January 19, 2010

The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Attention conservation notice: 800+ words of inconclusive art/technological/economic-historical musings.

This thread over at Unfogged reminds me of something that's puzzled me for years, ever since reading this: why didn't prints displace paintings the same way that printed books displaced manuscript codices? Why didn't it become expected that visual artists, like writers, would primarily produce works for reproduction? (No doubt, in that branch of the wave-function*, obsessive fans still want to get the original drawings, but obsessive fans also collect writer's manuscripts, or even their typewriters, as well as their mass-produced books.) 16th century engraving technology was strong enough that it could implement powerful works of art (vide), so that can't be it. And by the 18th century at least writers could make a living (however precarious) from writing for the mass public, so why didn't visual artists (for the most part) do likewise? (Again, it's manifestly not as though technology has regressed.) Why is it still the case that a real, high-class visual artist is someone who makes one-offs? I know that reproductions have been important since at least the late 1800s, but for works and artists who first made their reputation with unique, hand-made objects, which is as though the only books which got sent to the printing press were ones which had already circulated to acclaim in manuscript.

Some possibilities I don't buy:

  1. Aesthetic limitations. There are valuable effects which can be achieved with a big original painting which prints just can't match. Response: there are effects you can achieve with an illuminated, calligraphic manuscript which you can't match with movable type, either. Those weren't valuable enough to keep printed books from taking over. Why the difference? Why not a focus on what can be done through prints, which is quite a lot? (Witness the experience of the 20th century and later, when most art lovers know most works of art they enjoy through reproductions.)
  2. Color. A real limitation; even today, getting color done well in mass visual media is not entirely trivial (cf.), and early modern Europe certainly couldn't do it at all. Response: What makes color so important? We know that some great art was made without its benefit, and we don't really know how much better it could have gotten had prints been the medium of choice. Even if color was all that, it just pushes the shift to the late 19th century.
  3. Artists too expensive. Whether you are producing one painting or a thousand prints, there is a considerable fixed cost to the artist's time and training. (The first print is very expensive.) Individual patrons could afford this; the mass public could not. Response: The same argument would apply to books. Besides, high fixed costs usually drive towards seeking a wider market, so that the fixed costs are distributed over a larger number of people. The argument would have to be one of failure of demand — that where there was one man willing to pay 100 guilders (or whatever) for a painting, there were not, say, 120 people willing to pay 1 guilder for prints. Why not?
  4. Paintings too cheap. There have always been too many people wanting to be visual artists for them to all make a living as original artists. One of the things they could do instead was paint copies. Response: The economy of scale problem still applies.
  5. States too weak. In a competitive market, market prices equal marginal costs. The marginal cost of producing another copy of a print is very, very low, so low that the fixed costs of drawing and designing it in the first place aren't recouped. As usual, then, competitive markets fail massively at producing informational goods. The modern solution is to institute and vigorously enforce intellectual property rights. These are monopoly privileges which the state grants to certain individuals; if anyone tries to compete with these favorites of the powers that be, then "goons with guns" (as my libertarian friends like to say) come to stop them. Doing this requires a really massively powerful and intrusive state, which is a relatively recent phenomenon, and not to be lightly deployed on behalf of artists, of all people. Artists who tried to go the mass-production route would've been even more starvation-prone than those who didn't attempt it. Response: An exactly parallel argument would explain why writers didn't embrace printing.
  6. The revolution has happened. The overwhelming majority of visual artists do aim their work at reproduction; it's just a small minority which continues to produce one-offs. This minority has, however, a lot more cultural prestige. Response: There's some merit to this, but it's bizarre and anomalous; it's not as though our really high-class literature was still illuminated or calligraphic manuscripts, and printing was reserved for declassé "commercial" work.
The most convincing argument I've been able to come up with has to do with how visual artworks were and are used. Even in manuscript, books were for reading: private consumption, or near enough. European culture, however, provided a steady stream of demand for works of visual art for public display, which is rather different. It were just a matter of pictures you'd like to look at for your own enjoyment, perhaps prints would serve. But if it's about decorating the church/guildhall/imposing estate, then you need a unique painting of St. Jerome/the burgomasters/the master of the house. The main point is that the owner has the resources to command their very own artwork, not the work's intrinsic aesthetic properties (which good reproductions would share). But even then, why not develop a second stream of reproducible artwork for private rather than conspicuous consumption? And indeed why not try to achieve similar effects in print, thereby broadcasting the message?

Updates, 31 January 2010: In correspondence, Elihu Gerson points to an interesting-looking book relevant to the social-use explanation.

Also, it seems I should clarify that I am not asking why (as Vukutu puts it) "people desire original works of visual art rather than printed reproductions". If you are going to paint in oils on canvas, then of course making a flat print of the result going to lose some detail of the physical object, and those details might contribute in important ways to people's experience of the object; there might be a real esthetic loss to looking at a reproduction of a painting. What I am asking is why then we do not produce artworks which are designed for reproduction. Or rather, we do produce lots of such art, but it's not seen as very valuable, and generally not even real art in the honorific sense. "Printed reproductions of physical paintings lose valuable details" does not answer "Why did our visual arts continue to focus on making one-off works?", unless you perhaps you add some extra premises, like (i) no print-reproducible image could be as esthetically valuable as a three-dimensional painting, and (ii) that difference in intrinsic quality was extremely important to the people who consumed art, and I am very dubious about both of these.

Finally, I don't think it's sufficient to point to "tradition", since traditions change all the time. That deserves another argument, but another time. In lieu of which, I'll just offer a quotation from a favorite book, Joseph (Abu Thomas) Levenson's Confucian China and Its Modern Fate; he is writing about ideas, but as he makes clear, what he says applies just as much to aesthetic or practical choices as to intellectual ones.

With the passing of time, ideas change. This statement is ambiguous, and less banal than it seems. It refers to thinkers in a given society, and it refers to thought. With the former shade of meaning, it seems almost a truism: men may change their minds or, at the very least, make a change from the mind of their fathers. Ideas at last lose currency, and new ideas achieve it. If we see an iconoclastic Chinese rejection, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, of traditional Chinese beliefs, we say that we see ideas changing.

But an idea changes not only when some thinkers believe it to be outworn but when other thinks continue to hold it. An idea changes in its persistence as well as in its rejection, changes "in itself" and not merely in its appeal to the mind. While iconoclasts relegate traditional ideas to the past, traditionalists, at the same time, transform traditional ideas in the present.

This apparently paradoxical transformation-with-preservation of a traditional idea arises form a change in its world, a change in the thinker's alternatives. For (in a Taoist manner of speaking) a thought includes what its thinker eliminates; an idea has its particular quality from the fact that other ideas, expressed in other quarters, are demonstrably alternatives. An idea is always grasped in relative association, never in absolute isolation, and no idea, in history, keeps a changeless self-identity. An audience which appreciates that Mozart is not Wagner will never hear the eighteenth-century Don Giovanni. The mind of a nostalgic European medievalist, though it may follow its model in the most intimate, accurate detail, is scarcely the mirror of a medieval mind; there is sophisticated protest where simple affirmation is meant to be. And a harried Chinese Confucianist among modern Chinese iconoclasts, however scrupulously he respects the past and conforms to the letter of tradition, has left his complacent Confucian ancestors hopelessly far behind him...

An idea, then, is a denial of alternatives and an answer to a question. What a man really means cannot be gathered solely from what he asserts; what he asks and what other men assert invest his ideas with meaning. In no idea does meaning simply inhere, governed only by it degree of correspondence with some unchanging objective reality, without regard to the problems of its thinker. [pp. xxvii--xxviii; for context, this passage was first published in 1958]

*: With apologies to the blogger formerly known as "the blogger formerly known as 'The Statistical Mechanic' ".

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