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Fake: Art and Artifice

We’ve been noticing something happening in the city, something slowly seeping into our daily lives without much fanfare. What is it?
Simply put, it’s artifice.

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A real lawn vs. a fake lawn (in January) in Toronto’s Rosedale neighbourhood. Image: VoCA

It’s in your parks (fake grass in Douglas Coupland’s new park, down near the lake, and on Rosedale lawns), on your ice rinks (Harbourfront’s rink is now plastic, for all season skating) and on your street (bet you don’t know which downtown buildings are stone and which are stucco-covered Styrofoam.)  Not to mention in our food.

In our quest for perfection (thanks to having-it-all, all-the-time technology), we ignore what is natural in lieu of what is convenient. Where has physical labour gone? As Julian Baggini mentions in this weekend’s FT, describing Michael Foley’s new book The Age of Absurdity: Why Modern Life Makes it Hard to be Happy, “The promise of consumer culture, where all things good are just a chip and a pin away, makes people feel entitled to everything but responsible for nothing…


Orlan. Image: nyu.edu

Consider women’s grooming: fake nails, coloured hair, hair extensions, liposuction, implants, fake tan and tattooed makeup….Is natural beauty becoming a luxury?  Artifice has inspired the French performance artist Olran, who makes art using her body as a ‘canvas’. More on her outrageous work in a fascinating video from the Guardian, HERE.

Interestingly, we are living in an increasingly artificial world at the same time that we are more obsessed than ever with the preservation of nature.  What does this mean?


Pompeiian fresco from the villa of P. Fannio Sinistore in Boscoreale, currently located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Image: wikimedia.org

Of course artifice is not new. In painting, it’s known as trompe l’oeil and has been used in murals to suggest larger spaces or architectural details since Greek and Roman times. Examples exist in Pompeii.  But the way we accept – even demand – artifice instead of the natural alternative is new.

Thinking about it, the low quality of ideas and material in much contemporary art doesn’t seem surprising. Though this blog often rails against it, it is perhaps one of technology’s effects that McLuhan would have acknowledged.

But it seems wrong.

3 Responses to “Fake: Art and Artifice”

  1. Jackie says:

    This needs a Wildean antidote. The determination to distinguish between phusis and tekhne (nature and art) is not only fraught with pitfalls, but , like this article, almost invariably privileges the former over the later.

    What, for instance, is “natural beauty” and under what measure can it be judged? Is not art itself that fashions us with our measuring stick? If so, what does that say about the status of the natural?

    The example of lawns is also telling… Wouldn’t it be fair to say that they’ve always already been examples of artifice. Going back to the landscaping trends of the 18th century, such gardening aims to tame nature.

    Food for thought: if contemporary society actually values artifice over nature, why is it that at the upcoming Olympic games there will be outrage when the first athlete is caught doping? Is it because they cheated? Yes, to some extent. But, there’s an underlying metaphysics of presence here that is rarely acknowledged.

    Western history has deemed that which is artificial to be inferior and secondary to nature, and there is little evidence to suggest that’s changing — particularly given these under-considered examples…

  2. karen mills says:

    Small correction re the fake grass in Doug Coupland’s Park. The playing fields in the park were built with artificial turf at the insistence of the city Parks Dept. By the way, Doug did work with a team, so it might be appropriate to credit the landscape architects at PFS and the Planning partnership!

  3. Fake: Art and Artifice article was a joy to read.

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