Imitation might be the sincerest form of flattery, but that doesn’t mean that it is always appropriate in the art world. On the contrary, for centuries great importance has been placed on the notion of an ‘original’. This word has various meanings and comes with ‘baggage’, so to speak – it once was a term used in philosophy and science meaning the thing from which something arises, a usage which is no longer current but which of course relates to art in the sense that pieces which show an ‘original’ (that is to say, innovative) train of thought are sometimes the instigators of new movements or trends in art. More commonly, though, it means that the work was created firsthand, and can be shown to be made by a particular person. It is The Work, the real thing – and from it, copies can be made. The copies are generally harmless – I am not talking about instances of fraud, but merely reproductions of a painting or sculpture (for example) that can give those who will never see the original the chance to do so, or allow ordinary people to take that Van Gogh home with them – even if it is, after all, only a print.
Copies of this nature if anything only contribute to the mystique surrounding the original, because they publicize the image and familiarize people with it whilst always remaining separate and in a sense in a lower sphere. You might have seen a reproduction of the Mona Lisa a hundred times, but if you get the chance you would probably like to see the original itself, which retains a hold on popular consciousness regardless of the millions of copies available – there’s a reason it lies behind bulletproof glass surrounded by alarms. A reproduction, even an extremely convincing and clever one, is not the same – consider the insult that Isabella II of Spain paid to the Vatican when she presented the Pope with a painting she claimed to be by the Spanish master Murillo and which she in fact knew to be a copy (it seems she was too fond of the painting to give the original up at the time – though she did later give it to King Luis of Portugal).
The awe and reverence (and, of course, monetary value) associated with originals is of course why there is so much discussion over whether a particular work of art can be considered an ‘original’ of a master rather than a clever fake or the work of a student. There was great delight at the Met recently when cleaning revealed that a painting they had previously considered from the workshop of Velazquez was in fact a work by the master himself – particularly pleasing in this case, perhaps, considering the relatively small number of works this artist produced in his lifetime. Similarly, there is the ongoing and highly charged debate over whether the ‘Young Archer’ is by Michelangelo or not, and the case of the apparently identical Van Dycks (you needed to look under the surface to see the difference).
Of course, there are exceptions to this general rule. Copies are sometimes viewed with delight and excitement, as in the case of the recent promise made by Google to put virtual copies of the treasures belonging to Iraq’s National Museum online in order to make these rare pieces available to the world, or the news from a Scottish team who plan to create accurate 3D models of world heritage sites, to preserve them in case of damage or natural erosion. There has also been much enthusiasm for the projects of various well known galleries and museums which intend to create ‘virtual galleries’ of famous paintings to allow people to visit online, or even combine their online experience with that of really being there – MoMA, for instance, allows visitors to create their own online exhibitions and ‘collect’ works of art on their mobile phones as they tour the gallery, so that they can view their personal ‘collection’ back home, on the website. Even here, however, there is no consensus – some feel that making works of art accessible in this way is a dangerous trend that will lead to a lack of true appreciation for and a lowering of the value of the originals.
The truth is, though, that in our time the issue of ‘originals’ has become a vexed question. Andy Warhol began using the technique of silk-screen printing, which is in essence a commercial one in that it allows an image, perhaps stenciled or stamped, to be reproduced ad infinitum with minimal effort. One of the particularly baffling things about Warhol’s arrangement was that it meant that he did not have to be involved with most of the stages of the production of a piece – and yet the finished result could still said to be an original Warhol. This causes a certain amount of confusion from time to time regarding particular works which may or may not be ‘originals’ – not, as always before, because there was doubt over the origin and provenance of the painting, but rather because it is sometimes difficult to know where to draw the line. Warhol changed the nature of the game in this respect, and the rules are still not always quite clear, for his work or for those who came after and continued to challenge the accepted ideas of what was original. Technology, too, adds to the trouble. In the flourishing world of digital photography, what does ‘original’ even mean? The image, however beautiful, does not first exist in the normal format of a printed page, something that you can hold. The information is digital. What, then, makes one print any different to another?
Art museums face fresh problems, too, in dealing with works of modern art which include materials which do not age well, like neon or indeed sharks, or make use of mechanisms which do not necessarily do well over time, as in the case of Claes Oldenburg’s ‘Ice Bag-Scale C’ which was intended to ‘breathe’ like a sleeping animal. These works need sometimes extensive repair and reconstruction, and the question becomes at what point this ceases to be a labor of conservation and becomes something more complicated. How do these objects differ significantly from ‘exhibition copies’ which appear in exhibitions labeled as such, as a common practice museums use to include the display of a particular item in an exhibition because it adds to the overall theme, even though the object itself is too delicate to display, or unavailable?
Recent works of concept art, too, pose problems. MoMA, when preparing for a Gabriel Orozco retrospective, realized that including one of the artist’s important works might be difficult, because it was made up of nothing but some yogurt caps on plain white walls. They needed to find out if the original caps existed, but were also faced with the question of whether it really mattered, or whether it was irrelevant to presenting the concept – after all, wouldn’t any yogurt caps do?
The questions surrounding the meaning of ‘original’ only seem to increase as art continues to develop, both technologically and conceptually, and there is a wide range of opinions on where and how we should be searching for answers. Any thoughts on the subject are welcomed in the comments!