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Wine, Art, and Being Fooled

–co-authored with Evan Mitchell

You’ve been dragged along to a wine tasting. Or perhaps you’ve gone willingly and enthusiastically without knowing what’s in store. As the first flight is being poured, the attractive lass next to you, she of the pink hair and cutesy Betty Boop tatts says “I love orange wines,” as you bring to your nose a cloudy beverage that smells alternately of the rancio tang of a dry sherry, and the crunchy pear flavors you’d expect in a craft cider. You don’t, this you’re quite sure of, love it – but you’re drawn to feign some enthusiasm to match hers, for fear of seeming uncool. You could of course level with her, but would you?

Maybe, you’re at a dinner party and the host has pulled out a bottle of something special, a Grange say, and wants to go around the table getting impressions. He’s in pride of place, having taken on the aura of the wine. You notice but you don’t care. You’re thinking, please, please go clockwise – because, parked as you are on his right, if the wine appreciation roundtable goes the other way round, you’re as toasted as the oak from which that prized Penfolds wine derives its formidable tannins and vanillin notes.

Perhaps you are at your local wine store and get button-holed by a wine rep hyping their wares on an end-cap display. They’ve slopped you a plastic cup half full of something which they “know you’ll love.” Now you do care. They wait expectantly for your response… though not as expectantly as the Friday evening crowd massing behind you, waiting their turn for a taste of free plonk, but first waiting for you to hold forth on what you’re swirling around your mouth. As if it mattered.

The truth being that you’re having difficulty swallowing for the lump of mortification now forming behind your epiglottis.

Or a situation different again. You are on a first date, and the topic your future-ex raises, after swapping Wordle starting words, is the latest Matisse exhibition “everyone’s” talking about. Where do you stand on Matisse as opposed to Picasso, and is art with sensual rather than political ends transcendent or decadent…? You had no reason to think she was into art, or even that she knows much about it, but she clearly has the whip hand here – so tread carefully.

At the earlier dinner party, the hostess, herself a woman of considerable opinion in the arts, turns to the family’s latest purchase holding pride of place on the dining room wall, a “fabulously evocative piece of neo-post-neo-abstract-expressionism.” What she would like most of all to hear, are the responses of the group about what this violently, clashingly daubed canvas really means to each of you (for God’s sake, please go clockwise this time) – luxuriating in the fact that she holds the high ground. By virtue of what?

Where else is authority so easily come by, where else is the mantle of expertize picked up so cheaply, in so unearned a way, by non-experts, as in judgments of “taste?”

Just a vibe of confidence is all it takes, and the genuflections can begin. Because we are (well, many, most of us), nowhere more vulnerable, nowhere more seemingly under the microscope, than when called upon to reveal these most intimate aspects of ourselves. The very essence of our private and public personae, they define us, flag our astuteness, our sensitivity, sophistication, worldliness. More particularly in those areas where gatekeepers jealously guard access to inner sanctums, inhabited by higher circles of connoisseurship whose arcana are as abstruse as secret handshakes.

To wit – wine and art.

No other aspects of our social life can leave us so open to disapproval, ridicule, and censure, and in so doing, expose us to influence and misrepresentation, to inflated prices, falsification, and possibly to fraud. In exerting these effects on us in parallel ways, wine and art exploit the self-same insecurities and urges of human nature.

If some of our observations here are drawn from instances that might be thought outliers – addressing wine and art of the rarest, most expensive, and most rarefied styles; or alignments of sensory, aesthetic, and moral determinations of taste – it’s because the machinations of fraud and forgery in both the wine and art worlds reflect the same fundamentals of human suggestibility and credulity. And their flip sides, duplicity, and exploitation. Just as Freud extrapolated insights from his observations of neurotics to the otherwise “normal,” we are preparing you for bare-faced lies and little white ones.

Our tastes serve as both a private vindication and social statement. That’s why we’re so sensitive about what we like, what we know we like, what we think we should like, what we’re sure we should be seen to like.

Criticism of us on these grounds is rarely welcome. It impugns our essential self along that most vulnerable seam where insecurity and egotism stitch together. The more status-enmeshed the object of our taste (and what could be more so than wine and art?) the more indelibly staining such criticism feels.

It’s their distinction as signifiers of discernment, as much as their lucrative value at the top end that makes art and wine both so irresistible to fraudsters. Anywhere narcissism and expense cross paths is fallow ground for fraud and forgery. Because the enabling suggestibility is so emotionally vulnerable to exploitation, whether mild or serious.

At the extreme end, forgery seems to imply fraud. Why else, you might ask, do it? Well, sometimes ego is the answer. Imagine the sense of satisfaction in a talented art copyist who can reproduce a Turner masterpiece say, technically exact enough to fool gallery visitors, without believing for a moment they have the genius of the true “painter of light.” Fraud though is a simpler proposition. All it requires are expectations and a plausible way to meet them. Which is why, in its various manifestations, it’s so well suited to the pomposity of the wine and art domains.

Han Van Meegeren duped the Nazis with his fake Vermeers, and while on trial for collaboration, hailed himself a national hero of the Netherlands for securing the return of two hundred Dutch paintings in a swap with Field Marshall Goering. But there was little idealism in his efforts, he was after money, and as part of his eventual wages has wound up with a few movies based on his life, including The Last Vermeer in which he’s played as a playboy folk hero by Guy Pearce. Complicating issues of provenance of works were easily side-stepped by, as Peter Schjeldahl’s New Yorker article had it, “tales of impecunious émigrés from the Russian Revolution.” Plausible, at a time when toppled aristocrats manned hotel doors, throughout Europe.

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Brian Mitchell
Brian Mitchellhttp://www.howandy.net
Brian Mitchell and Evan Mitchell write extensively on psychological themes, with scores of published articles on three continents. Brian has a clinical Ph.D. and a significant period as a therapist. Evan has Honors degrees in Psychology and English Literature, and also extensive practical experience. They have two published books. The well-reviewed hardcover The Psychology of Wine: truth and beauty by the glass (www.psychologyofwine.com ) – Praeger US (and now in eBook edition) explored the aesthetics of wine and art and their psychological possibilities. This led to the storyline and structure of their upcoming literary thriller The Last Cave, an action narrative of suspense and surprise in the mode of Terry Hayes’ I am Pilgrim. Prior to writing full-time, the pair conducted a successful US consulting operation specializing in negotiation effectiveness. Subsequently extended to generational studies on decision making tendencies by Gens Y and Z in the consumer world and politics.They can be reached through [email protected]

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