The Debate over Reproductions
By nature of their definition and mission, fine art museums aim to collect, protect, and share works of art for the benefit of the public. In thinking about the history of museums sharing their collection and the methods with which they can fulfill that part of their mission, the questions become, for which public are they sharing these works of art? And how are they doing it? Prior to recent advances in technology, the answer to the former was the local public or upper class globetrotters—those who lived within close proximity to art museums or those of the leisure class capable to traveling on their own grand tours of art landmarks. The answer to the latter was even simpler—they opened their doors. Many of the collections that became the foundation of museum collections came from private hands only to be seen by elite social circles, so the newfound accessibility to these works of art was paramount to the historical trajectory of museums and the dissemination of their collection to increasingly expanding audiences.
Beginning with Gutenberg’s printing press in the 15th century, dissemination of information has been a growing cultural staple and technological advancements have consistently improved on the speed and method for sharing information on a broader and now global scale. These changes of course penetrated the art world as images joined the printing press process and visual communication became equally fundamental to text communication—the goal being to eventually find a way to marry the two in print and later through the Internet in the manner of a “virtual flânerie” (Gretton, 2000).
However, while dissemination seems to be a constant goal of any content generating outlet, fine art museums have faced a unique challenge in response to sharing their collection—reproduction and authenticity. Walter Benjamin addressed the challenges that reproduction poses to artistic perception in his seminal text “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In this essay, Benjamin states that “In principle a work of art has always been reproducible. Man-made artifacts could always be imitated by men.” The truth of this statement is almost disappointing; however what he then goes on to debate is the authenticity and authority of this reproduction. He shortly goes on to mention that while a work is inherently reproducible, it is in fact different when he adds, “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence.” Benjamin argues that it is only the original that can convey the true authenticity of the work, stating that “the sphere of authenticity is outside technical reproducibility.” This concept is what he later refers to as the ‘aura’. The aura is what is lost through reproduction. And it is changes in social perception that determine the consequences of losing that aura. Benjamin explains, “The technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence.” He is suggesting that it is now the contemporary masses who decide what value the aura carries. While contradictory to the ideology of a museum, Benjamin claims that the decay of the aura is a result of “the desire of the contemporary masses to bring things “closer” spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction” (Benjamin, 1939).
With his assessment in mind, what is most critical to museums is how the public interacts with these reproductions and the subsequent implications for the viewing of the original work of art. How have these interactions changed over time? Does the original work of art become irrelevant? Keeping in mind the ideal scenario in which the physical objects are viewed in their three-dimensional entirety, do museums have to succumb to embracing image dissemination for the sake of remaining a relevant cultural authority? These guiding questions are essential to understanding how technology has changed the experience of art appreciation.
Capturing and preserving this existence is of course the fundamental mission of the art museum. Curators and arts administrators would almost always argue that a work of art is best seen in person where it is in its entirety with limited interpretation leaving the viewer empowered to make their own conclusions of the value and impact of the work. With mechanical and technological reproduction, however, this direct and individual experience is no longer the standard practice. People are almost more likely to have an experience with a work of art through a book or online and the stages of technological intervention between the original and the reproduction have to be taken into account. These interventions of course are viewed differently from the point of view of the art purist and the general public who are both consuming these forms of visual communication. Benjamin continues, “The technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself. Above all, it enables the original to meet the beholder halfway” (Benjamin, 1936). This has become almost the forefront of contemporary museum ideology. Most directors will probably say that having visitors in the galleries remains the ideal scenario, but bringing collections closer, in the sense of accessible proximity, to the audience is crucial for sustaining the relevance of the museum as cultural institutions continue to fight for their place in the internet and social media age. A notable benefit is that in many cases, meeting the beholder halfway also increases the likelihood of an actual visit should the opportunity arise in the future.