According to Partridge the word is of underworld origin and perhaps related to the German verb fegen meaning to sweep clean or to polish. But it may just as easily trace its descent from the Latin facio meaning to do or to make. Regardless it emerged about two hundred years ago from a criminal argot where it was as versatile as another f-word, having multiple meanings and working as multiple parts of speech. One could use fake to say kill, wound, and rob, or to say lie, cheat, and steal. One could fake, that is make, a forgery, false document, or copy of a key. One could fake a wound to avoid work or service, could fake (effect) an escape, or be burdened by a fake, that is, a painful condition.
When I was teaching one of the insults a kid could hurl was being fake. Such a person was all surface, full of bluster but lacking stones. Or their success was due to luck and not effort. Insincerity is despised by teenagers, such a person was called a fake. These days fake is back in the news in a big way and we take it to mean make-believe, falsified, or lacking foundation in facts. But I like to think of fake in more positive terms. Here’s León Fuertes’ take on fake:
A careful fake is better than the truth.
León Fuertes is not real. He’s a character in a novel called The Dissertation which is set in the fictional Latin American country of Tinieblas. He and this world were created by the extraordinary and under-appreciated American writer R.M. Koster.
If you haven’t read Koster you are missing out. I strongly urge you to read the entire trilogy, of which The Dissertation is the middle book. But if all you have time for is one then by all means read just one. Each book (the first is The Prince and the last is Mandragon) stands on its own.
‘A careful fake is better than the truth’ is my half-assed artistic manifesto. Art, after all, is fakery, but I think art gives us more insight into people than anything else. In today’s world if you call an artist a faker that’s a serious swipe. And I don’t mean to mock the devotion and integrity of any creative person. But an art product, a painting or a poem or whatnot, is assembled from the bits of life. It’s meant to look and feel like reality, but it’s not. It’s re-arranged reality, an arrangement that suits the artist. It’s, in short, a fake.
If you want to understand another person, another culture, or another place you’ll get there via art. I love reading history, but history is an outsiders view. Not to mention that history is not science, but art, and the skill of the historian matters. You have to make the past relevant to the present, like Victorian aristocrats who loved Imperial Rome because the current empire’s glories resonated in the ancient stories. But art can be revisited and it can be viewed with less bias and get us closer to the truth about the people that created it. When I say truth I mean a clearer picture, and I think improved clarity is the best we can do in our search for this elusive stuff. We live in a world of swirling, constant motion, a dynamic and chaotic place that overloads our feeble senses, and reveals to us so little of its depth and complexity. Anytime we get a flake of gold appearing in the pan amidst the gravel we take notice and try to seize on to that and hope it reveals something to us.
That’s what art is all about. A good fake gets us seeing things anew. So I say we need to encourage fakery and leave behind the negative connotation of the word. After all the so-called fake news controversy is certainly not new or unique to our time. The fake news tells us as much about the purveyors and their supporters as anything else, perhaps more. What we want to believe in, our deepest sentiments and highest feelings, is what’s important to us.
I have a lot of respect for creative types. I was at our local art gallery last night for an opening and I went with, it seems now, an unusually open mind for the normally skeptical me. For some reason a few of the works really rung my aesthetic bell. One artist was a jeweler and she made incredible use of natural materials and used her pieces to highlight them. It was like looking at 3-D images or stereograms, suddenly seeing depth and richness that you hadn’t before. The other was a weaver, and I kept wanting to run my hands over the stuff—I didn’t—or pull it off the wall and wear it like a wrap. I thought one particular color/pattern combo would have made the world’s coolest sport coat.
Assembling all those bits o’nature into cool new assemblages is a pretty cool way to pass your time, I have to say. I’ve no idea whether these artists can make a go of it professionally, seems like such a hard thing to do in this world, but more power to ’em if they can. Wouldn’t it be something if you could create your own shit and turn that into a livelihood? Either way, I like it when people peddle their fakery. On Facebook I generally ignore everything except when people promote their creations. (Well, I appreciate it when friends and family post an update and everyone is smiling, so there’s that.) But mostly I like it when my friends show me what they write, build, sing, cook, sew, draw or otherwise fabricate that’s thoroughly theirs. I don’t care what it is or even if I like it or not, and I don’t give a fuck about their religion or their politics or their other habits.
Perhaps its just easy to fake me out. In rugby they call what we would call a fake a dummy. Maybe that’s me! But I keep coming back to Fuertes’ Dictum of careful fakes being better than the truth. At least, potentially better. There’s some upside. Real life is cruel and you can’t change that. Art doesn’t have to be. A good fake takes the edge off, like a glass of good whiskey.