When is the truth not the truth? When it is hidden away.
There is a film on Netflix right now called Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art. As the title suggests, it is a documentary about Very Important Possessions that turned out to be not as important as claimed.
Or, as one of the lawyers in the documentary quipped, the painting that hung behind him in his office used to be worth US$5mil (RM20.6mil), now it’s worth nothing. The art is still the same. The paint and material used to make it is still the same. The work was not damaged or altered in any way. But it was revealed that instead of it being the work of a famous dead 20th century abstract expressionist, it was a forgery made by an artist living in Queens, New York.
It wasn’t obvious at all. For more than a decade, many experts who saw the paintings attributed to the famous artist didn’t immediately recognise the duplicity. But eventually, over time, the inconsistencies stacked up, and one by one, they stepped back, explaining that at no point did they actually technically say the works were really “authentic”.
If, as the poet says, beauty is truth and truth beauty, then ultimately it’s all in the eye of the beholder. Ann Freedman, the art gallery director in the eye of the storm, effectively vouched for the works' authenticity while pocketing millions of dollars in commissions. She says she was completely convinced that the paintings were authentic at the time.
She continued to vouch for them even though nobody could really explain who the mysterious collector was that sold the paintings so cheaply (the gallery was reselling them at 10 times what it had paid for them). Freedman insisted they were real, even when the International Foundation for Art Research couldn’t confirm the authenticity of one of the pieces.
Eventually it was discovered that one of the works used paint not sold commercially until 1970, some 14 years after the famous artist had died. Freedman still insisted it didn’t necessarily mean it was a fake since artists could have access to experimental paints before they hit the market.
What is fascinating to me is that the mind, it seems, is very adept at stretching the truth, especially when so much money is at stake. But Freedman was helped by the fact that the truth took more than a dozen years to finally emerge. Along the way there were many clues, and many doubters, yet it feels like there was a critical mass to be overcome, and until enough people knew of the doubts, they remained a possibility rather than a probability.
It reminded me a little of Malaysia’s 1MDB financial scandal. That took 10 years to unravel, and given that so much that the government does is under oversight, it shouldn’t have taken that long.
True, there were questions from fairly early on. I remember having a discussion with some of the people behind the sovereign wealth fund a few years after it was established, and when somebody not at the meeting asked me “But what do they do?”, the best I could mumble was “land deals”. For a company that had so much backing, so little was clear.
A few years later, stories began to appear alleging that 1MDB was somehow involved in political slush funds. The story was broken by a maverick journalist, and then it caught the attention of The Wall Street Journal. There was much back and forth about what was the truth, and lawsuits were threatened. Still, it was unclear enough that nobody could say anything really definitive.
Then in July 2016, while eating an ice cream sundae in a busy fast food joint, I read about a lawsuit issued by the US Department of Justice (DOJ). The details of alleged money laundering by a sovereign wealth fund left a sour taste in my mouth.
My immediate reaction was to write something. I wanted to show what people were saying and question what the truth was. I wanted to encourage the government to either defend itself or otherwise root out the alleged corruption.
My idea was to compare how the DOJ lawsuit was being reported around the world. There was a clear difference between news published abroad and news produced locally. There were also a few interesting nuggets of information that were in the DOJ report but not widely known at the time.
Yet, the news was so sensitive that even reporting on the reports was frowned upon. Part of me wishes I had pushed harder to do this. Yet the truth is that I would have been just a small voice in what eventually became a deluge.
I honestly believe that, like in the art scandal, if there wasn’t widespread reporting about the problems and inconsistencies seen, then nothing would have happened. The fact that it has resulted in court cases now is good, not necessarily because “justice is being done” but because we can have a proper conversation about what evidence is right and valid and what is pure conjecture and hearsay.
Yet all this had to begin as speculation in the public press before anything could later be firmed up.
It should be very obvious by now what I’m building up to: Should we censor or prosecute fake news? Where falsehoods are damaging, then action should be taken. We already have libel laws for that, and when the issue is misinformation, we should have enough in place to present evidence of what is correct.
I appreciate that not all opinions are equally valid. Indeed, I believe censorship is a valuable tool to maintain a functioning society. But when it is used by parties with vested interests, we need to question who are they really trying to protect? Our well-being or their secrets?
By and large, the truth is a multifaceted thing that shines when you expose it to more light. Shuttering opinions and conjectures just hides the truth and brings us no closer to understanding it. Just because the truth brings someone or something’s value down isn’t a good enough reason to deny it.
In his fortnightly column, Contradictheory, mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi explores the theory that logic is the antithesis of emotion but people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Write to Dzof at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.