It is impossible, today, to experience a work of art the same way as it would
have been experienced 100 or 200 or 400 years ago. Orchestras can play baroque
music on original instruments; churches can display the same altarpieces they’ve
had since they were built; but still audiences will pack in with a worldview
and set of assumptions utterly alien to the original artists.
Let’s say I go to an art gallery – or even a church, for that matter
– too look at a Caravaggio. As Edward Winkleman says, "there’s often
as much value in the pilgramage as there is in the actual viewing". The
pilgramage, in this case, is likely to involve being herded onto a jet plane
after going through X-rays and security precautions; it will also include all
manner of other carefully timed and scheduled transportation. And assuming that
the Caravaggio is in Italy, the pilgramage is attendant upon the fact that I
chose to visit Italy over Peru, or Russia, or Thailand.
Once I finally get to the home of the painting, I’ll probably pay some kind
of admission fee, and eventually jostle my way through a pack of tourists in
comfortable clothes to a point where I can admire an expensively-secured and
artificially-lighted painting. Maybe I’ll be listening to an audio guide as
well, giving me a bit of background on what I’m looking at. I’ve turned my phone
off, so calls go straight to voicemail. But I’ll suspect that if I make it into
an internet cafe, I’ll discover at least three urgent emails which need responding
to – assuming that my inbox hasn’t overflowed with undeleted spam.
In other words, synchronic viewing – the art or science of putting oneself
in the place of the audience for whom the work of art was intended – is
at best an academic exercise, and at worst impossible. For a garden-variety
art lover, to experience a work of art is to experience it diachronically. The
work was made then, but we are now. Either the work still has artistic power,
or it doesn’t.
Caravaggios, then, today compete for our attention with everything from email
to tiger sharks. When we look at them, we’re very likely to think of them as
representational art – a concept, of course, which came into existence
centuries after Caravaggio’s death. What we admire in them may or may not be
the same thing that viewers admired four hundred years ago: great art often
has the characteristic of being perceived as great by a broad range of viewers,
despite meaning very different things to different people. And in any case,
paintings, like anything else, change – physically – over time.
The colours we see today are simply not the same as the colours that Caravaggio
painted: we are, after all, reacting to a centuries-old artifact.
So I’m puzzled by the
ire with which the aforementioned Winkleman greets an exhibition now on
show at the Loyola University Museum of Art. One of the primary purposes of
any museum, especially one in a university, is education, and the Loyola museum
has found itself a novel and really rather effective way of teaching people
about Caravaggio: by using reproductions, it has put on what it calls "an
impossible exhibition" – a show which could never be brought together
using the original paintings.
Paintings have been reproduced for decades, of course. The basic pedagogic
tool of any art history teacher is the slide show, while most homes include
at least a few art books or magazines. There are hundreds of millions of people
who can recognise the Mona Lisa despite never having seen it in real life; millions
more have spent many an enjoyable hour in front of the television, learning
about art from the likes of Kenneth Clark, Robert Hughes or even Wendy Beckett.
Would Winkleman sneer in the same way at, say, the Hughes television series
on Goya? Suppose that PBS said in a press release that
The aim is to let millions of people all over the world see these masterpieces
of Spanish art. It’s an example of the ‘democratization’ of art.
Would Winkleman respond like this?
That is a flat-out bald-faced lie! The aim is absolutely nothing of the sort.
This project accomplishes nothing…NOTHING…toward letting millions of people
all over the world see any masterpiece. The attendees are not "seeing"
a single "masterpiece." They’re looking at television.
It seems improbable: one thinks the blogger doth protest rather too much. And
in fact Winkleman’s vehemence with regard to Loyola University is not a function
of the inadequacy of their chosen medium to convey the effect of the painted
originals – quite the opposite, in fact. Few people are likely to consider
watching a television program to be in any way equivalent to looking at a painting.
But at Loyola, the reproductions are so good that Winkleman fears, he says in
a comment, that "’real’ artwork exhibitions will begin to seem quaint and
Loyola, in conjunction with Italian television station RAI, has taken advantage
of today’s technology to mount an exhibition which has not been possible in
the past. With the aid of high-resolution digital photography and modern backlighting
techniques, Caravaggio’s paintings have been reproduced at actual size and in
great detail. The reproductions are utterly flat, of course: while you can see
cracks in the canvas, you can’t admire the texture of the brushstrokes.
That’s a deal-breaker for Winkleman:
ARGHHHH!!!! That’s like saying you can see the members of the orchestra moving
their arms, hands, and lips, but not hear the actual sounds coming from their
instruments. What’s the freakin’ point???? It’s called PAINT, you halfwits.
If the texture wasn’t integral to "seeing" the image, Caravaggio
would have drawn the damn things.
I have to disagree. Caravaggio’s paintings are pretty flat: he was more interested
in light, colour and composition than in the texture of the paint. Paint was
the best medium for what he wanted to do, and in fact anybody who wants to see
the original paintings from which these reproductions are taken can travel the
world and do so – although it’s likely to take a long time and many thousands
of dollars. But for somebody who is interested in Caravaggio but who doesn’t
have either the time or the inclination to go on such a grand tour, this exhibition
provides at the very least an excellent idea of what his paintings look like
– a much better idea than looking at slides or book plates would.
In fact, Winkelman’s quibble about paint texture has very little to do with
his real objection to the show: if somehow the reproductions were made three-dimensional
so that the paint texture, too, was reproduced, his distaste would probably
only increase. Winkleman’s real issue is ontological, not phenomenological.
There is One True Painting, any attempt to artificially reproduce it in a museum
sestting is heretical, and in fact the closer that the reproduction gets to
the original, the worse the heresy.
Winkleman does, in fact, concede the educational value of the exhibition. He
just says he doesn’t want to see it an art gallery, presumably because he thinks
that art galleries should show only art. It’s a superficially reasonable point,
but there are two flaws with it. Firstly, if this show isn’t put on at a museum,
it probably won’t be put on at all: what other institutions exist with the ability
and mission to put on an exhibition such as this? Secondly, the display of art
at a museum is ultimately a means rather than an end in itself: if a museum
put on a show but nobody went to see it, that show would be a complete waste
of time and money. The important thing is the experience of the exhibition-goers,
not the static presence of the art itself.
People who go to see this show know full well that they’re seeing reproductions
and not originals. They suffer no injury in doing so, and in fact might well
learn from and enjoy looking at the reproductions on show. When something causes
good and no harm, I’m generally in favour of it – especially when the
arguments against are all of the slippery-slope type. (Winkleman loves to extrapolate
into a hypothetical future where all local museums put on shows like this on
a regular basis, thereby sating their local populations’ hunger for art, and
destroying demand to see the original works of art in major metropolitan centers.
It doesn’t seem to occur to him that it’s much more likely that the opposite
is true, and that exposure to art in reproduction only serves to increase the
desire to go out and see it in real life.)
It’s worth noting, however, that the Loyola museum is quite up-front about
the derivative nature of the reproductions on show. No one is claiming that
looking at the reproductions is the optimal way of experiencing Caravaggio;
the entire exhibition is predicated on the idea that it’s second-best, even
if an actual exhibition of all those paintings in one place would be a logistical
In concert halls around America, however, a more invidious use of technology
is being increasingly introduced – amplification. When singers or instruments
are amplified, there is usually no notice given to the audience. And as Tony
Tommasini recently noted
in the New York Times, the spread of amplification could have an enormously
deleterious effect on opera around the world. He tells the story, for instance,
of the principals in Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti in a recent production
at Caramoor. The artistic director thought they were being overpowered, and,
as a solution to that problem, miked them up.
Tommasini claims, quite plausibly, that if singers don’t have to work on beefing
up their voices, they won’t. And opera is likely to go the way of Broadway,
with the beauty and subtlety of the unamplified human voice replaced by a more
bombastic entertainment and the audience moving from active to passive engagement
with the performers.
I generally believe that if a performance is being amplified, there’s a good
chance it doesn’t need to be performed live at all. What, exactly, is the point
of having a live band at a Broadway show? It’s vestigial, really, and doomed,
in time, to obsolescence. At the opera, however, appreciation for the beauty
of the unamplified music is at the heart of the artform. If that is taken away,
the performance can become something of a fiasco.
So the introduction of technology into the exhibition of a centuries-old artform
is not always a good thing. If museums started showing reproductions instead
of originals, then I would most certainly object – just as I object
to opera houses showing amplified opera instead of unamplified opera. But if
you’re honest about what you’re doing, technology can be a great help. Since
all Broadway shows are amplified anyway, why not use a recording rather than
a live band? It would save on costs, and maybe help bring ticket prices down
from their current insane levels. It would also allow the director to have much
more control over the subtleties of the music, and the ability to create exactly
the sound he wanted.
But if fine art is being presented as fine art, then interfere technologically
with the original as little as you possibly can.