A Zen koan:
I have something: When you look at it, it’s there. When you look for it, it’s not.
What is it?
One of our local colleges recently adopted a slogan: Be An Original. You see it posted in windows, on raised banners, and draped from buildings as you drive by the campus. I have been told that the slogan is not original with the college. That is to say, it did not originate at the college, but was purchased from an outside consulting firm—evidently to create something like a “brand.” There is an irony here, a somewhat pernicious one. This same college wishing to brand the importance of being original also decided to sell some of its own uniqueness, auctioning from its museum a number of original paintings by prominent American artists. This, it said, was a move to bolster a sagging endowment. In making the decision, one trustee is alleged to have said that no real harm would incur from liquidating original art because a reproduction would be just as good.
The irony in this is stark when you pair the slogan with the apparent indifference toward originality in art. Purchasing a brand identity rather than being original yourself coupled with treating art as simply financial treasure appears to confuse value with cash. Taking someone else’s idea and using it as though it were your own does not make that idea yours even if you paid for it. It is not original with you. It is plastic flooring made to look like wood. Buying a nice poster of Guernica does not make it Picasso’s masterpiece even if it looks just like it. Even if it were a full-sized reproduction it still would not be the Guernica. A reproduction is not equivalent with the original—that seems obvious. But the real difference is not in the price you pay for an image…it is in their respective value. Value is not so much a pecuniary standard as it is a measure of personal worth. The price of a poster or a fine reproduction has everything to do with things like how many are available, how well crafted the copy is, what the market demand is, etc. These have little, almost nothing, to do with value—an attribute of originality that cannot be copied however cleverly it may be mimicked. We’re in trouble when we can no longer discriminate between price and value, or worse, when we claim to know the difference but choose to ignore it. Oscar Wilde, in Lord Darlington, described the cynic as “someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
In an era of mass production, digital technology, high definition imaging, and brand identity marketing it becomes increasingly challenging to know how to think about the virtues, the value, or, for that matter, the meaning of anything original. One is hard pressed these days to believe that anything original actually characterizes, much less defines, how most of us think, live, and consume. Our heads and our behaviors are filled with the mass produced, the reproduced, the facsimile and the photocopy. We hardly know how to think without talking points, opinion pages, and spin doctors telling us. You can only imagine why many artists are similarly hard pressed to sell anybody anything that lacks the look of art we’ve seen in books, on posters, mugs, note cards, and calendars! Paradoxically, while artists want to believe that a painting gets reproduced because it is good, non-artists assume that a painting is good because it is reproduced! Is it any wonder then how increasingly common it is for artists to hear “Wow, I really like this…Do you have a print for sale?” (I know, gotta watch the budget.) But it makes you wonder, has the ubiquity of the reproductive arts undercut our capacity to value the original…or has it perhaps enhanced it? With the fake the phony the superficial and mass-produced everywhere, maybe the original in all its one-of-a-kindness is valued even more? Maybe…but then maybe that’s just a head trip if we’ve never experienced anything original. If we’ve been exposed only to reproduction and imaging, copying and re-appropriating how can we ever know what we’re missing, what we can’t see, feel, or imagine that’s there in the presence of the original? Chocolate flavored candy is not the same thing as real chocolate…but what’s the difference if you’ve never had real chocolate?
In 1936, the eminent cultural critic, Walter Benjamin, published a seminal essay entitled, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In that essay he expressed some concern that the newer media of film and photography had fundamentally altered the concept of art itself. How? By the essential role of reproduction in the medium. Film, for example, actually depends upon its reproducibility. It is an art in which no original properly exists. Audiences depend entirely upon seeing a mass-produced print. The 1930s was an era in which reproductive technology was burgeoning. As one advertisement proclaimed: artwork that once only museums and the rich could afford can now be yours to live with at home. For Benjamin, the “aura” that original works possessed by virtue of their unique existence and presumed cultural value inspired a sense of awe in those who experienced them. What he wondered was whether mass reproduction would supplant the original with a mass-existence that could erode the critical discernment and reflection that once was afforded by the originality of the artist’s vision? In other words, he wondered if the aura of the original were withering?
The withering of the “aura” that concerned Benjamin is something we see in the erosion of our capacity to discriminate “price” from “value” when it comes to original art. Too often too many determine how good a painting is by what they’d have to pay to own it and so they opt for prints or reproductions. There may be some value in having a snap shot of a loved when they are gone, but the value of that image is not in the resemblance it portrays, but in the experience we’ve had of a loved one’s presence. A reproduction does not afford us the presence of an original we’ve never experienced—it is a snapshot of someone we’ve never met.