Mechanical Copies: If you can’t tell the difference, what difference does it make?
Leo Segedin   |  4/9/03 |   Print this essay


A story I recently heard said that computers can now make copies of paintings that are indistinguishable from originals. I doubt that this story can be true, but the possibility of a perfect copy is certainly a provocative idea. Hand painted copies have been a problem for the art market ever since ‘originality' became a significant value and photographic copies have been an issue for over 150 years, but the implication of a perfect copy has always been an abstract, hypothetical concern for philosophers rather than a problem for art dealers. This concern could become quite real if such objects could actually be made. Would perfect copies destroy the unique, aesthetic aura and significance of original works of art and, therefore, their astonishing market value? Would they destroy the need for art museums as collections of unique, original art objects? They certainly would focus our attention on the extent to which our present response to visual art is based on reproductions rather than originals. Because two images look alike, would - or should - they have the same value? If you can’t tell the difference, what difference does it make? What’s wrong with a copy of an original work of art?

Although authenticity, and, therefore, economic value and historical validity, can usually be determined by stylistic, physical and chemical analysis, some copies of paintings are as beautiful as originals, so authenticity would seem to have nothing to do with the aesthetic quality of the object. Amateur connoisseurs and professional experts claim to be able to tell the difference between an original and a copy with a sensitive eye and gut feelings based on years of experience, but they are known to be have been wrong. If they can’t tell the difference, why should it matter to anybody? A beautiful object is beautiful regardless of its origin. We can like a painting for its subject matter or appreciate the quality of its lines, shapes, composition and drawing. We can feel its mood and contemplate its subtlety without knowing anything about it. In fact, according to the British art critic, Clive Bell, all that is necessary to appreciate a work of art is awareness of what he called its “significant form”. He wrote,

“To appreciate a work of art we need bring with us nothing from life, … nothing but a sense of form and color…”

In other words, we can reject or be ignorant of a painting’s aura, know nothing its history or of the artist’s biography - know nothing about art - and still enjoy the work. According to Bell, if a work of art “were an absolutely exact copy, clearly it would be as moving as an original.” And, as the old Latin proverb goes: “de gustibus non est disputandum”. There can be no disputing about taste. So, outside of the issue of ethical and legal deception, what’s wrong with a copy?

The seemingly obvious answer is, aesthetically, nothing. If we assume that a work of art is primarily an aesthetic object, that its aesthetic value is a consequence of its visual aspects and that a copy of an original painting can be produced in which we can detect no visual difference, then, they both can be appreciated equally. This view, however, implies that the perception and judgment of an unknowledgeable and visually illiterate person is as valid as that of an experienced viewer. As a matter of personal taste, this may be acceptable, but if we are serious about art, we must assume, not that there is no difference between a copy and an ‘original’, but rather that we can see no difference or that we know of no difference that may affect what we think we are looking at. It is impossible that an original and a copy are really the same. Even if we can’t tell the difference, there still must be differences we cannot detect. And, as in music, literature and the other Fine Arts, the more relevant information we are aware of, the richer our aesthetic experience will be. Or, as is so often the case, the more we know and see, the more we recognize that we were deceived by our first, superficial impression.

Although there are fundamental visual capacities that all people with normal vision have in common, practical vision is based on experience. Although the same visual information might potentially be available to everyone, people will select different elements and structure and make sense out of them differently. Disinterested, objective, innocent perception is impossible; there is no perception without interpretation. For example, a Chicagoan will ordinarily neither be able to see the sleeping lion in a savanna or the polar bear in the snow nor will a Kenyan from the Serengeti and an Eskimo from Alaska be able to see one or two point perspective in the streets of Chicago. Just as we learn to read X-rays and blueprints and hear music, so we learn to see visual art. What is indiscernible becomes obvious after we know what is there to be seen. In this sense, we literally perceive what we have learned to see. (Of course, this is not to suggest that doctors can’t misinterpret X-rays or contractors, blueprints)

Without knowing what to look for in a painting, we will not be able to see much of what may be important to see. For those interested in looking at paintings, culture, personal history, education, training and practice establish the relevant skills. The assumptions we make about a painting’s history and significance, our knowledge of what the painting consists of, the techniques used, our expectations and reasons for looking determine what we look for and therefore what we are most likely to see. Ignorance of what we are looking at can lead to error because we make false assumptions, but we have to make some assumptions about what we are looking at before we can see it at all. We must assume what an object is and, therefore, what is there to be seen. John Dewey wrote in “Art as Experience”:

Suppose…that a finely wrought object, one whose texture and proportions are highly pleasing in perception, has been believed to be the product of some primitive people. Then there is discovered evidence that proves it to be an accidental natural product. As an external thing, it is now precisely what it was before. Yet at once it ceases to be a work of art and becomes a ‘ natural curiosity’. It now belongs in a museum of natural history, not in a museum of art. And the extraordinary thing is that the difference that is thus made is not one of just intellectual classification. A difference is made in appreciative perception and in a direct way…

Which brings us to the issue of a ‘perfect’ copy. Since traditional paintings generally consist of complex combinations of transparent, translucent and opaque layers of paints of varying thickness and texture over wooden or canvas supports and gesso or oil grounds, all of which change over time, the story of a perfect copy cannot be implying that a computer can generate an object that is exactly the same as an original painting. Therefore, we must be considering, not a ‘real’ copy, but a representation - in other words - the appearance of the painting. Since its ‘appearance’ consists initially of the light reflected from its physical surface, this light would also have to show the dirt and dust, carbon from candles, mould, peeling, crackle, fading, blanching and wetting, as well as retouching if the copy is to be indistinguishable from the original. I doubt that any existing high-resolution digital camera can record all these physical characteristics, let alone convert them into computer ink on any surface.

Also, since indistinguishability cannot be just the physical aspect of the painting, it must also require the perceptual skill of observers. Some suggest that a blind test is the appropriate means of finding out whether the original and the copy were in fact indistinguishable by showing them to art experts to see if they can tell the difference. The assumption is that if art experts can’t see any difference, then the two images must be identical. Let’s assume that the test uses the appropriate experts (say, Renaissance experts to look at Renaissance paintings and their copies), compares original paintings with the actual computer copies, not prints or slide projections of both, as is usually the case in such tests, (which most likely would be comparing a copy of a copy with a copy of a copy of a copy).

Let’s assume now that all the ‘experts’ could not tell the difference between the originals and the copies. The fact that experts can be fooled would not necessarily mean that there is no significant difference between a ‘real’ painting and a reproduction or that such discrimination cannot be made. All you need is one person not in the study who can (one black swan) to show that it is possible. Experts have been wrong before. We might well remember the experts who thought that Van Meegeren’s paintings were Vermeer’s when the differences between them are now so obvious that people who have had no experience with art can tell the difference.

Ignorance and desire may cause even experts to make mistakes, to see things that are not there or not see things that are, but that does not mean that all judgments are equal. Although we might enjoy a ‘perfect copy’ as much as an original painting, we ignore their real differences at the risk of losing a more profound experience. Such reproductions would look great on walls and be useful in the teaching of art. They would be provocative curiosities and even fool art experts, but they would, in fact, be totally different kinds of objects. If we know beforehand that the painting is a product of human craft and the reproduction, machine-made, that the copy was made out of plastic and ink rather than oil paint and canvas and that they have different histories, we can reject out of hand the whole notion that they are of equal value.

Even if we assume that perfect replicas could be made, they would not have much impact on major art markets. Although they would be popular and saleable and would probably affect the market for forgeries, art collectors just don’t ordinarily buy originals because of the way that they look. Copies of originals can refer to and be used as substitutes for them, but they cannot have the same significance. Such an object may be very beautiful, but we will respond the same way to an original work of art and a copy only through ignorance or with the willing suspension of disbelief.


More important than the possibility of a perfect copy is the great influence of mechanical reproduction on the perception, understanding and history of the visual arts. Since the 1870’s, our knowledge of works of art has been primarily through photographic reproductions first, in the catalogues of collections in the newly founded museums in France and England and later, in museum and gallery publications and art magazines and books. The history of 20th century art would have been impossible without the dissemination throughout the world by photographic reproductions of the artwork being done. Artists in the Mid-west in the 1940’s and 50’s learned about and were influenced by contemporary New York art, especially Abstract-Expressionism and all that followed, primarily through pictures in magazines such as Art Digest and Art News.

Previously, that knowledge was based on engraved and etched drawings that distorted their appearance of their form and could show nothing of their surfaces. 18th and 19th century Classicism is based on wholly inaccurate and distorted engravings of Roman copies of Greek originals. William Blake was very influenced by Michelangelo’s work although he never saw an original one. Rubens had engravings made of his altarpieces to establish the copyright of his concept. These copies influenced Rembrandt.

Robert Hughes wrote,

“What transformed the popular market for living artists in the 19th century was the steel-faced engraving plate, which made it possible for just about everyone in England to have a three-shilling print of the Light of the World or The Monarch of the Glen on the parlor wall.”

Since then, photographic reproductions have transformed our way of seeing visual works of art even further. By reducing the size of a mural to fit into the page of a book or magazine, it can be seen in a single glance and by enlarging details, we can see much that would be invisible in normal situations. Try to visualize our understanding of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel without the information shown in close-up photographs of details that are invisible from the floor. Photographs can show essential characteristics by emphasizing basic design. In black and white, they can analyze the painting’s tonal structure and illustrate the drawing skills of the artist. Especially they can reveal the surfaces of objects in ways impossible with engravings.

On the other hand, by equalizing the size of a Japanese belt buckle with that of Michelangelo’s David in reproductions, they are given equivalent formal qualities. By seeing their images side by side, our sense of scale is destroyed. A small watercolor and a large fresco wall painting are given the same expressive power on a page in a book. It can be a shock to see an original Rubens altarpiece in a cathedral after learning about it through small reproductions.

Images have their own qualities that become aspects of originals and affect the way we see them. During a good part of the late 19th and early 20th century, reproductions emphasized paintings with strong chiaroscuro, and after color reproductions became practical, they emphasized paintings with strong color, sometimes making the color in the reproduction more beautiful than the original. One reason why Van Gogh and Matisse were popular was that they were more vividly reproducible in print. It is often the print that we remember rather than the original.

Even art history is distorted by reproductions. According to the art curator, Andrea Kirsh and conservator, Rustin Levenson, this is because art history is:

…increasingly taught from slides and photographic reproductions. These convey nothing of the finish, texture, or scale of a painting the colors may be distorted and the borders cropped. Reproductions are unlikely even to raise the questions that might help a viewer understand a painting’s technique or condition, much less point to the answer.”

As Malraux said, we are living in a “museum without walls”. More and more of our experiences with art are based on reproductions rather than originals. We learn through representations – printed reproductions, slides projected in classrooms, illustrations in books and programs on TV. We know about art from beautifully colored pictures in Skira and Abrams books on art, from video trips through the Louvre, and slide projections in art appreciation courses. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has put 3,500 digitally reproduced images of works of art in its collection online, the assumption being that when we are looking at our computer screens, we are seeing works of art as they really look. Like Magritte’s paintings and drawings of a pipe, all labeled “This is not a Pipe”, a photograph of a painting is not a painting and although a high gloss photograph, an illustration in a newspaper, a gallery brochure, an art history book, an art magazine, a computer image on a screen and a computer printout may a represent the same painting, they really do not look much alike. They each have their own identifiable characteristics.

Our expected response to painting is to the presented, sensory object. However, although reproductions, like originals, can be perceived as aesthetic objects, most interpretations of paintings do not require aesthetic responses to original paintings, only that the reproduction is of an authentic work. In art appreciation books and courses, paintings are seldom described as aesthetic objects. We are told that paintings offer new ways of seeing reality, that they articulate the zeitgeist of a historical period, that they can be an allegories expressing the values of a society, that they express the artist’s feelings or are projections into his or her subconscious, that they can describe beautiful scenes or create ideal beauty. Paintings can criticize society; they can be historical records and can reflect the artist’s biography. None of these functions require the perception of original works. In a sense, a reproduced painting becomes a document, like a book, conveying information rather than an aesthetic object to be contemplated. A reproduced painting refers to or is about something, rather than is. (Do reproductions of paintings then become equivalent to books and CDs?)

Paintings can be interpreted in terms of anthropology, theoretical science, psychology, psychoanalysis, biology, physiology, sociology, history, culture, mathematics, politics, religion, economics, iconography, iconology, aesthetics, Marxism, Feminism, race, Structuralism, Post structuralism, Deconstructionism and many others. Discussions of the views of these various theoreticians often becomes so self referential that they lose contact with their supposed subject, the work of art. We can learn most of these ideas by studying reproductions - even texts. Most of these interpretations don’t even require pictures!

How did all this happen? First, the collecting and hanging side by side of paintings that were designed at different times for particular churches, civic buildings and palaces destroyed their intended functions and turned their original religious and political significance into unique, aesthetic auras associated with mythologized artists. Then, mass produced, photographic images of them challenged these auras by removing them still further from their original locations and giving them these many new functions and meanings. For many, this transformation has destroyed the significance and value of the original work. For them, the distinction between high Fine art and low Popular art has been destroyed. Because they can now not only be framed and hung on walls in thousands of private homes, but also used in advertisements to sell perfumes and wine, as decorations on purses, pined on bulletin boards next to snapshots and newspaper clippings, printed as illustrations in books, etc., some critics feel that “the uniqueness of both the originals and of copies is dissolved.” The historian, Daniel Boorstin feels that “ They both move into a limbo something like that between the novelist’s typewriter and the movie-maker’s camera.”

Some critics argue that mechanical reproductions have replaced originals as the most significant cultural, visual art forms in present Western society. To Marxist followers of Walter Benjamin, such as John Burger, Peter Fuller and Victor Burgin, aesthetics associated with original works of art is a bourgeois value and is no longer relevant in contemporary society. Although the painting’s traditional aesthetic values based on authenticity are perpetuated because of the paintings continuing function as property, they have been “rendered obsolete” by mechanical reproduction. (According to Burgin, a painting is. “…. the anachronistic daubing of woven fabrics with colored mud … all in the name of timeless aesthetic values”..) The original painting’s authority is lost. In its place is a ‘language of images’. This is because ‘in an age of pictorial reproduction, the meaning of paintings is no longer attached to them: their meaning becomes transmittable; that is to say it becomes information of a sort, and like all information, it is either put to use or ignored.”

Although many of these observations on the changes in our perception are valid, however, none of these predictions about the value of works of art has come to pass. If anything, the aura of originals is greater than before. The camera has changed, but has not replaced the perception of the original. In fact, we can say that the authority of original painting is reinforced by photography. Rather than replacing them, mechanical copies have acted as marketing tools, as advertisements for originals, enlightening and attracting people who were oblivious to such art before. The art market is more capitalist than ever. Since Benjamin wrote in 1936, the price of original paintings has skyrocketed, buoyed by the publicity created by mechanical reproduction. As with the songs of Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson, the greater the number of copies, the greater the hype and aura. People will rather go to live performances rather than see them on videos or hear them on CDs, see real fossils of dinosaurs rather than plastic reproductions and go to a real jungle rather than Disneyland. Attendance at museums for major exhibitions of original works by famous artists has increased over the last several years. Our responses to works of art are based on more than their appearance.

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