Photoshopping classical masterpieces makes us forget the brilliance of the original, argued Jonathan Jones in his Guardian blog on Monday.
I think he is wrong.
The internet has created a boundless gallery of online remakes of great art. From Renaissance nudes transformed into skinny modern models to Beyonce art history, the latest is the van Gogh portrait of Leonardo DiCaprio. (I think it’s pretty amazing).
Despite Jones’ appreciation for how the image emulates the painting style, he asks: “How long did people spend playing with images to create these diverting travesties of artistic masterpieces? How many valuable hours were sacrificed?”
Note: value sacrificed. His opinion is in the language of the question.
The digital age has brought countless reproductions – not least you can see the original painting with a quick Google images search in an array of sizes and qualities.
“Who can deny that it’s great to be able to see so many of the world’s paintings instantly?
“Yet, something is being lost.”
To back-up his opinion, he cites cultural theorist Walter Benjamin who said art loses its ‘aura’ in the ‘age of mechanical production’. It ceases to be unique or special. This was in the age of the black-and-white photograph.
“The rush of recomposed, reinvented and travestied masterpieces being diffused online today shows what happens when mechanical reproduction goes digital. Paintings melt into the torrent of information and are treated as totally lacking in magic themselves,” Jones writes. “Looking at paintings online is bizarrely unsatisfying. Paintings are real physical objects, with weight, texture, and yes, the eerie aura that comes from the knowledge that Vermeer himself, say, painted that pearl earring you are standing a couple of feet away from in an art gallery.”
He recommends a painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and says you really have to go there.
Or, “if you live in Britain, you can see another Bronzino portrait of a youth in the National Gallery in London, for free. It’s a beguiling, surely homoerotic, work. Bronzino is a fascinating and charged painter – a portraitist of decadence. His art deserves looking at. Without any witty additions.”
But his opinion is elitist snobbery.
I detect an assumption the results of interactivity and play with art simply produces a lesser art form – or no art form. Just as Warhol made the point mass production designs can be art, digital is art too. Many artworks about previous artworks have gained acclaim. Why not Photoshop competitions?
As for hours ‘sacrificed’, digital art takes a skill of painstaking patience, a trained eye and a devoted appreciation of art. And it create something completely new and impressive.
In addition, the argument is economically elitist. Sure, I can see the Bronzino portrait for free. But even for the ‘lucky’ ones who live in London, it costs £10 to get to the National Gallery from the outer boroughs. Furthermore, not everyone can travel the world just ensure they experience the paintings and art positioned in New York or Paris or Florence. Not to mention the original Aboriginal art in Australia or Maori art in New Zealand – but that’s a bit far from the West, isn’t it?
Instead of spending such money and travel time, I could instead be cultured for free – at home, for the price of an internet connection. And if I make that conscious decision to look at Google images of art (P.S. has he not heard of the Google Art Project?) and Photoshopped versions of great I would actually gain a greater appreciation for originals, influences and the intertextuality of great art… in one place!
The destruction of the ‘aura’ of art is, of course, similar to the argument against free MP3s of music. It usually makes the point I should be paying for great art instead of consuming these inferior replicas for free. But this choice between lesser quality for free or higher quality for a higher price is a much more meaningful choice than if I am compelled to pay for something I might not appreciate with no other way to see it in any quality.
There is a more compassionate argument for replicas available on the internet, for free or lesser cost. What if people can’t go out? That’s what makes the internet so great. It brings art to disabled people who can’t leave the house, the arts fan stuck in hospital, the jobless arts graduate who couldn’t afford to travel, the classroom where the school can’t afford to take a class of 40 across the city in the hope all the kids will appreciate that.
Finally, Jones seems to panic. He seems annoyed that a new and popular genre is actively preventing us from appreciating a previous and superior genre. Digital mash-ups do not preclude someone from seeking out the original ‘without witty additions’. The originals are still there. I am more inclined to seek out van Gogh’s self-portrait after appreciating the Leo DiCaprio piece and the enjoyment of one will enhance the enjoyment of the other – and vice versa.
And anyway, if everyone adopted his philosophy here – stop seeking your art online and see the originals instead – we’d be reading parchments instead of your online articles. I must say, it does lower the quality a little. I expect your next article to be in calligraphy.