One of life’s great pleasures when it comes to killing time on the interewebs in a vaguely work-appropriate way is Errol Morris’s fantastic blog in the New York Times. It’s not a particularly regular feature, though, so there was much rejoicing around stately IPB Manor when we discovered that this week they are running a seven-part series about Han Van Meegeren, the Nazi art forger. So far the series has discussed how a successful art forgery involves avoiding the Uncanny Valley, the theory from robotics that shows that the more a humanoid robot looks like a human, the more off-putting it is to real humans:
It concerns the design of humanoid robots. Mori’s theory is relatively simple. We tend to reject robots that look too much like people. Slight discrepancies and incongruities between what we look like and what they look like disturb us. The closer a robot resembles a human, the more critical we become, the more sensitive to slight discrepancies, variations, imperfections. However, if we go far enough away from the humanoid, then we much more readily accept the robot as being like us. This accounts for the success of so many movie robots — from R2-D2 to WALL-E. They act like humans but they don’t look like humans. There is a region of acceptability — the peaks around The Uncanny Valley, the zone of acceptability that includes completely human and sort of human but not too human.
As an art forger you have to find a way to create an artistic work that looks enough like the artist you’re forging, but not so much that the differences — the parts that are wrong — are all an observer notices. Today’s post also touched on the notion that Van Meegeren managed to pass off such obviously dreadful paintings as Vermeers because they were painted in the “Nazi aesthetic”, the contemporary popular style. The paintings look obviously fake to modern eyes, but that’s apparently one way that forgers find success, creating works allegedly by great artists that appeal to current styles. As fascinating as the blog series is (and seriously, it’s a great read, as are all of the previous series), it became even more intriguing to us when Pookie made a shocking connection today between its themes and the Devils. Here is the exact conversation we had while hard at work this afternoon:
Pookie: By the way, I think the reason I hated the Devils this year is they crept too close to “real hockey team” while still being fakes. I fell deeply into the Uncanny Valley with them this year.
Schnookie: Damn. You are SO right.
Pookie: All I can see is the 1% that wasn’t perfect. I mean, the team did awesomely given what hand they were dealt. But… *shudder* I want my hockey team to look more like R2D2 if they’re not going to be able to win the Cup!
Schnookie: Or for them to look like R2D2 if they’re going to be a bunch of FAKE Devils. I mean, Clemmer/Shanny/Blobby? Those are too close to being Devils without actually being Devils. If we’re going with fakes, make ‘em Doug Gilmour or Alexander Mogilny, you know? (I realize all three of those guys are former Devils, which only complicates the nature of the forgery. Or perhaps makes it an anachronistic forgery. It stands out so glaringly because it’s conforming to a Devilsthetic standard of a previous era.)
Pookie: Yes, but at the time, we were all seeing them through the lens of that time and place as far as Devils-dom was concerned.
We mentioned many times during the season that we were deeply ambivalent about the Devils, and now, finally, we’re able to put our fingers on what was wrong. Hindsight really is the best weapon when you’re trying to weed out the forgeries in your life.