Jón Proppé
The Disappearing Original:
The Artwork in the Age of its
Theoretical Deferability

By Jón Proppé

The work of art has in principle always been reproducible. Whatever man makes, man can remake.

These were the words with which Benjamin began his essay on the work of art in the age of its technical reproducibility. He goes on to say that while reproduction has always been employed in some way - to train novices, to expand or change works, or to profit a forger - the technical reproduction of the artwork involves something entirely different, both for the obvious reason that a technically reproduced work can be disseminated more widely, and because it is different in its very character, however faithful a copy it may be.

Leaving aside the admittedly important question of what Benjamin meant by the word ‘technical’ we might well take a while to consider what we think of his pronouncement. On the one hand we will probably acknowledge that of course the technical reproduction of an artwork is entirely different from a copy by a student or reworked painting by the master himself. A master’s copy or a student’s may not be different in any very significant way that we could readily describe, though they are both copies to which we will attach some qualities different from those of the original. A forger’s copy is another matter. What irks us about forgeries has little to do with the actual painting as object or technique - unless, of course it is a sloppy forgery, in which case it would hardly concern us to begin with. No. What annoys us about the forgery is the deception, the intrusion of the profit motive into a realm that we would like to think free of such petty concerns, the debasement that a great work of art suffers by being the subject of a deceitful plot. Yet even a forgery differs from a mechanical copy in at least demanding skill and being singular - a unique object in its own right, though a copy of another.

We could take this as a clue to the solution of our question. Two clues, in fact, for on the one hand we have the deceitful intent that characterises the forgery, and on the other hand we have the uniqueness that redeems it. By a simple fiat of reduction we discern that skill in the execution is an important element in our understanding of what constitutes an original, while the mass production of exemplars distinguishes the true or technical copy. But this provides only a the most simplistic solution and one, moreover, that has been successfully ridiculed by art itself. Recall, for example, the series of works by the Frenchman Robert Filiou collectively entitled ‘Bien fait, mal fait, pas fait’. They were triptychs of a sort that showed an object - a box, a written word, a drawing - done tree times: In the first instance very carefully crafted and stamped with the words ‘Bien fait’ (well made), in the second instance shoddily assembled or messily drawn and stamped ‘Mal fait’ (badly made). The third instance or copy was represented only by an empty space and the stamp ‘Pas fait’ (not made, left undone). Not only do these pieces attack our ideas of skill and craftsmanship in art, but they effectively overthrow any simplistic definitions we might have of what constitutes a reproduction. They show that in the right context even the absence of an object can constitute an instance of it: a copy.

In every-day life these problems are becoming increasingly frequent. We know that the detergent we buy is produced in thousands of exactly similar packages daily, yet we distinguish our brand from the other, allowing for a certain kind of uniqueness in our preference. Yet we would distinguish firmly between an original Macintosh-chair and a mass manufactured copy, even to the point of giving preference to an inferior design mainly because it is ‘an original’. Here as in the case of art the distinction is tenuous. Consumer items have always been copied, have always been produced in quantity, and trade has depended on the similarity of the items produced, both in quantity and in quality. But despite this we identify a difference between an item produced by a craftsman, even if he has been producing similar items all his life, and one cloned by mechanical means. Still, what is one to think of such brand names as Classic Coke and Colgate Original Formula? One can easily enough denounce them as mere marketing ploys, but the very fact that they can be used in marketing shows how unclear current thinking is on this issue.

Copying and reproduction has long had a place in art, as Benjamin pointed out, and in contemporary art is has become a method, another technique in the artist’s arsenal. Graphic art is the first and most established instance, but even there one feels the need to announce the uniqueness of each print by limiting the print run and numbering each copy. The practice of graphically reproducing well-known artworks has been largely abandoned to be replaced by a whole industry devoted to the printing of artistic posters. The history of such posters could easily provide material for an entire lecture. They started as humble announcements, were enhanced by ambitious designers and artists, became sought-after as rare decorations and finally spawned a market for posters that announce nothing at all and feature art produced specifically to be printed as posters. The history of the art poster would be an instructive one if someone could spare the time to write it … In addition, finally, to straightforward reproduction we then have the whole vast and problematic grey area inhabited by crafts, design and the variously ill-defined objets d’art.

But while reproduction is on the wane in the art world, the production of multiple works has become an accepted practice. The very term ‘multiple’ has now come to stand beside ‘oil on canvas’ and ‘cast bronze’ in museum catalogues. These are artworks of which there is no original. They are not copies, but originals of which there are many - a confounding idea if ever there was one! But perhaps the most striking example of multiplication of this sort is the tendency to produce series of works: A number of paintings, sculptures etc. that are all based on the same idea, produced in the same way and making use of the same subject matter or motif. Whole exhibitions are mounted which present in essence a variation on a single theme, works that one might even easily confuse with one another if they were not hung side by side. The fact is that the artwork is no longer the primary unit in which artists and critics reckon the progress of art. The exhibition - preferably with accompanying catalogues - is now the measure we must use, and even then we find many artists aiming to establish ‘periods’ as the unit, expanding each idea to cover a number of exhibitions over a number of years.

There is nothing wrong with this, of course, but it does raise some questions regarding the problems we posed with originals and copies. If an artist produces a series of similar works, how are we to distinguish the original from the copies? We don’t! It would be ridiculous even to try.

Mass produced books, curiously, do not seem to have occasioned these sorts of questions and even the first written accounts of their reception are unequivocally favourable. The earliest is the letter by Enea Silvio Piccolomini, written in March of 1455 to the Cardinal of Carvajal after Piccolomini had seen signatures of Gutenberg’s forty-two-line Bible at the Frankfurt Fair. Piccolomini promises to get the Cardinal a copy. While manuscripts continued to be marketable, printed books were seen as certainly equal to them, and were even considered more readable and more reliable orthographically. There is clearly something about books that makes them different from paintings and sculptures. In their case the mass produced copy is even more firmly an original than the author’s manuscripts, for it is the final version while the manuscript is merely a sketch.

The book is temporally different from the artwork, different, that is, in that it is not uniquely placed in time and space. It is not only here and now, but transcends any particular time and place. It is still very much an historical object, but only as a cognitive work, not as a specific, unreproducible object. In this way the book is much closer to the objects of informatics than to the artworks. A text can be circulated in any number of editions and translated into various languages, yet every copy is as good as another, so long as the editions are unaltered and the translations faithful. Information networks have then shown us that the book need not even exist as a physical object, that is, as an object of which there must be a limited number of copies, however many. In cyberspace there are no limits, or, rather, it becomes meaningless to speak of whatever limits may or may not be there.

The artwork is a far better model than the book if we are concerned with the historical character of a work, precisely because it is uniquely placed in time and space. What this means is that any dissemination must take place by proxy, either in the form of reproductions or by the translation of the artwork into some other meaningful form, by its translation, most frequently, into discourse. Hence the role of the critic and of the art historian, of the cultural journalist generally speaking.

In entering critical discourse the work of art simultaneously breaks its historical boundaries - the obvious historical boundaries determined by its uniqueness in space and time - and at the same time enters into a history as an evolving, catalytic entry in an ongoing process, the process of discourse. As such it admits of all the uncertainties of an historical act, for as Njáll, the hero of the best-loved Icelandic saga, said: ‘Nothing is certain at the moment it is done.’ Historical objects reveal their meaning only gradually, and through their interaction with other historical acts and objects. What may seem now, may seem different later. History defines but it does not fix meanings - the fixed meaning, the unequivocal determination of meaning, is forever deferred in history.

In discourse meaning is always a fluid thing, subject to reinterpretation at any moment and for any number of unforeseeable reasons. The changes to which discourse is subject can not be predicted in advance and therefore anyone who enters into it is literally taking his chances; he has no way of ensuring that his contribution will in the end mean what he intended it to mean. This is risky business for once a comment of some sort is entered into the discourse it is out of the commentator’s hands and can be used at will by others for ends of their own. This is also the fate of the artwork in critical discourse and this is often a subject of irritation to both artists and readers, as well as to certain critics.

It has never been easy to determine the role of criticism in art so it may seem perverse of me to confuse the issue even further by claiming that we must seek to determine the role of art in criticism as well. But this is precisely what we must do if we are to understand the current situation regarding art and critical discourse.

We like to think of criticism as the artwork’s complement, as a sort of completion of the artist’s work. It was Adorno who put this in theoretical terms:

Critique interprets the spirit of works of art on the basis of the configurations in them, confronting the moments with each other and with the spirit as it appears to them. In so doing critique passes over into a truth beyond the realm of aesthetic configurations. That is why criticism is an essential and necessary complement of art works. Criticism recognises the truth content of works in their spirit …

These are heart-warming words to a critic, but unfortunately they represent an ideal rather than an actual situation. In reality the relationship between the artwork and the critique is much more tenuous. While the work of art is certainly always the reason for the critical commentary, the catalyst and in the end what we would like the criticism to refer back to, the fact is that criticism can often seem to make the work all but redundant. If we expand what we mean by criticism to include the whole vast mass of what we call the art press, in whatever medium, the relevance of the actual artwork becomes even further diminished. A small exhibition, seen by only a few, can easily become the subject of such quantities of commentary and discursive speculation that any politician would be proud to have his actions so widely discussed. It is not so much that the importance of the artwork, and more properly of the artist’s work, is being dismissed. It is merely that the sheer magnitude of the discourse and its wide circulation is so overwhelmingly greater than that of the original work or exhibition.

The only way for an artist to deal with this situation is to be aware of it and to make accommodation for it in his work. To make use of the situation, in other words. This is exactly what many artists, certainly most younger artists, are doing. An episode that took place here in Reykjavík a few years ago can provide an instructive example:

A meeting was arranged where the directors of the larger museums addressed a public of artists and critics to explain their policies and the role that they envisaged for their institutions. The resulting presentations were fairly predictable and dealt with exhibition conditions and purchase programmes. In response to a discussion about the limited funds available for purchase, a young artist rose and said that to his mind purchase was largely irrelevant. He said it was not important to him as an artist whether one or more of his works was stored in the basement of the National Gallery rather than somewhere else. What mattered was how this work was disseminated, if it was exhibited and most importantly if it was reproduced in catalogues and discussed in journals and books. The placement of the work, he claimed, was irrelevant.

If art is produced with this in mind, then we need to re-evaluate much of what we have hitherto thought about it. What, for example, is the artist’s aim when he works? On the traditional, modernistic model it is the work itself. Or it is the exhibition, the interplay between the work and the viewer, the work completed by its audience. But now we must face the possibility that the work may be only a means of achieving something altogether different; a means of influencing or taking part in a discourse for which the presence of the artwork itself is not needed.

Perhaps this is why so much art nowadays is ephemeral. A large portion of the exhibitions that we cover these days leave nothing tangible behind, except the reviews and the photographs that are printed to accompany them. The artist’s work, in such cases, does not aim to produce an original artwork to which any discussion can be referred, but rather to initiate a discussion which will then have to continue without any recourse to an original, without, in effect, any check or limiting subject. The discourse is the primary and ultimate aim of such work, while the exhibition is more like a tool. It is the ladder that the artist uses to climb towards his goal and when he has reached it he simply pulls the ladder up behind him.

This attitude occurs not only among artist. It is becoming increasingly prevalent among curators many of whom now feel, perhaps not unjustly, that it is not really necessary to include any actual works of art when one is mounting an exhibition. When so much of art has become fleeting or ephemeral it is only normal that exhibitions dispense with them altogether - or almost normal. Jean-François Lyotard was perhaps to first to address this possibility in his Paris exhibition under the title The Immaterials. That exhibition was generally reviled, but in fact set a precedent for what is now becoming standard practice in curatorial circles.

We can propose two models which we can use to think about the relationship of art and criticism. These two models were discussed in detail by Deleuze and Guattari in their book Mille Plateaux and are those of the tree and the rhizome. Deleuse and Guattari identified the tree as the model on which traditional and modernistic thinking were based. From a single root grow diverging branches, independent, yet always traceable back to the root. A rhizomatic structure, on the other hand, has no root, no origin to which it can by referred and which can serve as a limit to the structure. The rhizome is a mesh of unpredictable connections and associations where any point can connect to any other point without necessarily traversing any particular distance.

If this sounds a lot like the descriptions of cyberspace that we heard yesterday, that is no coincidence. Cyberspace exhibits many of the features of a rhizomatic structure; discourse in cyberspace is free from the constraints of linearity as well as from the limits normally placed on participation in the discourse - the limits imposed by the academic and media systems. Most importantly, it is free from any notion of an authentic original. Anyone who has browsed the user groups on the Internet will be familiar with this; there discussions can flourish for months or years, long after the comment that originally provoked them has been forgotten and erased from the servers.

Discourse in the art world has also come to exhibit many of the features of the rhizome, and, of course, the very essence of the post-modern method of pastiche is the overthrow of the tree-like model of thinking about art production and style in favour of a rhizome where any association is legitimate and any juxtaposition can be made without fear of contradiction.

In freeing the discourse on art from the necessary reference to an original artwork we are merely acknowledging something that is already and has always been an essential feature of discourse: Its independence from its referent. Discourse has a life of its own, a certain density or mass that allows it feed on itself, to carry meaning without that meaning being tied to an object. The case of ephemeral art only accentuates something that is the case with even the most substantial public monument, namely that the commentary does not have to be measured against that which it comments on, rightly or wrongly.

It would of course be an absurd exaggeration to say that art no longer has any place in the discourse on art, just as it is an absurdity - or at best a witty novelty - to mount art exhibitions without any art. But we would not be far off the mark if we said that we can no longer consider the artwork to be somehow uniquely privileged in the context of the discourse. Instead of being somehow the standard against which all discussion must be measured, it is merely one of many possible emanations of that discourse, quite on par with the representations that are made of in the discussion.

We see that it is not really a question simply of identifying the original among its copies, but rather of understanding how an artwork operates as a meaningful representation in a properly representative context, in a discursive context. The first is easy. Finding the original is not difficult when one is face to face with it. One simply points and says: This the original, this is the copy, this is an account of the original. Such an identification works, but it does not solve the problem, it does not explain the role of the work of art in its historical and necessarily discursive context. In fact, it is a bit like trying to explain all of language on the model of simple denotation: by pointing to an object and uttering its name. Such attempts lead us to the dilemma of the Laputan linguists in Swifts novel who had to carry with them all the objects about which they wanted to converse.

A word as soon as it is spoken and a work of art as soon as it is offered up for view and comment transcends any such simple model of understanding. The original cannot simply be pointed out with a gesture that at the same time imperiously sweeps away the chaff of opinion and surmise. The original must be sought not outside or beyond the rhizomatic confusion of discourse, reference and representation, but in it. If the critic is indeed to seek the truth of the work he must do so in the discourse of which the work becomes a part as soon as it leaves the artist’s hands. Only by acknowledging this can we understand what we are doing, and only thus can we hope to learn to do it better.


Lecture delivered at an international conference, Art Criticism Today, in Reykjavik, September 1996. Published in Icelandic translation in the quarterly journal TMM, lvii:1, in January 1997.

Text © Jón Proppé