Owning great art need not be beyond the reach of the general public. The technology exists to create high-quality reproductions of artworks, but thus far it has not been widely utilized due to the art world's conflation of the pleasure of being in the presence of a historic object with the pleasure derived from being in the presence of great art.
Earlier this month the record-breaking price of $104.2 million for Picasso's "Boy with a Pipe" dramatized the chasm that separates the art market from the contribution that great art can make to human life, a chasm that has been closed in the other great art forms. When the technology became available in the mid-1400s, great literature was liberated from the library. When the technology became available over the first half of the 1900s, great music was liberated from the concert hall. When the technology became available over the last half of the 1900s, great art remained imprisoned in the museum and the private collection.
It is as if Beethoven's Third Symphony could be performed only at the Berlin Philharmonie, his Fifth only at London's Royal Festival Hall, and his Ninth only at Lincoln Center--as if anyone who could not be present in the audience at the time the piece was performed had to be content with a scratchy version on 78-rpm records. Absurd? Given today's technology, it is just as absurd that the only place one can see Picasso's "Boy with a Pipe" is in whatever place its new owner decides to place it, and that otherwise one must be content with seeing a color plate shrunk to fit the page size of an art book.
Exclusivity of Artistic Power?
It need not be that way. The technology already exists to make perfect, full-size (or any size) copies of any painting--"perfect" meaning not only absolutely accurate color values and reproductions of line, but the same kind of canvas or plaster, the same three-dimensional ridges and textures in the brush strokes, the same sheen to the varnish, and even the same cracks in the varnish, if so desired. "Perfect" means also that the most acute and best-trained artistic eye in the world would have only a 50-50 chance of picking the original over the copy.
Why hasn't the technology been put to use? No law prevents the owner of a painting from creating perfect copies if they are labeled as copies. The reason lies in the art world's conflation of the pleasure of being in the presence of a historic object and the pleasure of being in the presence of great art.
I am wholeheartedly sympathetic to the pleasures of the historic object. A few months ago, I held the map that Robert E. Lee used during the Battle of Gettysburg. A perfect copy of that map would not have made my hands tremble as the original did. Being in the physical presence of a score in Mozart's hand or, for that matter, a child's toy from ancient Egypt carries a magical quality that also occurs when standing before a painting that Rembrandt's own brush touched.
But the magic of the historic object is separable from the artistic power of a great work. Whatever mysterious qualities go into that power, they do not require the original molecules of Rembrandt's paint.
If you are not part of the art world, that statement is likely to be self-evident. Within the art world, it is heresy. Three decades ago, poor Nelson Rockefeller got nothing but invective for his generosity when he made high-quality reproductions of his personal art collection available at reasonable prices. The art world collectively sniffed that a copy, no matter how good, is not really art but, as one prominent critic put it, "intrinsically dead, like a stuffed trout." Nobody made what would seem to be the obvious point: Rockefeller was making wonderful aesthetic experiences widely available to people who were not Rockefellers.
If it were claimed merely that the most intense of all such aesthetic experiences are produced by access to the artistic power of the work, combined with the presence of the historical object, I would not quibble. But the magic of the historical object is purely in our heads, and has nothing to do with the "thing-itself" of artistic power. Proof? Look up any rapturous review of the artistic power of a painting thought to be the work of a Great Master, later found to be a fake, and immediately removed from exhibition. Nothing that inspired the rapturous review changed--only the belief that the work was the historical object. Belief alone had been enough to generate the magic. In contrast, the artistic power of the work is generated by the actual visual image created by the artist--and that is within our capacity to reproduce perfectly.
It is impossible to imagine all the ramifications if perfect copies of the world's great art were available for hundreds of dollars per work (prices probably not possible now, but soon, as the technology gets cheaper). Economically, I assume that the acceptance of copies would devastate the resale value of originals of everything except the first-tier work. But for the first-tier work--the owners of which would have the exclusive right to reproduce it--the amount of money to be made selling copies might well rival current market value.
It is also fun to speculate on which paintings would sell the most copies if only the intrinsic attractiveness of the art mattered. Would the market be comparatively small, on the scale of the audience for classical music? Or would great art attract a mass market? In a world where the price of the painting is not going to impress houseguests, which paintings would be used for interior decoration, and which would be the ones that ordinary people, having become collectors, would put in their private galleries for measured contemplation? How would the works of Titian and Caravaggio fare against Monet and Renoir? How would the early Picasso--the easy-to-enjoy Picasso of "Boy with a Pipe"--fare against the later Picasso?
The most exciting prospect is what low-cost perfect copies would do to visual art as part of our daily lives. As matters stand, great art is something most of us see a few times a year, if that, having no choice but to move quickly from work to work, wondering if we will be able to get to the Impressionists before our feet hurt too much to enjoy them.
The handful of private collectors who are able to own great art describe a wholly different relationship to art, one that the rest of us can barely imagine: coming back again and again to the work, contemplating it in different moods, seasons, and lightings; sometimes sitting alone with it, sometimes enjoying it with friends; absorbing its layers and meanings slowly and incrementally; the work becoming an integral part of their lives. It must be a wonderful experience. It is inaccessible to almost all of us. It need not be.
Charles Murray is the W. H. Brady Scholar at AEI and the author of Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950 (HarperCollins, 2003).