Art & Craft is about a highly ambiguous figure: an art forger who has officially-diagnosed mental health conditions, who gives away his copies of well-known artistic works to museums and other non-profit organizations, but engages in false pretenses and makes up phony provenances for the works given away in his version of “philanthropy”. Opinions held by museum personnel and mental health professionals about this man and what he does and why he does it are divided: some mental health professionals are willing to monitor him but let his conduct with the art world slide on the grounds that he is not physically harming himself or others. Indeed, what is “on paper” about this man from the mental health system is potentially misleading. (Among other things, it is possible that he may be on the autistic spectrum, which has some of the symptomology and “markers” for schizophrenia.) At one point during the documentary, he reads out a copy of his mental health assessment. Besides the schizophrenia and other “labels”, the report on him says that he is “disorganized”. “Disorganized” in the mental health context means unable to successfully perpetrate action with premeditation. He is anything but. He paints and draws, copies pictures, uses techniques to make them look “antiqued”, and makes up stories about them in order to formally gift them to museums and galleries. He has also managed to keep straight a selection of aliases and sob stories, and successfully perpetrated fraud on a number of museums and galleries.
The summation of the movie quoted below explains the situation which has developed between him, the mental health system, and the museums in his area, none of which have devised a way to completely solve the problem. Exhausting the conventional galleries, he has turned to religiously-affiliated organizations. One recent aspect of his story telling has been to clothe himself in the street clerical garb and the persona of a priest.
While he is shown during the course of the documentary visiting what appears to be a Catholic Church, and lighting a candle in memory of his deceased mother, the story told in the documentary does not go into his religious background, whether he grew up Catholic, or whether he actually considered becoming a priest earlier in his life. If he had indeed been raised Catholic, he would presumably know how to go about becoming a priest legitimately. (No, it’s not too late in life!) Presumably, the church would have a problem with such an impersonation were they aware of it. While the church has obviously accepted priests with worse problems, and some of the Catholic saints may have been schizophrenics or had other mental health “labels”; it remains unrevealed to the viewer as to how he feels about impersonating a priest, except to portray the fact that to all appearances, he dons the persona of a priest along with the outfit, and once gave a blessing to a person on the street upon request. In this, as with all things, it is left as an open question to the audience as to whether he knows that deceptions, even seemingly harmless ones where money is not at stake, are in themselves, inherently wrong.
The film chronicles the life and work of Mark Landis, a bipolar and schizophrenic man who has spent over 25 years donating faux pieces of art to many different museums throughout the U.S. including the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Bostonian Society and the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. He usually sought the smaller museums who generally did not have the means of analysis like the bigger ones.
At one point, the FBI Art Crime Team were even brought in but in the end, their hands were tied and they couldn’t prosecute Mr. Landis as he never asked for money in exchange for the museums assuming possession of his art work so technically, no crime was actually committed. Watching and listening to Mr. Landis speak, one can’t help but feel sympathy and empathy for him, a man whose entire life has been all about art, even if it is essentially, copying and pasting other more successful artists. Having lost his mother recently too also played a big part in his heartbroken and sorrowful demeanor, a man who keeps to himself and has no family or friends in his life.
Matthew Leininger, the Chief Registrar for the Cincinnati Art Museum, was the first person to closely analyze some of the work Mr. Landis donated to their museum and quickly realized that they were fake. Mr. Leininger made it his mission to somehow stop Mr. Landis from submitting fraudulent pieces of art to other museums but short of calling every institution in the entire country and forewarning them, his hands were basically tied. In the end, there was nothing anybody could legally do so what the Cincinnati Art Museum decided on, was to hold an exhibition of his work, to show the public just how easily they could be convinced of something’s authenticity when it was, in fact, fake.
Mr. Landis very apprehensively appeared and while there were some who informed him that they didn’t appreciate what he was doing, the majority of people said he was an amazing artist who should paint original works of art, instead of copying others.