I’m re-reading Ayn Rand’s Romantic Manifesto for an upcoming seminar on the topic, so my mind is on art and aesthetics. In that spirit, Robert Campbell, Stephen Boydstun, and I just revived a four-year-old conversation on Rand’s aesthetics, and I’ve been going back and forth with Anoop Verma on Facebook on the supposed aesthetic superiority of original paintings to their “exact” copies. For whatever it’s worth, I thought I’d reproduce some of that discussion here, in case it was of general interest.
As it happens, I read Verma’s posts on Facebook and responded to them without reading the fuller versions posted on his blog. After I read the fuller blog version, it occurred to me that the response I’d given Verma was very similar to the account of Nelson Goodman’s that Verma himself had quoted in the original post. Great minds thinking alike? Or fools of a feather flocking together? You decide.
Verma, in a Facebook post not reproduced on his blog, quoting Aline B. Saarinen:
The most tantalizing question of all: If a fake is so expert that even after the most thorough and trustworthy examination its authenticity is still open to doubt, is it or is it not as satisfactory a work of art as if it were unequivocally genuine?
If the authenticity of a painting is still “open to doubt,” it’s also open to doubt that a great original is aesthetically identical to a copy. “Open to doubt” means, precisely, that it can’t be known whether the original and the copy are the same. But if we’re dealing with aesthetic genius, it’s legitimate to consider the possibility that the artist’s genius exceeds the capacities of the “most thorough and trustworthy examination.” It’s therefore rational to prefer the original to the copy on the hypothesis that the original exceeds the aesthetic merits of the copy.
Here’s a snippet from Verma’s later blog post on the subject. But read the whole post in its original form (along with the synopsis of Goodman’s views), as well as Verma’s interesting discussion of Foucault’s analysis of Velasquez’s “Las Meninas”:
Why do people prefer an original work of art to an exact-copy of it when they cannot tell the difference between the two? It cannot be due to aesthetic reasons because the two look similar. It is possible that if the copy which looks like the original is a counterfeit, we will be averse to it for purely moral reasons, just as we are averse to any act of fraud.
Isn’t the difference that the copy derives from the original but the original derives from the sheer creativity of the artist? So even if the two paintings are indistinguishable at first, the fact remains that they are different, and it is reasonable for the owner to surmise that a discernible difference will reveal itself through patient study over time.
I have listened to the same piece of music for decades and not noticed subtleties until an expert or specialist brought them to my attention. The same reasoning could apply here, with appropriate adjustments.
That is a fine point. But the question is that why do people prefer to look at the original instead of an exact-copy. In many cases, the exact-copy is better than the original — because the original may be too old and it can show signs of aging, whereas the exact-copy will depict the painting or sculpture as it was when the artist created it. There is no extra aesthetic value to be derived from looking at the original. The aesthetic value of the copy is better than the original, and yet people want to see the original and not the copy. And this is mostly due to human psychology — people want to look at the original because they get a feeling of being in touch with a great mind who initially created the work.
Whether rightly or wrongly, I think people doubt that an “exact copy” is literally exact in every detail. The reason I gave is a reason for thinking it may not be. It may appear that way at first, but the initial appearance is likely to be wrong. The assumption is one about artistic genius: the artist has made subtle decisions that will not be captured by a copy-maker, no matter how highly skilled. Apparent exactitude is bound to be revealed as an error or illusion. That at any rate is the most plausible rationale; it may itself be in error.
Note that the rationale I’ve given is purely aesthetic, even if mistaken.
I think it is correct that no exact-copy can be an exact replica of the original. However, here we are not looking at being an exact-copy in the metaphysical sense–we are looking at it in a philosophical sense.
In a philosophical sense, the exact-copy is so perfect that there is not even a difference of a molecule, atom or an electron between it and the original. They are completely alike, down to every atom and electron that they contain.
So what happens in such situation? If such a perfect exact copy is hanging alongside the original in the museum which one will people prefer to see. I think people will still prefer to stand in a queue before the original.
This is because they are filled with the desire of not only looking at a masterpiece, but to look at masterpiece that has been created by a legendary master who lived decades or even centuries ago. An original work of art has an aesthetic value as well as a historical, contextual, financial and psychological value.
I don’t really understand the distinctions you’re making, or how they respond to what I said. If the copy is not an exact replica of the original, how can it be so perfectly similar that there is not a molecule or atom’s difference between the two?
My point is that the assumption you’re making about originals and copies is either very unlikely to be true, or very unlikely to be knowable, or simply not widely known. It is unlikely that copies are really exact replicas of originals. If they are, it is going to be very difficult to prove that. And even if it’s provable, many people will be unfamiliar with the proof. Either of those three possibilities (or the combination) leads away from your highly reductive assumption: that there are no rational reasons for preferring originals to copies, even when the two look “the same.”
When it comes to works of artistic genius, looking the same and being the same are not the same thing. There are irrational reasons for preferring an original to a copy, but one perfectly justifiable reason is the (justifiable) assumption that the original has aesthetic qualities missing in the copy, whether or not those qualities are readily apparent at first, even to experts. If we are dealing with a Vermeer or a Rembrandt, it is more rational to assume that the aesthetic qualities of the original exceed what a copiest could produce than to assume that an expert’s verdict on the exactness of the copy is true. It is much more obvious that Vermeer is an artistic super-genius than that any expert’s testimony on originals versus copies should be trusted. You’re relying on a very artificial thought experiment that presupposes exactly what needs to be demonstrated–that originals and copies can be literally identical. The best reason to prefer an original to a copy is a person’s justifiable doubt that originals and copies really are identical.
I was gratified to be in agreement with the one art historian, Wayne Dynes, who was party to the discussion: Dynes argued that there is no such thing as an “exact copy” of a master work of painting. My defense of Dynes’s position:
Take an original Vermeer in excellent condition versus a copied Vermeer in excellent condition. Wayne’s point about these two items is hard to dispute: it is not plausible to claim that a copied Vermeer will literally be identical to an original. It may look that way at first, but over time, the differences will start to become apparent, at least to an educated viewer. But even if no differences do become apparent, it is rational think that some might become apparent, and that possibility supplies a purely aesthetic reason to prefer the original to any copy, at least in cases like this. In other cases, different considerations will apply. Maybe a copy is better to look at than a Vermeer in poor condition, but that is a special case that doesn’t really deal with the crux of the issue. The real question is whether copies can really capture the aesthetic qualities of originals, and the vast, vast majority of copies do not–not even if they seem to, at first. Given that overwhelming evidence, apparent to expert and non-expert alike, you face a huge burden of proof in asserting that originals and copies can be aesthetically identical, so that the preference for the original is non-aesthetic or irrational.
It is a philosophical question — why do people like the original when an exact-copy is available? In a philosophical sense we can assume that the exact copy is complete exact.
Let’s say there is an original Vermeer and its exact copy. The critics and the public are told that the exact copy is the original and the original is the exact copy. Where will they queue up? Obviously they will queue up before the exact copy, because they think this is the original.
So the question is basically psychological and philosophical in nature, and the idea is to find out why people prefer to look at an original even when they do not derive any aesthetic advantage from it.