Week One: Reproducible Art

1 09 2007

The ability to reproduce artwork has grown greatly in the last century, and in more than just leaps and bounds with the advent of the personal computer in the last thirty years. The idea of copying something, before the ‘digital age,’ could be a long and involved, tedious process – now you can right-click, select copy, and be presented with a perfect recreation of the original file. These files, all perfect replicas of one another, are as easy to share as handing a book from person to person, the only limitation being the format something has been transformed into. There is something inherent though, in the type of art – whether it be writing, artwork, or music – that creates and provides unique limitations and boundaries on its reproduction. For a moment I want to focus on the types of reproductions common to the web and discuss the different ways they impact the value of the work itself.

When considering the written word, such as a digital book or research paper, presenting it on the web creates problems that can make the usefulness of the piece become lessened. Although the information is available for people to access it around the world (and even makes it easier for people to translate the article, book, or paper into different languages for world-wide distribution) the limitations of a web browser can detract from the experience. The way of writing a book or paper seems to lend itself better to physical reproductions instead of digital – the attention span of the internet user is small and tiny, and easy to lose without flashy images or gimmicks. I can browse the web and find myself a digital copy of the latest Harry Potter book, for instance, but reading a seven hundred page book off of my computer screen becomes laborious, tedious, and possibly even painful with the screen glare and hours it’d take to complete. Short articles, newspaper editorials, and quick blurbs lend themselves to digital replication and distribution – all without lessening the value of the ‘original’ text itself (instead allowing something so simple as a SPAM message to reach thousands of millions of people) because it no longer is limited to the small area its creator was able to spread the ‘word’ around in. A book or long paper, or detailed magazine seem to somewhat lessen because of the nature of browsing and reading on the web. The ‘huge block of text’ syndrome comes into effect often, and I find it easier to take a long paper from the web, copy it to Word, and print myself a copy out. This copy, once it’s free from the constraints of the computer screen, suddenly has just as much ‘value’ as the original – so maybe, in some cases, it is the format of access itself that has an impact on the ‘value’ of the piece.

Considering the potential impact on value of music or art, I want to take the time to discuss them together. I will state at the beginning that my opinions and beliefs on all of these subjects come from my understanding of mediums, as I label myself a writer, an artist, and a musician. I also want to say that my views, as with any opinion, are mine only, so not necessarily representative of the entire mass of artists, or musicians, or writers, but likely hold a common ground with any of my fellows.

The medium of music is, itself, the art of reproducing sounds and attempting to invoke, create, or replicate an experience. In that abstract sense, music is a copy of something – a musical is a copy of some aspect of life, a flute concerto is a representation of an emotion (and thus some kind of copy of that emotion), and a vocal musician is attempting to copy some emotion or experience with their work. A song, if you look at the lyrics, is often a story being told to the listener, or a snippet of a moment in time – an attempt by that musician to replicate something. An artist makes their ‘work’ in whatever means they are able to reach the masses, and they want their work to be spread and shared. The value of the recording, the notes the instruments make when played, isn’t lessened when you listen to their combined music – passing the disc along to a friend doesn’t impact the value, either. It makes it something that anyone can gain access to, which is, perhaps, what the value of something might be based on. Some artists have begun using the web as a giant advertisement for their work – allow a person to hear a few songs from their CD and suddenly the music it contains is no longer a mystery that you have to pay money to solve. You listen to a song or three, download them to listen to them, and find that you like the artist – and then you buy the album, either digitally or drive out to the store. By providing that tantalizing preview of the work itself, it almost seems to have increased the value of the disc – I already know that I will like it, because I’ve heard songs already. It makes owning the music more rewarding to me, because I won’t feel gypped by it – I know I like it, so what could disappoint me? But another thing is learned when you have something like a musical distributed on the web (or even on CD); a musical is not something that is purely auditory and neither is an opera. For those two types of music, distributing or only accessing the lyrical form reduces the value. I can listen to a CD of Les Miserables but listening to a musical is only a small part of what that experience was meant to be. I can listen to an opera, but an opera (or a musical) were meant to be enjoyed as a mating of both visual and audible. After seeing a musical or opera, a recording of it can have value (because I can mentally recall the experience for my enjoyment) but even that is less than the impact and experience of having seen the musical.

Accessibility is really everything, when art is looked at. A painting, some world-renowned masterpiece like the Mona Lisa, is beautiful – but hard to get at. Unless I want to buy a plane ticket, hop a jet, and go to France, I can’t see the original. If I stood in front of the original piece of art, I’d be spellbound looking at every stroke, every fleck of paint, and I’d be in awe of the amount of time that single creation and contribution took. I can look at a print of the Mona Lisa and still feel some of that awe, that respect for the time and sweat poured into the final product, but it feels less of an experience because I am not there, looking at the original. That doesn’t mean, in any sense, that artwork is lessened when in a digital form or duplicated digitally – creating a painting on the computer translates those brush strokes into a perfectly-intended pixel form. I can pour just as much of my heart and soul into a digital painting as Michaelangelo did into the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but the intended format is not a canvas but a computer screen – it doesn’t make the art any less. A picture on a digital gallery doesn’t mean any less than the original – it’s access for me, the person who doesn’t have the original in hand – and it becomes a way for me to learn new things, see new artists, and find new things to value. Displaying my artwork on the web is a way for me to advertise myself – a way to create ‘digital’ credibility for myself and establish a Name for myself, just in the same way I would try to by selling or displaying works in tiny galleries or little niche coffee shops. Is my art worth any less because I am allowing and providing distribution over the internet? Is it anything less because I have translated it into pixels instead of paint? No – the value of this kind of art is not impacted by digital production. (I will state that the rights of an artist for distribution and replication are another subject entirely and not one I will address here) When a person makes a picture for me and sends me a link to its digital location, that piece of art is not diminished because it is digital – that piece of art is an expression of effort, of meaning, of an intention. Perhaps, with that in mind, it’s not seeing a famous painting in person that is valuable to me and means the prints or digital copies are lesser than that original, but instead that has something to do with history coming into play – that painting has just as much effort as a print shows, it seems more affected by the emotions, which aren’t a value. Someone giving me a picture on line means just as much as if they handed it to me in person – it doesn’t matter if it’s a digital copy that anyone could access, because that thing was made with intention and purpose.

There’s no form of copying which can destroy the reason something was made; distributing a song meant to be passed from person to person doesn’t make it less valuable than a piece of music heard in a theatre, nor does a print-out of a painting become anything less when it’s on a computer screen. The type of replication, and the way that form is normally perceived and accessed, instead is what I feel potentially impacts the value.

~Aubrey Smith

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One response

3 09 2007
dr t

Reading a text intended for print onscreen is difficult, but rather than looking at the web-browser as a limitation, why not look at it a a new medium? Photography and painmting are similarly related, I think. Photography isn’t the same medium as painting,; though early photographers tried to emulate paintings, eventually they figured out that photography was a different artform.

So, what artforms will digital media engender? (Maybe that’ll be a good question for next week. . . )

–dr t

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