The One and Only Original

[The following is a defense of original artwork I wrote during October 2012.]

“We heard about this paint,” the customers explained, “which you put on a print to make it just like a real painting.”  They might have purchased Liquitex acrylic gel or perhaps (if they balked at the price) some Mod Podge.  Unfortunately, they directed their question to a clerk who had spent years learning how to paint.  “Stuck-up purist,” they whispered as they left empty-handed a few minutes later.

Perhaps they were right.  If only a specialist can tell the difference between an original and a print, is it still significant?

A casual viewer may not consciously distinguish between original art and its reproductions, but for such viewers (as well as connoisseurs) an image’s status as either a unique or an infinitely reproducible object profoundly affects its meaning and content.  Those of us who create art have a vested interest in how both casual and informed viewers access artworks’ content.  For some artists and art viewers, a proliferation of images (and their concomitant egalitarianism) is desirable.  Other artworks fail in reproductions because their meaning relies on formal qualities which can not be easily replicated.

Vulnerable qualities include surface texture, scale, and context.  Art theorists such as Walter Benjamin and John Berger discuss these aspects when they generalize about the aura of original artworks.  Some argue that the differences between originals and their copies can be overemphasized, such as Berger’s criticisms about the “bogus religiosity which now surrounds original works of art” (Ways of Seeing 23).  In order to decide whether this aura is bogus or meaningful, consider some of the specific differences as they relate to content.

An ideal reproduction would provide the same aesthetic experience as the original.

Certain formal elements are regularly lost or altered as a result of digital or printed formats. Encaustics and translucent oil glazes suffer in these situations since both depend on the light refractive qualities of their mediums.  When a painting has been photographed, prints of that photograph only show how its texture looks from a single point in space.  Metallic paint appears as either highlights or shadows depending on the viewer’s point of view.  Since a photograph freezes the point of view, it strips the artwork of that transformative quality.  Most reproductions shortchange Gustav Klimt’s paintings, which often juxtapose flat oil paint and reflective metal.


Gerhard Richter’s November, January, and December hang in the St. Louis Art Museum and demonstrate how scale changes can be an issue with art reproductions.  This triptych’s layers of scraped, torn, and squeegeed paint produce a subtle holographic effect absent in photographs.  Museum signage mentions the dismantling of the Berlin wall as Richter’s inspiration, but that connection is diminished without the immediacy of a wall of paint looming overhead (St. Louis Art Museum).


Advances in technology could overcome these technical issues, but it will never completely replicate an artwork’s intended context.  Consider Auguste Rodin’s sculpture The Thinker.  The famous figure was originally sited near the top of The Gates of Hell.  What eventually became known as The Thinker initially represented the Italian poet Dante Alighieri (Rodin Museum).  Given context, viewers’ understanding of an artwork’s meaning and allusions changes dramatically.


The portability of a reproduction is part of how context affects content.  No discussion of the impact of original art is complete without a reference to Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”  In it Benjamin points out that “…technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself” (220).  Berger built on Benjamin’s analysis of the way reproductions affect art’s content by stating that “…its meaning multiplies and fragments into many meanings” (19).  He updated Benjamin’s ideas and predictions by pointing out that, thanks to the facility of inexpensive modern reproductions, postcards can be pinned to a wall, photographs can be printed on mugs, and images can be screen-printed onto shirts.  Copies function as new artworks and carry slightly different meaning in each incarnation (including the original).

Historical context

Benjamin’s essay also explains that “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” (220).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a fairly typical and well-executed Netherlandish Virgin and Child with Saints which supports this argument.  A small sign explains that the painting was once owned by England’s King Henry VII.  This monarch’s marriage to Elizabeth of York was painted over the Virgin and John the Baptist.  To contemporary viewers, this painting presents an audacious example of hubris and possible foreshadowing of his successor’s rupture from the Catholic Church.  Without our knowledge of its royal owner or his alterations, this is merely one more religious painting in a hall of similar historical artifacts.  No modern copy could fully duplicate the same historical weight.



A final way in which an original has authority which eludes most reproductions is the former’s perceived rarity value.  People tend to place more value on things which are difficult to acquire or see than on images which can be quickly retrieved online or in books.  Robert Henri pointed out to his students that the way they analyze and draw a model is completely altered by an abundance or dearth of time (25).  Similarly, a rarely-displayed artwork or temporary installation will be regarded much more intensely than one on permanent display.  For many artists, this means that widely distributing copies of their images increases their likelihood of being seen while diluting the impact of each copy.  Advertising and street art (such as that of Shepard Fairey) prove that the power of ubiquity can equal or surpass that of rarity when distributed widely enough.

Egalitarianism vs. elitism

Plainly, the status of an artwork as a discrete or mass-produced object is no insignificant matter.  An artist whose message stems from populism might be better served by the very qualities which would repel one whose content emphasizes rarity or ephemeral qualities.  As Susan Sontag declares:

The traditional fine arts are elitist… The media are democratic… The traditional fine arts rely on the distinction between authentic and fake, between original and copy, between good taste and bad taste; the media blur, if they do not abolish outright, these distinctions. (105-6)

Tradition has long favored the archetype of art as singular objects, but tradition is a flimsy guiding force with today’s artists in the United States.  The only remaining incentive for artists to reject reproductions would be if their artworks were somehow improved by their status as irreproducible objects with  carefully-controlled scale, history, context, accessibility, or portability.  The uniqueness of an art object can be powerful, and artists must decide individually if that power works for or against their message.  Regardless of which approach each person chooses, the decision is a critical part of producing, marketing, and discussing art.

Works Cited

Berger, John.  Ways of Seeing.  New York: The Viking Press, 1973. Print.

Benjamin, Walter.  “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”  Illuminations.  Trans. Harry Zohn.  New York: Schocken Books, 1968. Print.

Henri, Robert. The Art Spirit. New York: Basic Books, 2007. Print.

“January.” St. Louis Art Museum. Web. 28 Sept. 2012.

Klimt, Gustav. Danae. 1907-8. Private collection, Austria. ARTstor. Web. 30 Sept. 2012.

Richter, Gerhard. December. 1989. St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis. SLAM eMuseum. Web. 30 Sept. 2012.

–. January.

–. November.

Rodin, Auguste. Gates of Hell model. 1880. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. ARTstor. Web. 30 Sept. 2012.

–. The Thinker. 1880. Musée Rodin, Paris. ARTstor. Web. 30 Sept. 2012.

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Picador, 2001. Print.

“The Thinker.” Rodin Museum, Philadelphia. Web. 28 Sept. 2012.

Virgin and Child with Saints. 1472. Oil on wood. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

One response to “The One and Only Original”

  1. […] Seven hundred pages of research and note-taking later, I was struck by déjà vu.  As George Santayana’s epigram scolds, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (qtd. in The Culture of the Copy 271).  The repetition was this:  I wrote on the relative merits of originality and duplication in art almost exactly one year ago. […]

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: