No film fan can forget the scene in Woody Allen's Manhattan (1979) in which two pseudo-intellectual New Yorkers, played by Michael Murphy and Diane Keaton, enumerate the members of their "Academy of the Overrated": Norman Mailer, Scott Fitzgerald, Lenny Bruce, Gustav Mahler, Heinrich Böll, Ingmar Bergman, Carl Jung, Walt Whitman, Isak Dinesen, possibly Sol LeWitt.
Allen's character, Isaac, a self-involved but earnest television writer, is particularly dismayed by their inclusion of Vincent van Gogh – pronounced, notoriously, "van Goch"
"Van Goch?" he mouths incredulously to his girlfriend. "She said van Goch?"
Van Gogh has been sneer fodder for snobs longer than most. Critic Carl Steinem, commenting on the craze for his work in the early 1920s, condemned the work as "petit-bourgeois kitsch" with "the likeness of a collectively minded idiot."
Then and now, denunciations seem only to fuel an enduring, outsized popularity. Three of the highest prices ever paid for art were fetched by van Gogh's work, even as blockbuster shows continue to create queues down the blocks of every city with an art gallery.
Posters of his paintings regularly outsell every other artist, to the point of being a dorm-room nuisance – for God's sake, hang something else! – and his visage, name, story and signature now adorn everything from high-end liquor to banks.
This ubiquity has a non-cash price, namely that, precisely because we see the works everywhere, it's no longer possible for us to see them. The startling vividness of van Gogh's vision, the madness, the tragic impoverished death at 37 with just one work sold, no longer have the antagonistic power of a century ago.
Philosopher Karl Jaspers: "I could not help feeling that van Gogh was the only truly great and unwillingly 'insane' person among so many who pretended to be insane but are really all too normal." Nowadays, van Gogh is no longer even an authentic madman; he is, instead, a textbook case of cultural over-determination, strangled by his own success.
Modris Eksteins's subtle and engaging new book offers an account of how this came to be, and in telling it, Eksteins bestows a great gift: new strangeness. In 56 short sections, each linked to a van Gogh work, he interweaves the large fabric of culture, politics and money with the small, indeed pedestrian tale of a dancer turned art dealer who, in 1927, was arrested for the crime of offering 30 forged van Goghs for sale. The dealer, Otto Wacker – also known by various stage names and pseudonyms – was, in Eksteins's phrase, a "twentieth-century mutant": chancer, fabulist, romantic, a homosexual who joined the Nazi party, a dancer who leaped around the truth as well as the stage.
Wacker, in common with many talented men and women of Germany's Weimar period, found interregnum Berlin an irresistible playground for stimulation and self-creation. "Berlin was crazy, debauched, metropolitan, anonymous, gargantuan, futuristic," one Viennese writer said, "an infernal cesspool and paradise in one." The combination of freedom and anonymity – the "metropolitan attitude" that sociologist Georg Simmel had identified as early as 1903 – would have lasting effect not just on these people but on the century's course. Painters, writers, architects, philosophers and frauds of all types flocked to the wide-open, decadent city that would later host the extended madness, the violent "solar dance," of Hitler's Third Reich.
The Weimar Republic, Eksteins writes here, "was installation art on a grand scale, a fantastic panorama of commotion, imagination, and violence, literal and figurative, fuelled by a never-ending sense of emergency. Hitler and National Socialism were as much a product of Weimar as were Walter Gropius's architecture, Fritz Lang's films, and Marlene Dietrich's legs."
Eksteins tells his story in a suitably looping and layered manner, with many darts and artful reverses, using a range of knowledge and allusion reminiscent of his 1989 masterpiece, Rites of Spring. At its heart is the Wacker trial, where the young dealer insisted on his innocence and repeatedly refused to name the Russian émigré, living in Switzerland, from whom he had acquired the alleged van Goghs. This story, the presiding judge later said, might have been taken from a "bad society novel of the prewar period." Wacker was convicted, but the source of the forged paintings never discovered.
More startling, and damaging, was the expert reaction. Berlin's intellectuals, in a welter of enthusiasm for van Gogh, claimed that, despite his Dutch origins and French residencies, the painter "must become the model for the new German art." Several high-ranking curators, critics and museum directors had initially authenticated the forgeries – only five would survive later scrutiny – only to reverse themselves, sometimes more than once. A newspaper columnist covering the trial noted that "[w]at the experts are currently doing would make poor van Gogh, were he able to look down from the clouds, lose his mind all over again."
They were doing more than destroying their professional reputations. As Eksteins argues, their bickering testimony inadvertently dismantled the very idea of artistic authenticity. By my count, four distinct kinds of expert testimony were deployed during the trial: the traditional ones of provenance and literary evidence such as notes or letters confirming the existence of works; but also, and in direct conflict, the new science of CSI-style physical evidence (X-rays, fingerprints) versus mystical, pre-modern claims of "personal insight" – the ability to feel the authenticity of a work simply by looking at it.
The resulting contortions of judge, jury and press will be familiar to even the most casual watcher of today's art world, where the act of authenticity coming apart in your hands is just the start of the party. That, of course, is part of Eksteins's point. The Wacker trial exposes the conditions that underwrite our own post-authentic, Lady Gaga world, with its tangles of celebrity culture, hyper-monetized art, politics-as-spectacle and mass-consumed "truthiness."
What is more surprising today, in fact, is anyone trying – as New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl recently did, with reference to Damien Hirst – to hold out for old-fashioned standards of genuineness and meaning. "Hirst is originally unoriginal: a master of supererogation," Schjeldahl writes of the English artist. "His work comprehends all manner of things about previous art except, crucially, why it was created." Hirst's new multi-city polka-dot show, The Complete Spot Paintings, 1986-2011, the majority created by assistants, offers the ultimate postmodern compliment: The more you know about art, the cleverer they make you feel. "Buying one," Schjeldahl concludes, "you can hang it on your wall like a framed diploma from Smartypants U."
Whatever you think of Hirst, it's clear that Modris Eksteins went to a different school, Actual Erudition U. Solar Dance is a treatise from its lonely, demanding halls.
Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto. His most recent book, with Joshua Glenn, is The Wage Slave's Glossary. A collection of his essays, The Democratic Imagination, will appear this fall.