The following is an attempt to grasp the contemporary widespread disregard for copies and glimpse into a world of future copying, therefore also a world of future originality.
In a study by Angelika Seidel and Jesse Prinz at CUNY (City University of New York) researchers told test subjects to imagine that the Mona Lisa was destroyed in a fire, but that there happened to be a perfect copy which even experts couldn’t tell from the original. If they could see just one or the other, would they rather see the ashes of the original Mona Lisa or a perfect duplicate? Eighty per cent of the respondents chose the ashes. That illustrates the state of our obsession with originals and almost hate for copies. But this wasn’t always the case. Romans copied Greek art- in particular sculptures, at an unprecedented rate. That was not regarded as plagiarism. There are countless Roman copies of Roman sculptures too — and with each copy a different concept comes to life. So how did we end up here? And where do we go from now onwards? In view of the rise of digital technology and digital artworks where is the boundary between original and copy? And when is it a copy we are talking about, and when an instance of an object?
To answer these questions, I traced back the history of copying in parallel to the history of artistic creation. I compared different art epochs according to several parameters in order to assess when and why copying became equal to forgery.
skill / technique — in Ancient Greek there is no word for art as we know it. The word they used to describe art was techne, or what we call today craft. For the point of art was depicting something so beautifully, crafting it in a way that it inspires you to live up to that beauty in your life. Although here is very little left from the original Greek sculptures, there are still plenty of Roman copies of those Greek sculptures to tell the story. Statues, especially ones which stood on prominent places in Rome, were copied all over the empire, because a replica of the sculpture was indeed duplicating the glory of the place, hence its owner. Art for the sake of art, for the sake of beauty.
concept / story telling -The influence of religion on art dominated the larger period from the fall of the Roman Empire (partially even during the rule of Rome). The main point of that art was to deliver to the minds and the hearts of the spectators the idea of the all mightiness of God. Copies of paintings and sculptures were highly welcome, since due to the major illiteracy, that was the only way a message could be spread further. Of course, there were strong restrictions in themes and lack of freedom for self-interpretation, but nevertheless the concept of admiration for the pure original was virtually unknown. Since the main goal of art was to depict a story or character, its content was in the limelight.
authorship — in Renaissance everything changes. Concepts from Ancient Greece and ancient Rome come back to life, but this time, they have a single genius author. The personality, both in experiencing art as well as in creating it, takes central position and so it remains pretty much until today. From objective art turns into deeply subjective, even more so in the eras to come. Art becomes a personal indulgence.
It is fascinating that once a known author is involved, the desire to acquire his/her own personal work appears. It is not anymore only the work that is the sole focus of interest, but rather the personality behind it, with all its human treats and details.
In order to understand what is to become of authorship and originals in the future, I looked back to an event that although in the past, quite resembles our current status quo. It was a time of booming new technology, sudden overflow of information and instant availability of many new copies of one and the same artwork from the same author — namely the rise of the printed press. In the late 15th century printed books began to replace manuscripts and it caused a revolution, much like the revolution we live today. Suddenly, books were not reserved only for the scholars to be read in libraries and monasteries. Instead, the first pocket books were on the rise — so compact, that one could simply read them anywhere, anytime. These tiny books spread so fast, publishing on every topic all the way from classics, to contemporary authors and fast became something of a status symbol.
Curiously however, in the first years of their making, even though printed books were product of a machine and therefore symbolizing progress, clients insisted upon an individual marking — each book was to be proof-read by the author himself or the publisher. If some mistakes were to be found, it was of utmost honor if those were corrected by the hand of the creator. Depending on the social status and wealth of the client the book had also different layout and was decorated to varying extends — preferably by hand. These books were precious because they were one of a kind, special in the then revolutionary way in which they were produced, but also for their absolute originality — there is until today, no second like them.
With time passing and the printing technology and economy developing further, printed books entered the life of all classes and soon individual marking lost importance. The value of the book went back to its content, rather than its artificial originality while not lessening in any way the importance and rights of its author. And although today we pride ourselves with the signature of the writer on the front page, a copy of a book is just as much original as any other.
Maybe that is also to become of future sculptures — instead of handcrafted, a 3D model will be printed by many “publishers”, behold in many corners of the world and every instance will be just as original — it will be an expression of the artist, but moreover, an expression of an idea, of an experience, of a thought. Maybe the boom of digital technology will once more shift our focus and definition of art, this time away from possessive authorship and towards of a new era of artistic exploration and expression.