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Art Essay: Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

by Robert Daseler
January 5, 2018

A person confined to a wheelchair or hospital bed in Barstow, California, a person with no academic standing or literary credentials to speak of could, it seems to me, acquire as much expertise in art and art history as any scholar who had devoted years to examining the contents of the galleries and museums of Europe. This is perhaps an heretical opinion, and admittedly my hypothetical invalid would not have been able to gain such a mastery of the subject before about 1980, by which time the reproduction of art at a sustained level of fidelity to the original works had been accessible to art lovers for about thirty years, allowing them to examine paintings, drawings, and sculptures that may have been inaccessible even to scholars who had resided in Florence and Rome fifty years earlier. It was not until about 1950, I believe, that Henri Matisse allowed his paintings to be reproduced by printers, something he had steadfastly refused to countenance until then. The reason for his change of mind was the improvements that had been made, particularly in Germany, in four-color processing on large, very expensive new presses. Matisse, who was extremely demanding in the representation of his colors, was at last convinced that color reproduction had advanced to the point at which it could faithfully render the precise shades he had used. It was then possible for the first time for people anywhere in the world to appreciate what Matisse had been doing with color for more than half a century.

Purists in the field will argue that no reproduction can capture all the exquisite detail of a painting or fresco, but in fact, in the vast majority of cases, the reproduction will carry more of that exquisite detail than the casual visitor to a gallery or museum will be able to discern from behind the little fence meant to keep the hoi polloi at a safe distance from the works on display, and this is especially the case for art displayed—or in many cases concealed—in churches. The lighting in churches is notoriously bad, and often the work is placed so high on the wall or in such a gloomy chapel that the ordinary lay visitor will never see it properly, whereas the photographer who records it on film or digitally for mechanical reproduction will have been given extraordinary access to it and allowed to use as many lights from as many angles as he needs to get a sharp image unmarred by the sheen of reflected light that often obscures a painting or fresco for groundlings like you and me. And the photographer’s advantage is not limited to two-dimensional works of art. Bronzes and sculptures also are usually kept at a distance from museum-goers (who might otherwise be tempted to touch them with greasy fingers) or languish in tenebrous corners or are placed so far above the viewer’s head as to be distorted in perspective. A salient case in point is Donatello’s wonderful bronze in the baptistery of the Duomo in Siena. It dwells in insufficient light and at such a remove from the viewer that few of its details are appreciable to the naked eye. If you want to see this bronze, you will find it displayed in Ernst Gombrich’s The Story of Art, where it is more clearly presented, and you may save yourself the expense of a trip to Siena. The same may be said for Ghiberti’s bronzes in the same location and his more famous bronzes in Florence: you will see them more precisely in pictures than you can in person, though you will lose something of their three-dimensional depth and contours. Unless you gain privileged access to them as an accredited scholar, you will never see them better than in reproduction.

There is a counter-argument to be made, especially with regard to the Impressionists, that only the close, in-person inspection of a painting will reveal the artistry of brush strokes or the spreading of paint with a palette knife (particularly in the paintings of Van Gogh and Cezanne), but not every museum allows visitors to scrutinize paintings so closely that the artist’s handiwork can be appreciated on this level of detail. Oil paintings from the Italian Renaissance usually have such a smooth vernissage that only the most minute examination aided by special equipment will reveal much about the artist’s techniques. Art historians can look below the surface of a painting with technologies not available to their profession prior to the mid-twentieth century to discover the artist’s initial cartoon of the picture, the rough sketch of forms and figures, usually done in charcoal, or to find an earlier work the artist painted over, but these are specialists’ subjects, like the early drafts of a poem or novel. A reading of Proust’s early novel, Jean Santeuil, his warm-up for A la recherche, is necessary only for the Proust specialist or biographer, and, similarly, an acquaintance with the artist’s hidden cartoon is superfluous to an appreciation of the finished work. In any case, my hypothetical invalid in Barstow might easily acquaint himself with this specialist knowledge through readily available scholarship. These are not state secrets.

It is doubtful that any reputable graduate program in art history would grant a doctorate to a candidate who had not spent at least half a year in France and/or Italy—possibly I am mistaken about this, but surely there is a prejudice favoring study in Paris, Florence, Rome, or all three—but though almost any American graduate student would be grateful for a chance, especially if entirely or partially supported by a generous fellowship, to educate himself or herself in the cuisines of France and Italy, I cannot see that hanging out in museums in Europe really advances one’s appreciation of art as much as it is supposed to do, for what one most immediately experiences in the Louvre, the d’Orsay, the Uffizi, and the Vatican Museums is being engulfed in a horde of tourists who intervene between oneself and the pictures. Each person with a camera takes it as his or her right to push forward and to assert the priority of the camera over the eye. Art museums are now primarily herd experiences. There is neither space nor time for quiet contemplation.

On my most recent visit to Rome I stopped in San Luigi dei Francesi to see the three Caravaggios in one of its chapels, each an illustration of an imagined incident in the life of St. Matthew, and before leaving I purchased for a few euros a color reproduction of one of them, “The Calling of St. Matthew,” which I am having framed for my bedroom wall. In it I can see details—Christ’s arm rising out of deep shadow to point at Matthew, who sits hunched over a few coins on the table in front of him, oblivious of the man pointing at him—that were difficult for me to discern in the chapel, in part because of my distance from the picture and in part because of the angle from which I was obliged to look at it, and yet the Caravaggios in San Luigi dei Francesi are more accessible to the public eye than most paintings and frescoes in churches, where they have been held for centuries not so much as works of art as images to stimulate devotion to Christ. A painting may be beautiful and divinely inspirational, but when it is valued primarily for its devotional utility, it loses little of its divine aura by being kept in shadow or placed so high on a wall as to require craning of necks to see it, for worshippers are accustomed to raising their eyes to pictures of Christ, his family, the apostles, and various martyrs who died for their faith, which may inspire less awe if brought down to eye level and bathed in even light. Viewed aesthetically, though, the qualities that elicit wonder and admiration are only enhanced by proximity to the beholder and astute lighting, and those are often attainable only in high-quality reproductions. This is concisely why the possessor of handsomely illustrated books has a clear advantage over the graduate student standing in the gloom of a church and straining her eyes to study a distant image clothed in shadows.

The sedulous student traveling around northern Italy on a fellowship enjoys an advantage of another kind, however. When she emerges from the obscurity of Orsanmichele the graduate student or professor on sabbatical finds herself in Florence, not the least attractive of Tuscan cities, where the sunlight, breaking through banks of traveling clouds, has a dazzling effulgence that lifts her heart and her spirits in spite of whatever preoccupations have been weighing on her. She may dine that evening on carrè di agnello arrostito, salsa di Vernaccia di San Gimignano, e timo, which translates as roasted rack of lamb in a white wine sauce flavored with thyme, or perhaps she chooses risotto “Carnaroli” con funghi porcini e fiori di zucca, which sounds better in Italian and doesn’t want to be translated. In either case she is eating food more flavorful than any she was accustomed to in Ann Arbor, Berkeley, or Morningside Heights, and she can let herself be carried away for the nonce by dreams of her future as a renowned scholar who is called to Istanbul and Hong Kong to deliver papers at conclaves of her peers. On days off she can motor in her four-speed rental car through the rolling hills of Tuscany or exercise her feckless Italian in the pricey little Florentine boutiques in which she hopes to find gifts for nieces and nephews back home. (Her nieces are likely to be better pleased by her gifts than her nephews, I think, for Florence is filled with quaint shops purveying perfumes, scented soaps, stationery imprinted delicately with flowers and idyllic scenes, and filmy scarves and dresses.) In short, she indulges herself in some of the extracurricular pleasures of Italy, pleasures she cannot order on Amazon or find in the university library.

There is a shopworn trope that equates art museums of our time with cathedrals in more God-fearing ages, for people flock to museums to find salvation of a kind, although nobody explains precisely what sort of salvation there is in art. If the images of saints going calmly to their several agonizing deaths do not evoke pity or piety in today’s viewers, they are not achieving the results their creators intended, for though Antonio Pollaiuolo and Agnolo Bronzino may have modeled their martyrs on living people or supplied them with features from their well-stocked imaginations, they surely believed that St. Sebastian and St. Lawrence suffered as they depicted them suffering, one from multiple arrows shot into him while he was tied to a stake and the other roasted on a gridiron by fiendish pagans. If the comparison of a contemporary art museum to cathedrals is meant to suggest that museum-goers worship at the rail of art as people of the past worshipped at the rail of Christ, the comparison is at best a joke. Art no longer elicits pity or piety, and it is appreciated now, by the masses of people who flock to it in museums, mostly as something that ought to bring to our hearts a different kind of reverence because it is enshrined in large rooms with high ceilings, and you have to pay to see it. If museum-goers feel vague nudgings toward reverence in art museums, it is a misty reverence for the ideal of art as the sublime expression of. . .and so forth. For many of the people milling through museums, I suspect, all art falls under one rubric: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Jackson Pollock, and Jeff Koons are grouped indifferently in the pantheon of art. If their works are displayed in large rooms with high ceilings, they must be worth paying to see