The actual work matters



Harlequin Head, Picasso, destroyed by Romanian woman

There is some truth in this arrogant pronouncement that no one should mourn the burning of art, since most great art now is reproduced and ostensibly immortalized, in one way or another, on the Web. I’ve argued repeatedly here that seeing an actual, original work of art conveys far more than looking at any reproduction. Granted, there are a host of qualifications, especially with photography, conceptual art, and so on. Yet the difference between standing in front of a painting and looking at a photograph of it is roughly equivalent to the difference between meeting an actual person and examining a snapshot of her. What I like in this piece is the insistence on how the value of actually seeing an original painting or print remains an incredibly elite privilege. The total number of people who attend even the most popular blockbuster exhibitions represents a tiny percentage of the world’s population. Yet this doesn’t justify the cynical subtext here that the only people who are really hurt by the loss of an original work are an exclusive club of wealthy and educated collectors, academics and fellow artists. In a statistical sense, it’s true. But to say that all we need are good reproductions misses the fact that the physical presence of a painting, for example, conveys much of what the work offers someone who sees it. The heart of what’s conveyed by an actual painting remains inexpressible and can be captured neither through words nor through a reproduction. For me, it’s where the real power and meaning of visual art resides, inaccessible to analysis. It isn’t about ideas or concepts or an image that can be extracted from the medium used to render it, like the solution to a puzzle. A painting is as much about the humble, colored mud used to create it as it is about what that medium allows you to imagine. And that’s partly why individual, unique works of art sell for such inflated prices. No one would disagree with the assertion that burning paintings is not an act equivalent to genocide. It would be ridiculous to suggest it, but the loss of original works of art is a loss to mourn, at least a little, and what should be mourned most of all is the way in which, over the past hundred years, part of the actual reality, the essence and being, of painting seems to have been obscured, if not forgotten. Which allows people to write explanations for why you shouldn’t care when a Picasso or Van Gogh gets burned.

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