Why do we value an original piece of art over an imitation? These days, with improvements in reproduction techniques and technology, the reproduction may be as good as (or even better than) the original. I know, I own a fine art printing studio, and it is true that not only can the reproduction look every bit as good as the original but it may also be more archival. I have had nationally renowned artists in my studio comparing the reproduction to their original and worrying that no one will be able to tell the difference. Now, this is not always true and there are definitely ways in which an original painting technique might not reproduce well but it is possible to do so in many cases. And most of us would not place as much value on that reproduction as on the original. Why?
Some believe the value of an art piece comes only from the visual experience we have of it, how it makes us feel upon seeing it, etc. In that case, a “near-perfect” reproduction would be of comparable value because it would give us that same experience. Or consider a painting that is a forgery but is good enough to fool even the experts – the actual visual experience of the forgery is the same as if it were authentic. Once we discover it is a forgery, the painting itself has not changed – only our knowledge of it and it’s relationship to the world has changed.
So it must be true that the value of a work of art is more than just how it looks and what our visual experience of it is. It is partly that, but also its value is based on our knowledge of its relationship to the world. We value it because it is the original, it was created by a specific artist at a specific time, perhaps in response to a particular artistic tradition, etc. It isn’t simply a parasitic forgery of someone else’s work. It isn’t a mechanically produced copy of the original. There is a context in which we see the work which goes above and beyond simply what it looks like.
When I look at a work of art about which I know absolutely nothing, I am basically left only with my own visual experience of it. The more I know about the work the greater the potential for me to place a higher value on it.
As in most things, knowledge leads to greater value.