Thursday, July 3, 2008

Perception is Reality


The multi-billion dollar cosmetics industry relies on the myth that perception is reality. If a woman of advancing years chooses to spend enough money and time, she can create the perception that she is half her age. The majority of high-performance sportscars are sold to over-weight, balding, middle-aged men who, for the price of an average house, can drive around creating the perception of youth and virility – right up to the moment they remove the sad but necessary baseball cap, climb with difficulty from the low-slung machine and reveal a belly overhanging the ill-advised jeans. All these illusions rely on omission of the indefinite article.
There is a classic sketch by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in which Dud announces he is to perform a song specially written for him by Cole Porter. There is clearly room for doubt as the song turns out to be no more than a comic ditty. Pete then explains that the song was written for them by a coal porter, not the Cole Porter…
So perception is a reality. Post-modernists can tie themselves in knots defining the reality but my friend Quentin had no qualms about such things – he always chose the reality with the highest profit margin. He boasted, with some justification and several probationary orders, that he could see financial opportunities where others saw only obstacles. A case in point was the artist painting portraits in K-Mart Plaza.: shoppers drifted by with no more than an admiring glance. A brave punter sat self-consciously having her portrait painted by the elderly artist while around them, displayed on easels were completed works. Most were of anonymous customers but some were of familiar ‘celebrities’ and there was even one of the Mona Lisa.
“Look at that!” Quentin gasped, “It’s the Mona Lisa.”
“It’s a Mona Lisa,” I corrected, “not the Mona Lisa.”
“But it’s such a good likeness, who would know it wasn’t the real thing?”
“Well, the fact that it’s being sold in K-Mart Plaza for 140 bucks offers a clue…”
Quentin was immune to sarcasm and before I could say Michelangelo Caravaggio, he was interrogating the bemused artist. Perhaps it was Quentin’s plummy accent or maybe it was the Cambridge tie (bought at an Op Shop) but the artist took him seriously and patiently explained how even the most accomplished copy can be distinguished from the original. Oils, canvas and varnish have all changed over the years, even the wooden frame on which the canvas was stretched can be carbon-dated to verify its true age. To illustrate the importance of brush strokes and technique, he produced from his case two more copies – ‘Girl with a Pearl Ear-ring’ by Vermeer and Frans Hals’ ‘Laughing Cavalier’.
Quentin was impressed. “That’s amazing, they look so authentic. Why would anyone cough up millions when they could buy something identical?”
“A photograph would be identical,” the artist gently explained, “but it wouldn’t be an original.”
“I can’t decide which one to buy,” Quentin muttered, peering from one work to the other. I suggested he buy the smallest. I didn’t humiliate him by mentioning that he was currently living in a borrowed campervan and the walls of a Volkswagen Kombi were not conducive to a large canvas. “You’re right,” he conceded, “I’ll take the Vermeer. Lend me a hundred and forty, will you?”
As we sat drinking coffee in the mall, I saw the dollar signs blinking in Quentin’s eyes and I realized he was going to try and pass off the painting as an original.
“You won’t get away with it,” I said.
“I know where I can buy an old picture frame for a few bob – and I can doctor the canvas.”
“And where will you find a mug to buy this masterpiece?”
Quentin sighed at my naiveté. “There are people with embarrassing amounts of cash which the Australian Tax Office will never hear about. Their challenge is in converting it into tangible assets and greed can vitiate their judgment; I happen to know such a person.”
To say that I was sceptical would be an understatement yet when I met up with him a few weeks later he was ecstatic. “The deal’s done!” he crowed. “I asked for a hundred grand and he offered fifty; I said, make it fifty grand US, cash – and he agreed.”
“And you actually have the money?”
“It’s all here,” he said shaking the briefcase which usually contained sausage rolls and petite sandwiches he liberated from annual general meetings and book launches slipped into uninvited. “I’m about to deposit some of it into my bank account.” He was so excited he almost offered to pay back the loan.
The euphoria didn’t last long, by the next day he was looking decidedly gloomy. The bank had taken the $5,000 he had offered but declined to credit his account as an ultra-violet light test had revealed certain anomalies: the bank notes were forgeries. He’d been invited to explain how the illicit notes had come into his possession and he would probably be interviewed by the police.
“There’s another 45,000 dollars US,” he groaned. “US for useless.” We were walking through K-Mart Plaza again, the artist had gone and an Asian woman was selling socks. You have to be down at heel to be interested in socks.
“If it’s any consolation,” I said “some of the most famous works in the most prestigious galleries are known to be fakes yet people still queue up to see them. Maybe you should leave your money on display, just to impress, as if it was a work of art. After all, it’s the perception that matters.”
Quentin looked at me and shook his head in dismay. “Sometimes,” he said, “I feel you have only a slippery grasp on reality.”




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