The invention of the printing press and its younger sibling the camera rocked art forever by allowing all its forms to be heavily reproduced very quickly. The printing press gave way for mass media and illustrated books, manifestoes, sheet music and political cartoons among other popular ephemera to become widely available to the public. The newer, even more scientific medium of photography allowed existing master artworks to be captured and spread among the masses, and for favourite memories to be kept forever, archived as personal historic portraits.
As a result, the authenticity and originality of art started being constantly questioned. Some critics have concluded the possibility that reproduction of a work destroys its authority or changes its meaning. But many artists have used reproductive processes in their own portfolios, not in an attempt to erase an original piece from the framework of art history, but merely to deepen their understanding of their own inner interpretive processes. On the other hand, others would argue that reproduction has changed the meaning of all the art works involved, original and counterfeit. No matter which team you’re on, it must be admitted that meaning is up in the air today, anyway, as even the first forms of printing and photography have been replaced by all things digital and have become much more dispersible. We’re living in a time in which reproduction itself has morphed into something new, bringing a different light to the viewing of art and expanding possibilities concerning its availability.
Taking a middle path, let’s argue that reproductions of art pieces present new meanings while upholding references to original works. For example, Sherrie Levine is an artist who made her career out of directly re-using famous art pieces and placing them in new contexts. She made a piece in line with Duchamp’s Fountain, but it is in no way a comparison to the original work by Duchamp. The proper title of the sculpture is Fountain (After Marcel Duchamp), and it is generally considered a contemporary urinal encased in bronze, lacking the simplicity of its bare white porcelain predecessor. It is distinctive; not at all an exact copy of Duchamp’s readymade, yet the premise of Levine’s efforts was to draw attention to the relative absence of women in the art world at the time Duchamp started bending rules, as well as in her own time. The context of the original may have changed, but its authority is felt. Levine’s concept makes a well-known, perhaps easy, reference. Yet that reference is crucial to her own statement addressing iniquity in the established art world.
Reproduction has not only created new avenues for expression within informed art circles, but also merged art into other markets of industry. One artist, famed then and now for contributing to the cheeky tradition of imitation is Andy Warhol. Pop art began in the early 1960’s and created a new flux of art works taken from nationally and internationally-recognised image banks—stills and footage from films, catchy commercials, items on supermarket shelves. Icons were exposed, sometimes honoured, for their everyday-ness and were repeatedly, cheaply used in many bright sorts of painting, sculpting, lithography, furniture and video making, and all manners of other artistic endeavours. This marked a turning point for the perception of and underlying intentions driving reproductions. It was a time in which the mass media had reached new heights of social influence. At the beginning of Warhol’s career, he started a series of paintings that commented on attitudes of advertisers. By 1961, Warhol was concerned with the direction his artwork was taking. He then began striving to switch from his lyrical, expressionistic mode and moved into an experimental representational style. Using his skills as an illustrator, he began a new method of visual reproduction. This was the beginning of an entire series in which Warhol replicated a number of both common commercial images: 18 One Dollar Bills, 210 Coca-Cola Bottles, and many variations on the Campbell’s Soup theme. By taking images from pre-existing repertoires and transferring them onto silk with only slight alterations, he helped along notions of mass production and impersonality that had fuelled his early shoe drawings as well as his first pop paintings. Warhol continued on to create reproductions that further defined the style of pop art. There was some controversy over theories of aesthetics in the genre, but it is neither abstract nor realistic, it is on a level of cognisance of its own.
Arguments for and against artistic reproduction must take some different trains of thought into consideration. The first is that the level of fame an artwork achieves can truly impact experiences of that piece. Celebrated works of art, say, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, are now available to the general public at reasonable prices, thanks to all the poster companies under the sun. But the work has not become valueless. Just ask all the people lining up and forking over admission fees to see the original oil on canvas. New rebellious attitudes in art and new technologies have provided an opening for major art pieces of the past to maintain their swagger well into the future. Such ease of access allows younger artists to absorb their lasting influences at any hour creativity happens to strike, and anyone with an internet connection can order a museum gift shop-quality print straight to their doorstep.
Part of me thinks reproduction was inevitable, and will get even more widespread. In time, with e-books and apps and memes, originality will fade and nods to legendary art pieces and logos could become the creative norm. Look around, there’s a deal of artists already excelling by concentrating on reproduction as their main working method. Despite a sometimes suspected loss of original power, grumblings about reproduction and meanings forsaken at the feet of interpretation, I see a doubling of force flooding away from new renderings of the same old art object. The original is always there, waving its arms in the back of the mind, refusing to be forgotten and transmitting its inherent meanings elsewhere, ad infinitum.
Sources: Van M. Cagle, Reconstructing Pop/Subculture: Art, Rock, and Andy Warhol & John Berger, Ways of Seeing