Imagine a future in which an art work could be reproduced anywhere at any time. Is this a utopia or a nightmare?
In 1928, Paul Valéry wrote a brilliant, short essay entitled “The Conquest of Ubiquity” which imagines how technological progress will change our idea of beauty. Inspired by broadcast music, he foresaw a time when visual and auditory images will be brought into our houses just as water, gas, and electricity are.
Eight years later, Walter Benjamin wrote his famous essay “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in which he argued that the authenticity of a work of art is the chain of tradition of the work of art from the time it was created to its present state and location. Mechanical reproduction destroys this tradition by denying its value as a hidden cult object, or as an object of veneration in an exhibition.
What does authenticity mean when mechanical reproduction can put a work of art in places where it was never intended, or emphasize features that were not apparent in the original? Benjamin thought of technologies such as lithography or film.
Today we have technical means that neither Valéry nor Benjamin could imagine.
Photographic reproduction of works on paper such as wood cuts, engravings, or lithographs, has gotten so accurate the reproductions museums sell in their shops are slightly distorted to avoid being exact copies of the original.
In the next 100 years, 3-D printing will get to a point where we could create instructions to recreate almost any work of art. Cloud computing will enable those instructions to be available to anybody and anytime from any place. With the proper equipment the work of art could be recreated.
We already have laser measuring and tracking devices. Imagine a more sophisticated scanner that could specify the precise contours of a sculpture or the texture of a painting. We could detect the composition of the inks, metals, paper or wood in a composition, and recreate that appropriately. We could have computer aided reconstruction of the exact materials, textures, and appearances of an object. Physical conditions such as the lighting conditions could be taken into consideration.
It might be impossible to create certain papers or other materials. It might be a while before we mechanically recreate something like a Duchamp readymade, or a makeshift sculpture, or a found object sculpture such as Picasso’s Tête de Taureau:
We could restore a work of art to its original condition, or conceivably demonstrate how it changed under different lighting conditions, changes due to humidity, decomposition of the paints, etc. Even, perhaps, how it looked in the places where its various owners had placed it. We could recreate what the art work looked like at any point of time in its life. Music could be recreated for certain concert halls. Immersive experiences with virtual reality could be everywhere.
In some sense this problem has always been with us. Limited edition artworks, or authorized castings from artist molds exist. A signed plate is differentiated from a signed print. Music has adapted better to reproduction than the plastic arts, because from the start it depended on interpreters. Digital signatures on a work of art might be the equivalent of a numbered copy.
Creativity, genius, mystery, and eternal significance are transformed when art can be mechanically reproduced. The act of design becomes important, not the mechanical act of creation. We are getting close to that in music. If a computer can produce the sound of a violin, what will the mechanical skill of the best violinist mean? If the act of design is most important, art and craft are once again merged because art will be designed for reproduction. The people who create the mechanical film are less important than the writers, directors, or actors.
Netflix for works of art: order the materials, get the instructions, create your very own. What would be the purpose of an art collection?
Will some people hide their works of art? Will they become cult objects again? Will collectors vanish? Or will art because happenings, transient installations, or Italian Futurist-style events?
Will the ubiquity of art be its destruction?