What if paintings were fully reproducible?

Fabio points out that good copies of masterworks are very cheap, a fraction of the value of the original. Charles Murray make a similar point:

The technology already exists to make perfect, full-size (or any size) copies of any painting–“perfect” meaning not only absolutely accurate color values and reproductions of line, but the same kind of canvas or plaster, the same three-dimensional ridges and textures in the brush strokes, the same sheen to the varnish, and even the same cracks in the varnish, if so desired. “Perfect” means also that the most acute and best-trained artistic eye in the world would have only a 50-50 chance of picking the original over the copy.

He exaggerates the state of technology but the point remains nonetheless: what if paintings were like recorded music?

Murray continues:

Economically, I assume that the acceptance of copies would devastate the resale value of originals of everything except the first-tier work. But for the first-tier work–the owners of which would have the exclusive right to reproduce it–the amount of money to be made selling copies might well rival current market value.

It is also fun to speculate on which paintings would sell the most copies if only the intrinsic attractiveness of the art mattered. Would the market be comparatively small, on the scale of the audience for classical music? Or would great art attract a mass market? In a world where the price of the painting is not going to impress houseguests, which paintings would be used for interior decoration, and which would be the ones that ordinary people, having become collectors, would put in their private galleries for measured contemplation? How would the works of Titian and Caravaggio fare against Monet and Renoir? How would the early Picasso–the easy-to-enjoy Picasso of “Boy with a Pipe”–fare against the later Picasso?

The most exciting prospect is what low-cost perfect copies would do to visual art as part of our daily lives. As matters stand, great art is something most of us see a few times a year, if that, having no choice but to move quickly from work to work, wondering if we will be able to get to the Impressionists before our feet hurt too much to enjoy them.

My prediction: Contra Fabio and Murray, I think most people would find it oppressive to live with “great art,” as that concept is traditionally understood. They prefer the inferior rendition. They like the ¤¤¤¤ they put on their walls. So there is less of a mass market here than meets the eye. A separate question is whether museums will license their works for such reproductions. If museums could make real money through this route, would they continue to receive charitable donations and government grants? The commercialization of high art would completely redefine the question of who controls an art museum. It is not obvious that this would benefit current museum management.


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