On the value of art
I was distressed to read an article in Tuesday’s News (“Contagion helps to explain art value,” Sept. 9) reporting on a study conducted by students at the School of Management predicated on the notion that it was possible to quantify the difference in value between an original work of art and a perfect copy. The flaw in the ointment is obvious from the question posed by the researchers who asked; “When you recreate that artwork, every molecule is still there, so what’s missing?” Why? Because no one has ever nor will ever make a molecule-by-molecule copy of a work unless it was originally conceived of and realized by reproductive means.
There is no faithful surrogate for Michelangelo’s “Pieta”, no “ringer” for first iteration of Matisse’s “The Dance”, especially not the second version he made himself. And, even when works are intentionally produced in series, there will be legitimate debates among connoisseurs about their comparative worth, as for example is the case with various casts of bronzes by Rodin, Degas and Giacometti, or with subtly differing vintage prints of photos by Ansel Adams, Edward Weston or Yale’s own Richard Benson, former dean of the School of Art, MacArthur “Genius” Grant winner and widely recognized premier authority on photographic reproduction. Moreover, despite the fact that it was executed by studio assistants rather than the artist, who had died well before SOM’s new Norman Foster building was constructed, neither is the Sol LeWitt ink on plaster mural on the second floor interchangeable with a photographic version of the same composition, and neither would a re-performance of its installation result in an identical outcome.
A work of art is never merely its pictorial or formal premise; its character and meaning is always vested in a particular fusion of form and content that includes every perceived aspect of its physical makeup that is charged with information embedded with or infused in it by the artist. With painting that encompasses size, scale relative to the viewer, scale relative to its setting, contour, support, surfaces, edges, pigments, pigment application and so on. Indeed, as Robert Ryman, LeWitt’s friend and contemporary and one of America’s greatest living masters, has said, “The how of painting has always been the image.”
Even more worrisome are the leading questions regarding the substance of the missing quantum of value that SOM researchers posed those they surveyed. According to the News, they suggested that what explained the uniqueness of the original is that “the artist transferred a part of his or her essence to the piece, or the idea of creativity, or the idea of sentimentality.” The News may have skewed the SOM menu slightly this way or that — the exact meanings of the last two criteria are very vague — but any inquiry into artistic merit based on an artist’s ability to transfer his or her immaterial “essence” to a matter is metaphysical nonsense and any social scientific measurement of that essence is tantamount to weighing bodies before and after death to ascertain the mass of the “soul.”
One can only assume that SOM researchers formulated their issues without consulting anyone at the Yale museums where art conservationists, who, among other things, are scientists keenly aware of the chemistry and physics of art-making processes, could have told them a great deal about the impossibility of replicating objects one-to-one, not to mention something about the aesthetics and ethics of their discipline. Meanwhile curators and art historians could have explained to them the concept of “aura,” which is not some nebulous emanation of the spirit, not a “magical contagion” but rather Walter Benjamin’s term for the interactive, dialectical nature of the exchange between the unique viewer and the unique object in real time and space, an encounter wholly ignored by the SOM survey. And all of these experts plus students at the School of Art currently exploring the artistic possibilities of the present multi-media/mixed-media era could have introduced them to the work of talents like Chuck Close ’64, who has shown how the most mundane of photographs can be copied by hand with paint to produce a greatly enhanced, inherently inimitable new image. Or like Gerhard Richter, who makes paintings that alter and degrade the information in photographs only to re-photograph the painting so as to further alienate the “picture” from its primary photographic then secondary painterly physicality and meaning.
Finally the SOM researchers tip their hand by establishing a tacit equivalency between singular works of art that are occasionally — though for the reasons given, unsuccessfully — faked, and “luxury goods” of other sorts — Fendi and Prada bags, for instance — that are routinely knocked off by manufacturers in China to be sold in the city streets of Europe and North America by endangered illegal immigrants from Africa or elsewhere in the Southern Hemisphere. Jeff Koons and other post-Warholians not withstanding, art is not just another luxury item, and the people who flock to museums just to look and think about things they could never dream of owning are proof of art’s hold on the imagination and its intangible but scarcely mystical value to consciousness in zones far removed from the trade in commodities genuine or phony.
Yale is a place where these issues should be carefully explored by people in contiguous or overlapping fields. It is not one where the waters of public opinion should be further muddied by scholars who blithely stray from their fields of expertise to test prejudicial hypotheses founded on faulty givens, then validated by flawed social scientific methods.
The writer is the dean of the School of Art.