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.

6 responses to “Originality

  1. Very interesting post, bob! Rises a lot of questions and gives some answers…

    I also thought a lot about the question (no definite answers for now…) but I’m kind of appalled by the ARBITRARY and wild absurdities of the art market… Only because it has the signature of Picasso or Van Gogh and some experts (often proven wrong and concieted) say it’s an original a small piece of paper with a lame drawing on it could be priced (and sold) hundreds of thousands… Wasn’t Picasso who said that it he would spit on the floor they (I suppose he reffered to his art merchants) will frame it right away?

    Did I well understood? Some reproductions, made with special materials, could outlast an original? ( an acrylic painting for instance?)

  2. Yes, the art market plays an undeniable role in value setting. But I’d like to think there is also something about an original being closer to the spark of the creative moment. Obviously that doesn’t apply to film or photography or to prints. (Or to anything posted on the internet, for that matter!) But think of music. We’d probably all agree a live performance is preferable to the CD of that performance, given the choice. Anyway, I like to think of the answer to your “Why?” as reflecting human interest in gaining proximity to the creative impulse. And, yes, technology may take us away from that, or at least ask us to redefine it.

    Btw, I finally got to posting again. Plan to be regular again, from now on!

  3. Bob, I just now return to your blog and find you all deep in discussion over the mystery of art, man, values and creativity. I love where your art takes us. So, I am thinking about the actual experience of making something new, from our original, inspired, creative mind- the process of this being as important as the outcome. There is something so profound about the art that comes from the grist of the creative encounter, human hands, the desire, the search into oneself or even simply the play and seeing what comes of it. The connection to making something, a tangible real moment in time is what inspires me about original art. The machine that reproduces may be better [or not] but the process of inspiration is gone. I look at your work and marvel at how you achieved the image, the color, the texture and I want to know how to do it too. I want to hear your story of creation, I want more and my eye doesn’t tire of learning. The machine has none of this it and simply copies what has already been made. It copies. Humans create. A copy may make a beautiful image to adorn a wall, but an original comes with a story, with a human, and a connection to the creation of something new. Some thoughts. Gayle

  4. Bob, you raise some very interesting points. I have seen giclees of my work that are absolutely perfect in their faithfulness to the original, right down to the canvas tooth and the little brush hair bits in the original paint. As far as appearance goes, in some cases even I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

    However, if I know the work is an original, I know the artist has touched it and the artwork has occupied the same air as the artist and carries some of the artist’s essence. It’s not necessarily better in an aesthetic sense, just a different experience.

  5. Danu

    I love the quote from Picasso – shows a certain self awareness one might not thought him capable of.

    Yes, using acid free papers and pigment inks, giclee prints nowadays can last 100-200 years plus. Certainly oil paintings can have problems in that time, mostly because of breakdown of the oils binding the pigment. I’m not as sure of acrylics. I know that certain colors tend to be more “fugitive” than others. A lot depends on the substrate used as well. I’ve heard of certain “modern” artists (Rothko among them) who weren’t very concerned with this and now some of their paintings that sold for millions are deteriorating. Ugh!

  6. Jude and Martha

    You both point out that there is some qualitative difference in the original, which is undoubtedly true. The question remains which is “better”.

    Martha, I think the distinction you make is a useful one, that they are different, not necessarily better in an aesthetic sense. And Jude, to your point about live performance being better than a recording, some would not agree at all. Glen Gould, one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century, stopped performing live at an early age and only made recordings because he could avoid mistakes and control the output more to his artistic liking.

    I have heard that when one visits the Mona Lisa now, it’s hard to even see it – the lights have to be kept low to avoid further fading, you can’t get very close, etc. I wonder if the aesthetic or artistic experience of that painting is better served by being able to really see an excellent reproduction of it.

    Of course, the original is unique and has greater value, at least economically. But it may not offer the optimal artistic experience.

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