Reproduction of the “Masterpiece”

After reading the article “The Museum of the Future” by Walt Lippmann, I was curious and interested in his concept of reproducing artwork.  He considered museums as a sanctuary for artwork and stressed that in today’s museum setting, most of these pieces will never leave their “home”. Because museum collections are leaning towards the permanent, viewers have little chance to see certain items if they don’t travel. Traveling to view art, in some eyes, is not always a priority and therefore, certain masterpieces will never be experienced by this audience. “Yet the supply of masterpieces of art and unique objects of great value is limited, whereas all over the world, in every nation and in every city there is a rising demand by greater and greater masses of people for access to these masterpieces and unique objects.”This begs a serious question: should art be reproduced?

In the future, museums must discover ways to reach both local and national visitors, and reproducing art, I think is one way to help fix the problem. I am not saying however, that the reproduction artwork should be viewed as the original, nor should it be referenced as a primary source. Reproduction artwork should used similar to a library as Lippmann suggests, to implement its original self- it should be inspiration to view the source, in this case, the masterpiece.  Suggesting that famous paintings be copied does seem to take away from it’s splendor and glory, and this notion of copying should be approached with caution. If though the copies  provide a way for others, unable to see the original, to connect with the artwork, would it not be considered a success?

I want to open this post to everyone’s opinions, I am really curious to see how the group feels about the importance of the “one of a kind” verses the readily available. Would the notion of reproduction lead to the downfall of the museum? Would it take away certain museums’ appeals, or, could it provide a means of further research and study?


7 responses to “Reproduction of the “Masterpiece”

  1. museumdesignlab

    This discussion is already well underway on another post Museum Without Walls (Reprise) and in subsequent comments. But please continue here. I would like to note however that this is not really a discussion about the future, as art has been reproduced and reproductions have been a part of artistic production for a long time. A “masterpiece” has to be designated by someone, likely a professional historian or curator. These are modern professions. I may be wrong but I suspect that previous generations were not as obsessed with this. You could argue that artistic reproduction has been with us since the beginning of artistic production and is in some ways essential to it. Back in the caves artists rendered the same animal in an almost compulsive way, copying the work of previous artists over thousands of years and across vast geographic territories. What does it mean that you see the same antelope depicted on rock walls all over the Southwestern US? Do we think less of each work? Roman sculptors mostly created reproductions of existing marbles. Renaissance and Baroque artists copied each other relentlessly in order to extend the life of certain leitmotifs that were central to an understanding of art history. Art has certainly been mass distributed since the advent of photography. Does reproduction somehow diminish the art object or is the art object not an end in and of it self but rather a means of expressing an idea that lives outside of the object. Many artists might say that “art” is not in the object but is transportable. Most likely everything you know about Michelangelo or Titian or Velasquez is based on a long history of seeing reproductions. In fact if you ever were to see the real thing of course you have already been prepared for your encounter with the original by these prior experiences of endless reproductions. So let me turn the table around and ask – where is the real value located in Art?

  2. museumdesignlab

    I just came across an interesting review of new Chinese art museums which apparently treat the art object very differently than western art museums do. In China there are no “masterpieces” only “cultural relics”. These are often contextualized within a larger story and supported by images, media, text etc. See the narrated slideshow in this NY Times article from last summer.

  3. In response to the comment above, I would like to delve a bit more deeply into the meaning of “cultural relic” in Chinese. This is a very calculated term, imposed by the Chinese Government. In Chinese, “cultural relic” is 文物, or wénwù.
    “Wén” is an ancient character, which first means written language, and then means culture; thus to be cultured, literally means that one knows how to write. This meaning derives from China’s Confucian history, where the scholarly elite men, who knew the entire Chinese canon of ancient literature, were the ideal. “Wù” means thing in this case. Thus a masterpiece is considered a “cultured thing.” This thing or object, then, does not have meaning without “culture.” What that “culture” is though, is a highly regulated, prescribed notion put forth by the Chinese Government.
    “Cultural relics” and their placement within free museums in China, as noted in the NYTimes article cited by Tim, play a specific function within the Communist society. These objects, remnants of China’s ancient past are part of the Communist’s attempts to connect China’s past with the current Communist Government. This is why Confucius is popular again and the Government is sponsoring museums displaying ancient objects, only the Communists are taking these objects and placing them within their own configuration of Chinese history. These works thus, could not be “masterpieces” as we, in English and other languages call them, because that implies there was a “master” who created the piece. Terming them as “cultural” implies the whole Chinese nation owns them and they are part of the larger collective.
    “Masterpiece” has a deep history in western culture as stemming from a particular process—one with a deemed and celebrated master who oversees a workshop and produces his great works. This is exactly the process the Chinese Government is trying to purposefully skip over especially as it finds much difficulty censoring China’s blossoming group of artists who are always trying to push the limits. Thus, in response to Tim’s question, “where is the real value of art located,” I would have to say within in current culture in which that art resides.

  4. It’s interesting that, I believe, Japan has an idea of Living National Treasures or, more accurately “Preservers of Important Intangible Cultural Properties”. These people are designated every year, like heritage properties, or UNESCO sites. I think this follows the idea that a process or active tradition can be just as important as the product of a process or tradition.

  5. Pingback: Locating Masterpieces « Museum Design Lab

  6. It looks like my entry was cross-posted as a comment in this entry, which is great because I actually considered making it just a comment but my entry just got too long…

    I thought the grid of all of Vermeer’s work was a great way to use reproductions as an educational tool at a museum.

    Reproductions suffice in many cases, but it gets very complicated with fine arts I believe. Especially paintings, because the reason they are meant to be appreciated (outside of their role as a historical objects: Im talking purely as aesthetic ones) is the careful observation of quality of brush stroke, color mixing, the technique the artist used to represent light, etc

    I suppose it is entirely possible one day a machine could make an EXACT copy, but today that would be so novel in itself the copy would be a conversation piece.

    (If it ever comes to that maybe masterpieces would be “demoted” to solely historical objects rather than singular aesthetic wonders, and copies of masterpieces would be made for art students to study… if painting will even survive in the future!)

  7. I also agree with your argument about the importance of technique. I think one of the most interesting aspects of the masterpiece is how it got there… How was it painted, what influenced the painting technique, why were certain materials used. I think exact reproductions are helpful when studying about art, but the actual painting itself is much more than the figures, stories, or people they show. The painting, or for that matter any medium, must be viewed as a whole. In order to truly connect with the art, one must see the stroke, the buildup of paint, or any other aspects that show the original artist’s interaction.

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