Walter Benjamin lamented the advent of mass reproduction, saying that it ‘withered’ the aura of an original artwork (Schirato and Webb 2004, 123). However, context and use value are what fundamentally separate the forms; reproduction can actually “revalue” an original work by contradistinction to a mass produced object (Pugliese 2013, 6). A ‘Mona Lisa’ coffee mug is not ‘The’ Mona Lisa – it is a coffee mug with an image of the Mona Lisa on it (Fig. 1-2). The reproduction is mass homage: people want to drink hot beverages from her, and as such, mass reproduction increases the aura of the original work exponentially.
Fig. 1. Not the Mona Lisa. Fig. 2. Not a pipe.
If anything, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa suffers from ‘auratic withering’ (Benjamin in Schirato and Webb 2004, 123) because the very ‘craft’ viewers come to The Louvre to see has become something of the order of spectacle (Gentleman 2004), which Benjamin would no doubt find ironic, the term ‘spectacle’ being more traditionally associated with popular culture (Schirato and Webb 2004, 115). It is hard to imagine the aura of authenticity reaching the viewer from behind bulletproof glass, in a crowd of hundreds being shuffled through by security. Schirato and Webb talk about the cult value of art (Schirato and Webb 2004, 118); the Mona Lisa combines this abstract quality with the more popularly accessible quality of ‘pricelessness’, rendering art fetishism, in her case, somewhat of an extreme sport.
Fig. 3. The ‘spectacle’ of the Mona Lisa
The work of Mark Rothko, to me, exemplifies the distinction between the sacredness of the original and the reproduction: I don’t believe a Rothko is reproducible without losing most of its communicative value. Critics like Harold Rosenberg believed that Minimalist works were a communication direct from the artist’s’ subconscious, the purity of the meaning defying language (Wolf 2013). Rothko’s work has paradoxically taken on what Schirato and Webb term “quasi-religious significance” (2004, 119). As testament, Houston philanthropists John and Dominique de Menil founded The Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, an all-faith meditative space established to “inspire people to action through art and contemplation.”
I at once value the original and the copy. For example, I have in my home a poster of a Fischli and Weiss installation from their retrospective at Tate Modern in 2007. In a characteristically postmodern way, I experience the memory of the pleasure of high art through my mass produced poster: it inspires ‘lowbrow’ sentimentality in me! The copy is evidence of the aura of the original. Viewer engagement with reproductions is even more vivid if one has actually seen an original. For those with little knowledge of ‘high art’, an apron printed with Michelangelo’s David might just be a guilty giggle.
Without reproduction, many great works would be unseen by the world and that would be a pity; art would have inevitably become more elitist (Schirato and Webb 2004, 128). ‘Value’ is highly subjective and can only be assessed by examining what is present in an original and what is enabled by a copy, then contemplating the personal satisfaction derived from each, or indeed both. Denouncing reproductions as kitsch is a class judgement in disguise, and is culturally limiting – after all, if we didn’t embrace kitsch, we wouldn’t have John Waters.
Gentleman, Amelia. 2004. ‘Smile, please’. The Guardian. Accessed January 6. http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2004/oct/19/art.france
Schirato, Tony, and Jen Webb. 2004. Reading the Visual. Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin.
Pugliese, Joseph. 2012. ‘Week 5: Technologies of Visual Reproduction’. CLT120 Vision, Visuality and Everyday Life. Macquarie University Lecture. Accessed December 14. http://ilearn.mq.edu.au/pluginfile.php/1654238/mod_resource/content/1/Week%205%20Technologies%20of%20Visual%20Reproduction%20PDF.pdf
Rothko Chapel. 2013. ‘About the chapel’. Accessed January 6. http://www.rothkochapel.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=3&Itemid=31
Wolf, Justin. ‘Modern Art Concept: Media Purity’. The Art Story. Accessed January 6. http://www.theartstory.org/definition-media-purity.htm