Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction

Larry Lytle

The topic that I want to talk about is a very difficult subject. Difficult because to some like me the consequences are upsetting and far reaching; to others it’s but a change, and that is the intrinsic nature of art: to change. What is on my mind are the questions and problems presented by digital reproduction. On the face of it, digital reproduction of artworks seems pretty much like any other form of reproduction, a cheap accessible copy of the original, meant to be framed and hung in your house or office. If this was all it was, I’d be silent on the matter. In fact, by bringing this up, I feel a little like Cassandra, Chicken Little, or Kevin McCarthy at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, shouting a warning that few will heed.*

Before I go into my concerns let me relate two items that have caught my attention this last month. These two precursors are, I think, the wave of the future. First, American Photography (vol. XII no. 1 January/February 2001, p. 35) “Art’s New Paradigm” by Jack Crager, “...the James Danziger Gallery closed its doors in 2000, and its owner revealed his business change of address: The new Website offers Iris prints of classic and contemporary photography and paintings at prices from $100 to around $700. Danziger has joined forces with master Iris printmaker David Adamson, who has made prints for photographers Annie Leibovitz and Robert Raushenberg. The Artland site—designed by Surge Interactive, owned by advertising dynamo Peter Arnell—will initially have about 500 images for sale.” I encourage you to read the full article. Second, at Photo LA, January 19th-21st, the Royal Photographic Society, in conjunction with Strato UK, had a booth. The RPS was offering for sale “Master Prints” of images owned by the Society. One could buy a limited edition print produced from a copy negative of some of the images used in their handsome book PhotoHistoricia Landmarks in Photography by Pam Roberts (Artisan/New York Publisher, 2000). These prints were/are printed by a single master printer who copied the size and coloration of the original. Prices started at about $500. Or, one had the option of buying very good Iris print copies of the same for $40, each embossed with a seal by the RPS.

After reading this you might ask, “What could be bad about being able to buy reproduced images of photographs or paintings that I’d love to own but can’t get or afford?” You might also ask, “Museums print posters of famous works—what’s the difference?” These are both valid questions but I think the difference between what a museum offers and what is offered in the two examples above are vastly different. Why? I’ll get to that in a moment. Another series of questions you might bring up are, “If a living artist sanctions these Iris prints, what’s the difference? How are they or Art being harmed? As for the dead artists, if an organization wants to reproduce them, who cares? Isn’t it better to own a copy and see their work than not see or own it at all?”

First let me address the questions concerning reproduction of artwork in general. I’m all for it! The chances are, unless you make a special pilgrimage to a specific museum, anyone interested in art or a specific work of art will never see it. The only way we have to enlighten ourselves about art in general or the specific is through reproductions. Books are the number one source for this material. Without them we’d be an art-ignorant culture. As imperfect as book reproductions are, at this point it’s the best we have. The next level of mechanical reproduction is the poster. Museums or individuals who own works in the public domain have the right to make posters, postcards, magnets and so on. I own some of these types of reproductions (not the magnets or the key chains). I love them. They remind me of places I’ve been and work that I’ve seen. They let me see the artwork large and in fairly true colors. But, they are not the work and not even really a substitute for the original work. I accept that tradeoff.

According to my cursory research, art reproductions of masterworks and popular contemporary paintings have been around a couple of centuries. These usually consisted of wood block and metal engravings done either by the original artist or a craftsman of high technical ability. They were more reinterpretations than exact reproductions. At the turn of the twentieth century, photo-offset lithography revolutionized printing. Reproductions could now be made of the original, a direct copy. Over time, technology in printing made the copies truly good. And now, we have digital reproduction, a filmless, even better (if Iris prints are used) quality of reproduction. In all the versions of reproduction a printer has to be good to insure a good quality product.

This seems all well and good. We now have access to more accurate and better quality reproductions of artworks. Not only that, but through digital imaging we have a new art form, a hybrid of photography and painting. It follows, after all, that through the centuries most reproduction techniques have been used on their own as new methods of making art. Once again, I’m all for it and digital imaging does seem to be the postmodern art form.

In terms of postmodern issues, let me first clarify my position about art. I do this because all future arguments about the digital issue will be defined by how one stands on certain philosophical issues. I am a modernist. I love the art object! I love the idea of the artist as a heroic figure. I believe artists struggle with many obstacles to make their art and that there is nobility and salvation in the act. I believe in the thought-transformed-into-gesture as the basis for all art. I want art that helps me to see or think in a new way. I don’t believe that all art has an endemic polemic nature. I don’t care about the didactic dialectic, there are those that do and that’s OK. (Unless of course the artist means for the work to be Marxist, feminist, political, Freudian, gay/lesbian or in some way controversial; I think some of the best art is.) But I don’t think that art is by its nature necessarily, intrinsically one of the aforementioned categories. If the blurring of lines between the original and the copy is an art stratagem, then so be it. I just hope that the approach comes from artists rather than dealers and that it doesn’t end up defining a generation of work.

Having said the above, here are the potential problems as I see them. Art, as we have all been told thrives on scarcity. Thus the need for reproductions, for dissemination and education purposes. The danger occurs when the lines of value, both economic and artistic, get blurred. If a dealer, for example, owns certain public domain images and makes what he/she considers limited edition reproductions and places X value upon it, where does the value derive from? All they have done is made numbered copies. The “master printer” is probably unknown, so the value isn’t in who oversees the process. If the owner of the original sells that original work, what is to stop someone else from doing the same thing? There are ethical questions also about the intent of an artist long dead, unable to defend his/her work. Does this violate the spirit of the work? Except to raise more money, reproducing an original really doesn’t benefit living artists either. The act cheapens their work by creating an inferior product. It is inferior because the copy carries less value than the original print, yet they have made the reproduction collectible because they oversaw its production, they signed it and made sure that it was a limited run. However, it’s but a simulacrum.

Art does depend upon the scarcity and the sacredness of the object. That object has value only because a culture determines that it has value. What is being sold when someone buys an artwork is, on the one hand, a physical object and, on the other, a bag full of intangibles. The intangibles are an emotional, psychological, spiritual and an all-that-it-entails connectivity to the person who created that object. The object becomes that intangible focal point for the viewer. It is the bridge that carries the viewer to the creator. If the object is devalued it no longer embodies that power. When we give a reproduction the same or close to the same value as the original we undercut the whole foundation of what makes the creative process important—what gives art its value.

My notion sounds like a romantic ideal of art but I think it’s really just practical. Art is, at the bottom line, just a commodity and at the beginning of the twenty-first century that cold description has never been truer. The art market is a billion-dollar exchange that's about to issue the equivalent of junk bonds. Some may see it as a natural progression and invest much, I see it as a threat. The answer to this, like most questions, lies just ahead and I think not too far.

* “Listen to me, please listen. If you don’t, if you won’t, if you fail to understand, understand the incredible terror that’s menacing me will strike at you!” Actually, he shouts this during the trailer for The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956. It’s quite chilling! ...Really!

© 2001 Larry Lytle

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