Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time talking about why art can’t be photographed.
In this entry, I will ignore the issue of copyright, and taking pictures of art directly. Instead, I will talk about the reproduction of art in general. I will explain why I do not think that the reproduction of artworks is a bad thing. In fact, I will be arguing why I think that reproducing art is actually a very good thing.
Before I go forward with this argument, I would like to go back. Way back.
In the 1935 essay “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, Walter Benjamin wrote about the mechanical reproduction of art, and the damaging effect this had on tradition and value. Reproduction was seen as a threat to the authenticity of a piece of art. He made use of the word “aura” to describe this value.
The term ‘aura’ can be used metaphorically to describe what we, as an audience bring to an artwork. Our cultural experience and preconceptions shape how we experience art. Sentimental value can be attached to an object, and that value affects how we respond to it.
‘Aura’ can also be used to explain an object’s history. A painting kept in one city absorbs pollution unique to that area, and traces of that pollution might remain embedded in the object forever. There could be a chip or crack in one corner, there might be a screw hole in the stretcher from a past framing job, or damage from that time where a crazed person threw acid at the work, or their could be historically inaccurate pigments from a series of minor restorations over the years, or fading caused by improper lighting or fugitive pigments. There are a number of things that can happen to an artwork over the course of it’s existence. All these are part of the artwork’s history. They become a part of that object. They tell us where a work has been, what it has gone through. They let us know that it is authentic. Reproductions don’t have any of this history.
This second definition of ‘aura’, the one dealing with an object’s history is the one I believe Benjamin had in mind in his famous essay.
“…that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. …[T]he technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence.”
(I found the whole thing, translated to English right here: http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm)
In print making and photography, there is plenty of room for interesting discussion on this topic, but as a painter, I am primarily concerned with painting, and in this medium, his argument on the damaging effects of reproduction does not hold up.
A copy of something is on one hand a new object, it’s a new thing made up of its own matter, while on the other hand, it’s very much the same as the original, since they look identical. Looking at the copy creates a new history for the object, but a copy, having the same image as the original, is still related to that original object, which is off somewhere else, doing it’s own thing, and this represents a huge change from tradition.
I think I get what he is saying at this point, but I don’t see how any of this actually damages the aura of an artwork.
Not only do I not see it, but I also disagree with his opinion on this entirely. I believe that reproduction enhances the value of an artwork.
Mechanical reproduction means that a work of art can be though of as two distinct things: a physical object, and an image. The physical object is scarce, while the image in infinite. Zero, one or a million reproductions can be made, but none of them will ever actually be that authentic original object. They are, and shall always be, just copies.
But what good are these copies?
I offer this challenge: ask a non-art person to name a famous painting. It can be anything, by any artist, from anywhere and at anytime in the world. Just name a painting. Any painting.
What did they say? Did they answer with, “The Mona Lisa”?
There is a very good chance that they did. It is often called the most famous painting in the world. It is also the most reproduced painting in the world.
Another contender might be van Gogh’s “Starry Night”, which, according to overstockArt.com, is their best selling reproduction. It is actually in higher demand than the Mona Lisa. (Independent.co.uk)
We have another very famous painting, and that painting also appears in countless reproductions.
I find it interesting that the most well known paintings in the world are also the most reproduced. Images of the Mona Lisa, Starry Night, The Scream, and a host of other very famous works can be found on posters, postcards, calendars, screen savers, t-shirts, neck ties and coffee mugs.
But far from damaging their ‘aura’, these reproductions have only seemed to enhance it. It’s not ‘just another Mona Lisa’ people come to see at the Louvre; it’s the Mona Lisa. It’s the real, the original, the authentic Mona Lisa. Lesser known, but I would argue superior paintings, even those by the same artist will go unnoticed while people wait in line for a brief glimpse at this one underwhelming little painting.
Why would anyone spend a good chunk of their time and money to see an image that they already know so well from reproductions?
Compare these famous images with an art show by a relatively unknown local artist. After casually walking into the gallery, the images can be approached. There is no bullet proof glass separating the object from it’s viewers; that painting is right there in front of you. You could just reach out and touch it (but please don’t). No crowd is pushing and shoving, no guards in nice suits are watching. It’s a much more calm, pleasant, and personal kind of experience. It’s also a novel experience. What you are seeing is new, fresh, and likely unknown to the vast majority of the world. Why, you could be the very first person to really notice this painting.
But, how often do these local shows by local artists evoke that same strong sense of giddy excitement that the old masters inspire?
Why is seeing something that has been copied a thousand times so much more exciting than art that is new and unknown?
Imagine yourself walking down the street, when suddenly, you notice that a very famous movie star has been sharing the sidewalk with you. They seem to be on their way to some sort of movie-star event, something that the regular people will probably never be invited too. What would your reaction be?
Would you reach for a camera, or hunt for a pen and paper, or maybe call your friends and excitedly let them know who is standing next to you. Do you rush in for a handshake or autograph?
Seeing a famous celebrity in person is a noteworthy event for many people. I’ve personally seen a small-town arena turn into something resembling a mosh-pit, all due to the presence of one very famous person. That same celebrity can be seen in the very movies they star in; they can be seen again and again, or even in slow motion, or a freeze frame if you wish. You can zoom in on them and get a clear image. Why is it so exciting when we get to see a celebrity in person?
Movies, TV shows and tabloids build hype for the actors who star in them. Their image becomes very familiar to us. Even though we don’t really know them, it almost feels like we do. On that rare event where we happen to catch a glimpse of the real thing, in the flesh, we are presented with the rare opportunity to enter into their world, and share a moment with them, and they also share a moment with us. And that’s exciting.
I believe that reproductions of famous paintings build hype for the original artwork in exactly the same way that the media builds hype for certain actors. If we didn’t have the media plastering their face all over everything, they would just be another human being, doing a job and getting by in the world. If we didn’t have the posters and t-shirts of these paintings, they would be just another canvas on a museum wall.
There can be as many reproductions as there are people who want them; there is no limit to the number of times an image can be copied, but their will only ever be one original piece. Reproductions can be used to build interest in that original piece, they can be used to advertise that original piece.
I don’t believe for a second that reproductions harm the aura or magic that is contained within an original painting.
Reproductions create the aura of authenticity and legitimacy in the original object.
“It’s been copied a hundred times already, so it must be good.”