Original thinking

A colleague and I were talking today about originals. The Mona Lisa (La Gioconda to you Europeans) which hangs in the Louvre is an original. That particular organization of molecules, that unique object composed of poplar and paint (and perhaps a bit of human sweat) arranged into those precise brush strokes, exists nowhere else in the world.

Yes, each year it becomes possible to make a better and better reproduction. There was a time when fakes could be detected by even the amateur hobbyist. The paint color or reflectivity might be slightly off, or the brush texture not quite right. Some of the materials used by Leonardo were manufactured by methods no longer in use. The source of the paint ingredients might not be fully known, nor the exact composition of the brushes. The original trove of poplar trees that supplied the panel material itself may no longer exist. It would be quite difficult to replicate all those materials precisely through other means.

But technology will indeed continue to improve. Nano-fabrication will, in not all that many years, be able to replicate everything we can measure — surface texture and reflectance, mass distribution, force compliance, subsurface scattering of light, and a host of other properties. We will eventually be able to analyze and then resynthesize molecules into any arrangement we desire.

In short, technology will allow us to replicate objects so well that copies will be indistinguishable from originals.

And at that point, will we still have the same reverence for the original Mona Lisa? My instinct tells me we will, but I wonder whether my instinct is wrong. After all, I’ve spent my entire life in a world where one cannot make a perfect physical copy of a sixteenth century portrait, and so have you.

But maybe we are wrong. Maybe our sense that the original Mona Lisa has intrinsic value is merely an artifact of the impossibility of making a perfect copy. Suppose a perfect copy could be made — in the sense that the copy was in every way indistinguishable from the original. Would we still have this sense?

I can think of at least one historical precedent. There was a time when there was far more reverence for the Master Tapes in recorded music. It was rightly understood that if something ever happened to those tapes, some essential aspect of the recorded music would be irretrievably lost.

But then a funny thing happened. Digital recording advanced to the point where those tapes could be scanned to a fidelity that was significantly greater than the capabilities of human hearing.

This level of fidelity was not achieved right away. And sure enough, in those early days of lousy digital CD versions, Master Tapes were still revered. But once the aesthetic information they contained was fully digitized, that reference began to fade away. It turned out that it wasn’t the tapes themselves, with their mystical connection to the Beatles, or Hendrix, or some other source of musical genius. It was just the information all the time.

And if we ever manage to completely capture all the aesthetic information embodied by the Mona Lisa (admittedly, a vastly greater amount of information), would we (or, more likely, our descendants) cease to care about, or acknowledge — or even continue to notice — the original object?

7 Responses to “Original thinking”

  1. Mari says:

    I think in music, we are hopeful that the value of “live” performance will gain back its value, now that “cast in stone” recordings are so superb. But in visual arts, an art “object” which ARE cast in stone, I don’t know… you could clone them now… But the original “ideas” are still original, aren’t they?

  2. Dagmar says:

    Since at least some of the big visual artists let their scholars do the work, I guess we are really talking about original thinking and should not forget that art has been a business all the time.
    I still remember the question of a friend of mine who is a visual artist and was looking forward to a great exhibition, but hadn’t finished all the pictures he wanted to show, he simply asked me, if I could help…
    Originals are different for admirers or collectors I guess.

  3. sally says:

    I feel that objects are artifacts of whatever process was used to create them. Therefore, the Mona Lisa can’t be copied. The process that DaVinci used was unique to him, to his way of working, to the timeframe he existed in, and many other factors. That cannot be copied.

  4. admin says:

    Yes Sally, I completely agree. But let’s go to the Master Audio Tape analogy. The tapes are valuable because they are artifacts of a unique creation process. But if the tapes can be duplicated exactly, then that process can be analyzed and studied just as well from those perfect reproductions.

    Similarly, if we ever get to the point where we can truly make an exact copy of the Mona Lisa, then our copy will be just as useful as the original for studying Leonardo’s process of creation. It’s hard now to feel the emotional impact of such a sea change, but if it happens, I wonder whether our focus will shift from the literal object to — as you say — the object’s ability to embody past process.

    Literal object and embodiment of information are now one and the same, but they won’t always be.

  5. sally says:

    I still think that in non-digital “reproductions” there are no copies.

    Tapes–the source blank material, are not exact. The material wobbles in different ways. One tape might be longer than another when manufactured (even if not recorded upon). The machine that made a tape isn’t necessarily the one its played back on. Heads move at different speeds sometimes. All this stuff is made by humans. Humans are each unique. It shows up in this stuff.

    Machines that replicate cause disruptions that impact ‘exactness.’

    I stand by my point that process itself is the reason why there can be no copies. At least in an analog circumstance.

    The question is really “When is a copy a “copy””? 😉

  6. sally says:

    The answer being, “When its a copy…..right!”

    Your turn: When is a copy a “copy”?

  7. admin says:

    Sally, yes, a copy is a copy…right!

    But if you lose the original, then it’s just a copy…left.


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