Up until now, painting has managed to evade the radical shift in distribution that digital technology has enabled over the past twenty years in music, literature, photography and film. Identical copies of digital media can of course be shared in seconds, infinitely, anywhere in the world. Yet until fairly recently anyway, doing this with painting has been limited and problematic.
A painting is just a painting. There is usually only one. Otherwise it forms part of an edition and becomes something else entirely, at least in terms of a market. The unique individuality of paintings as a tangible, symbol of status and collectable economic commodity, has resulted in the potential for them to become worth many millions of dollars. A painting by the right artist, rich in critical and preferably historical, cultural importance and combined with the right provenance, will inevitably find its way into the top auction houses. While copies and fakes can be made well enough to fool even museum experts, unlike ebooks, or MP3s, or any other digital media, even the best forger cannot ever make a painting completely identical in every way to the original.
However, in the past five or so years it has become possible for 3D scanners, cameras and printers to capture and print objects with finer microscopic precision for less cost. So how, at all, will this change painting?
The answer lies in what we have already seen happen to anything else once it becomes information technology. It becomes better and cheaper exponentially. With the best 3D printers we are not talking a reproduction, or a version of the original, we are talking another exact original. What happens when a perfectly scanned 3D image file of Picasso’s Weeping Woman (1937), frame and all, is shared over peer to peer networks and can be printed out at home in exact scale, in such quality that even the most minute detail in an imperfect weave in one millimetre of the corner of the back of the canvas is utterly identical in appearance to the original?
Yes, there will always only ever be one original. But what happens to the idea of an original if there is suddenly an infinite number of them and no one can tell the difference any more? If one was to secretly swap an identical copy with a work in a museum, is the one hanging in the museum still not the most valuable, simply because it is the one in the museum? In terms of the actual object, it is impossible to tell them apart. So the “offical” one, is the original the default.
Posters and prints and reproductions of paintings in various forms have been around for centuries, but now we are talking about an object that will be utterly indistinguishable from the original in every way. Everyone will of course know the real Mona Lisa is in the Louvre, yet what happens when there are suddenly three million identical Mona Lisas in the world, which not even the foremost experts would ever be able to tell apart? Will the ability to scan a painting (or prevent it from being scanned) become worth more than the actual painting itself? What price on the security of “originality”?
This is of course something that the art market, dealers, collectors and institutions will inevitably work out amongst themselves one way or another. Yet this irreversible disruption won’t only impact the market, but even the manner in which we hold and transport paintings. When a museum needs to ship numerous important works around the world for a major exhibition it is a huge logistical and financial undertaking, fraught with risk . Packing, handling, insurance, transportation and security for incredibly fragile, often large items worth millions of dollars each is an extremely expensive exercise. Damage, loss or theft between point A and B is also something that not even insurance can fully cover, with the cultural and historical value of certain masterpieces going far beyond purely monetary value.
So what happens when this can all be done basically for free, instantly, with minimal risk? When a painting can be scanned, emailed across the globe and printed out identically in every single way to the original? In this case, the original painting would conceivably never even leave the artist’s studio in New York, yet it could be simultaneously exhibited in Museums in Tokyo, Berlin and London. No more travelling shows, just one show, everywhere at once.
So which one painting would then have the highest “value” if there is not a single difference between them physically? The original one in the studio, or the one in the exhibition/permanent collection, amassing history and provenance ? Will the one in the studio, or the one in the exhibition, need to be destroyed after a show or acquisition, in order to maintain this unique one of a kind commodity value? Which one will the museum or the collector even want? Would it be possible for the artist, a museum and a collector to have one each? And then what of the 3D image files and rights themselves? Surely they will also need to be deleted in a secure, verified and authenticated fashion to ensure no further prints are ever made. But then what is to stop another party simply scanning a work and making more copies. High tech digital storage will replace storerooms and vaults. On it goes.
If a museum were to scan its entire collection (let’s not even go in to what happens if these files are hacked and/or altered, or stolen), this means it could effectively “lend” and “tour” every single work in its possession without ever having to physically send them out of their storeroom, simply by emailing files to another institution for them to then print and exhibit. Similarly, if there was a catastrophic fire or accident and a work is destroyed, another completely identical copy could then be printed and not even the artist would ever be able to tell the difference.
So what impact could this whole scenario also have on the audience? On the act of viewing a painting? Will staring at a large, freshly printed Gerhard Richter abstract painting illicit the same response in a viewer as the original the artist physically worked on himself? As an artist myself who has only ever seen reproductions in print and on computers of most of the greatest masterpieces in the world, what is the true nature of experiencing a painting? Would not printing and being able to show works anywhere somehow democratise art and enable the potential scope and range of a worldwide audience to be exponentially larger than those who could ever travel to see an original?
Until fairly recently, before we ever purchased or read a novel there was of course the original manuscript. Typed, or possibly even handwritten, with it’s torn, coffee-stained pages and scribbled notes. Yet the word processor has changed that paradigm almost entirely. The manuscript of even the greatest contemporary novel is, at least technically, just another .doc file or PDF capable of being infinitely copied and shared. Likewise with a great studio album, there are the original master recordings, the historical document, captured live and raw, with the banter of the band in the mics and the producer from behind the glass and all the alternate versions and takes and mistakes and individual elements of what will eventually become famous songs. Yet such recordings in that state were almost never meant to be consumed by an audience and hardly ever are. Instead it is the highly refined, engineered and polished production, released on whatever media is appropriate at the time. Once it was a physical object, now people hardly ever “touch” the music at all, it just streams out of the cloud into their device of choice.
A novel, whether a paperback, or eBook. A song, wether on the radio, or streaming on your phone. A photographic image, wether in a magazine, on the wall, or glowing on your laptop, is completely detached, disconnected, physically at least, from the artist who created it. There is a distinct disconnect between the creator, the act of creation, the artwork and the audience. There is no transferral of touch, no tangible direct connection from the artist to the audience. And this is where painting has differed.
Some of the oldest cave paintings we know of are literally the artist’s own handprint. A hand, covered in pigment, pressed onto a wall. If I were to walk into that same cave now and place my own hand over that ancient pigment on that rock wall, I would be touching directly, not only the artwork and the actual medium, but also the very place in which the artist stood and the work was created, tens of thousands of years before I was even born. I would be physically linked through time and space, to that very artwork, through the most human of means – touch. The idea, the creation, the experiencing, all vastly separated over millennia, yet at the same time possible to still become one.
Of course, when we visit a museum to look at famous paintings, we cannot physically touch the paintings themselves. The “DO NOT TOUCH” signs are everywhere and so are the red cordons and protective glass and the security cameras and guards. Yet, despite all of this, we still know (or assume at least) that the very painting we are standing so close to is actually the real thing. We know that in 1888, that very same painting was hanging on the wall in Van Gogh’s cottage in Arles. It was worked on directly by the mythological Vincent, touched, scraped, brushed, manipulated, sweated and fretted over by him, carried around by him, stacked in a corner, sent to his brother to try and sell. Somehow, just like the oil paint itself, all of that time and history and experience and folklore has soaked into the very fabric of the object itself. And then magically, here we are, standing directly in front of it over a century later. If we were to view this original Van Gogh, side by side with a printed copy that is utterly identical, could we feel some intangible difference between them? Could we “feel” a difference? Is such an idea real?
Recently I saw an exhibition of numerous works by Gauguin and Van Gogh and as I moved around the gallery spaces I became aware of the manner in which I was experiencing these paintings. I would initially see them from a distance across the large rooms, over the heads of a large crowd, perhaps recognising certain works I’d seen in books. Then I’d get closer, stand and stare at them, feel an atmosphere that communicated to me, or not. Then came the more technical artistic appraisal; the overall composition, the colour, the arrangement of space. Then I would get closer still, inspecting them as closely as I could, looking at the details, the brushwork, the technique, how thick or thin the paint was in certain areas, the way the light changed when I moved and viewed it from an angle. I noticed how some of the works seemed to have faded over time, while others looked as fresh and vibrant as if they’d only been painted yesterday.
Yet simultaneously, in the back of my mind I also knew I was looking at famous art historical and cultural artefacts. Paintings that had been made in a field in France by a mysterious and mythologised artist, or else in the tropical, humid salt air of 19th century Tahiti, then transported on a creaky sailing ship back to Europe. Beyond that still all the countless other journeys and events and encounters with people and chance and time that lead to them now, hanging right in front of me, on a wall in the middle of Tokyo in 2016.
The artists had touched these works, lived with them. They were made from touch, their experience and ability it was all still visible in the brushwork. The paintings are perfect in the sense of what they are, what they have become. Direct, physical, human creativity, communication, contact presented in a museum form. Yet still all done in much the same way those cave paintings were made tens of thousands of years ago.
Therefore the question arises; if I knew that those paintings in the museum were in fact 3D printed replicas, albeit utterly identical in very single way (physically at least) to the originals, would they still have had the same impact on me? The same resonance? The same overwhelming sense of importance? Would they have the same intangible essence? The same romanticism? And I have to imagine the answer would be no. To me, that is what makes painting itself so different. This touch. Contact. This physical involvement and embodiment of a series of ideas and events, recorded directly through the medium with and into the medium itself.
Jackson Pollock may have dripped and drizzled and swirled paint onto his canvases from half a metre away and taken that revolutionary detached, critical step back from the brush and direct touch, yet in his works you can still feel time, see the same human rhythm and movement, his footsteps and cigarette ash and broken glass and dirt. Andy Warhol never directly touched all of his works either, yet I still feel that same human connection to his ideas and paintings. He too was an artist of his time and he just had someone else doing the labour. There is still the painter’s connection in both of these artist’s great works. Still the direct manifestation of idea and action into the medium. The touch is still there.
So with old paintings at least, the idea of the original stays very true and important, because we want all this history. We love how this highly fragile thing has been considered precious enough to somehow survive centuries of war and strife. However, with with new paintings, I feel perhaps this importance of the original becomes somewhat diminished. With an exhibition of brand new paintings, it becomes, for me at least, more about the freshness of the image, the immediacy, the nowness. About seeing something new done with paint. Wether or not I was looking at a 3D print, or the original from the artist’s studio seems to somehow seem less important with new works, because in this case it is all about this newness and the impact of now. The rush of seeing something brand new and immediate. However, one still has to actually see paintings, be in the same space as them, to truly appreciate them. Photos and reproductions are an entirely different thing.
So for now at least, with the technology still perfecting, almost every painting we ever see is still the original work made by the artists themselves. In the next few years though, this will probably change and we as the audience will change along with it as we have always done. Eventually the very last person on Earth to remember the time when there was only ever one original painting will die of old age and for everyone else that will be forgotten and relegated to history.
Perhaps the next question will then be, what kind of paintings will the computers make? When they have superseded our intelligence. Perhaps then will then see if paintings are only just a human thing, or even if humans are only just a human thing. But that’s a whole different essay.
As for the artists themselves, before then, or even beyond then. Painters still have one job, which sounds simple, but isn’t. It is to immerse themselves in the making and create something that is and can only ever be painting. Painting that connects with this lineage back to the caves. Painting that is unashamed to show its own creation, to show the mistakes and shortcomings, the learning and accidents and enable all of these things to happen, while thinking about it all just enough and not too much. To engage in the making, is to engage in the viewing. To show what only painting can show.