber, which believed that this book was based on actual events’.

Despite being revealed as a hoax, the Malley poems still resonate and have been taken up and creatively reused by Peter Carey in the novel My Life as a Fake, a series of poems by John Tranter, and paintings by Sidney Nolan and Albert Tucker – and the poems are still available as a collection. They were reprinted in the Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry (1991) as a postmodern masterpiece ahead of their time. Max Harris, who published the poems, was taken in by the hoax – at least in part – because he was so keen to find an ‘authentic Australian modernist’ in the European mould.

So where does Sam Leach’s Wynne-winning painting fit into all of this?

One option is to defend the work as a legitimate quotation. The title, Proposal for Landscaped Cosmos, is interesting. The word ‘landscaped’ here suggests ‘altered’ or ‘having been manipulated’. It presents ‘landscape’ as something we do, rather than a place or something to look at. Australia’s landscape, courtesy of our colonial history, has been altered (or landscaped) to fit with Eurocentric conceptions of beauty and idealised nature, something which is not lost on Leach.

‘Where I grew up in the Adelaide Hills,’ Leach said in The Age, ‘was a really good example of that, because it was all planted through with European trees and the gardens sculpted to resemble these paintings. So it’s kind of funny, in looking at those 17th century Dutch paintings I thought “Those are the landscapes I grew up with”, even though I was growing up in Australia.’ This defence of Proposal is certainly possible, but it doesn’t explain why Leach did not reference Pynacker’s work – his explanation that it would overly colour the interpretation of the work is a possibility, but seems fairly flimsy.

The question of what makes a real work of art is always fraught – perhaps especially in Australia, where we are often uneasy with our own culture and also feel alienated from our European past. In the end, the debate sparked by Leach’s painting is far more interesting than the work itself, and may even have been the artist’s ultimate goal. Leach is no stranger to controversy – a few years ago he made headlines with his contender for the Archibald prize, a self portrait as Adolf Hitler – and it is reasonable to suspect he wanted the duplication to be discovered. For his part, Leach told The Age he entered the piece knowing what he was doing and welcomes the public debate.

Publisher: Arcade Publications
ISBN: 9780980436747
RRP: $18

Daniel Fox has worked as a journalist and driven a truck moving furniture around in Melbourne.