Cosma Shalizi at Three-Toed Sloth cannot understand why people desire original works of visual art rather than printed reproductions, especially when we’ve been buying printed books rather than manuscript codexes for centuries now. He presents – and demolishes too quickly, I believe – some potential reasons for this. I am very surprised by his view, but perhaps its the sheltered life I lead.
First, let me say as a computer scientist, that a map is not the territory. It is easy to confuse a representation of some object with that object itself, and the people now singing the praises for e-books seem to be doing just that. Au contraire, I believe that hard, physical books will continue to be purchased and kept yet for hundreds of years, and possibly many more years, because books are souvenirs of our experience of reading them. The same is true of works of visual art. If you have had some hand in the commissioning, the creation (for example, as subject of the artwork or as patron of the artist), or the selection and purchase of a work of art, you want the work of art itself, not a copy, to remind yourself of that experience.
Second, let me say as a former mathematician, that printed reproductions of artworks are projections onto 2 dimensions of 3-dimensional objects. By definition, such projections will lose something. If you think that what is lost thereby in visual art is unimportant, as Cosma seems to, then you’ve not been looking very closely at real paintings or drawings. There are too many examples to recount, so let me just point to: the brush-strokes in JMW Turner’s seascapes, which manifest and convey the torment of the scenes (and that of the painter); or the drip effects in Jackson Pollock’s action paintings, which likewise manifest and convey the energy of the creation process; or the careful, visible brushwork of the leaves and blades of grass in Pre-Raphaelite art or in the art of the Yangzhou painters of the early Qing Dynasty; or the brush-strokes in Chinese and Japanese calligraphy. These effects are either invisible or can barely be seen in printed reproductions. It is also worth noting that Chinese art has, for hundreds of years, supported “factory production” of 3-D paintings, using lesser-skilled artists to make approved copies of paintings by famous artists, usually under the direct, personal supervision of the famous artist him or herself; that these copies are purchased rather than printed reproductions indicates that the 3-D object has qualities perceived to be lacking in any 2-D print.
Third, let me say as a former statistician, that it seems to be easy for people familiar with Andrei Kolmogorov’s theory of complexity to imagine they have represented faithfully some object, when all they have captured is its surface form (its syntax). As I have argued before, the canonical example used in discussions of algorithmic complexity is Kazimir Malevich’s painting Black Square, which is alleged to be easy to reproduce with an algorithm such as:
Paint a pixel of black in each pixel throughout the square.
At best what this algorithm generates is a copy not of the 3-dimensional painting itself, but of a 2-dimensional projection of it. But even were it to recreate the 3-D object, such an algorithm ignores the meaning of the painting and the historical context of its creation – in linguistic terms, its semantics (or its use-context-independent meaning) and its pragmatics (its use-context-dependent meaning). Both these aspects are immensely important to understanding and appreciating the work, and for explaining why it appeared when it did and not before, and understanding its reception and influence. As I noted before, one can just about imagine the 18th-century Welsh landscape painter Thomas Jones eventually creating something similar to Black Square, since he painted contemplative, Zen-like depictions of seemingly-featureless Neapolitan walls (such as A Wall in Naples, pictured above), but no other artist before Malevich.
How is this relevant? Well, once you’ve seen and admired Malevich’s painting, no printed reproduction would satisfy you for an instant.
Finally, paintings – even when traditional, representational art – are best understood, not as representations of objects or scenes or feelings or indeed of anything at all, but as attempts at solutions to problems in painting. Most solutions fail, so the artist abandons that attempt, and tries again. In the meantime, the abandoned partial solution may provide pleasure and joy (or other responses) to those who view it, and to those who seek to emulate the methods of its painting which a careful study of it may disclose. (The thoughts of Marion Milner are relevant here, especially regarding the quaint idea that artists make art to express some pre-existing emotion.)
FOOTNOTE: The post title is a reference to an Ambitious Lovers song.