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:
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' ".
Posted at January 19, 2010 22:01 | permanent link