Musings in front of digital photos of artHere is a source of relief for artists who have been concerned about the status of art in the age of digital reproduction.
Art will survive, at least for a while.
There is evidence: “The Breath of Great Masters,” an exhibition at the Sejong Center Museum. It is a series of European artworks reproduced through “the highest quality” digital prints, as the organizers put it. The works on display at the Sejong Center are paintings from the Renaissance to the modern art period selected by curators of the Met, Louvre and the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Then several local companies collaborated with graphic specialists to reproduce the paintings on canvas complete with varnish on top and identical in size with the originals.
The quality of the prints themselves is sharp enough to read the texture of the paint blocks on Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” or Monet’s “Sunrise.” The colors have a plastic feel, as if the paintings were done in acrylic, but the essence is there.
Unfortunately, “The Breath of Great Masters” fails to provide any of the emotional charm you get from a work of art. Digital prints might capture the essential details of the surface, but they are missing the important aspect of an art work, which is the whole experience of viewing art and what is underneath the artwork.
They are missing the shadows beneath the texture of paint blocks, the fading radiance of an artwork that has been sitting in a gallery over time, “the breath” of the great masters, as the exhibitors call it. Anyone who has seen or sniffed the scent of oil paint mixed with the sour smell of old lacquer in a gallery space will feel that absence instantly.
Value, of course, is another thing. Is it possible to even call something art when the work hasn’t been produced by the hands of an artist? That is not to argue that everything produced by artists’ hands naturally qualifies as art. So we are back to the old question in Art 101 again: What makes art?
Perhaps it’s somewhat easier to decide how to draw that boundary in paintings, in that it’s the medium involving some tactility ― the canvas and the paint ― in a direct physical relationship to the artist. But imagine if this were to be something that involved a certain amount of mechanical work, computer art for example, where the role of an artist and a machine are more even in terms of effort. These are complicated questions.
On the other hand, ready-made objects and many digital artworks, at least in the realm of contemporary art, were born in a specific context within the tradition of Western art history. Duchamp found his lavatory urinal for his “Fountain.” It was in the act of finding the urinal and seeing it as a reflection of meaning that Duchamp got his concept of art. Art was his critique of authenticity and originality in modern art.
It’s clear that art has never been the same since digital technology appeared. But there are still certain things technology can’t imitate, and an experience is one of them. The best thing for now is just try to stick to the principles without hurting anyone’s feelings. Luckily, visual art technology has not reached the level of digital manifestation like films. We may be there soon, but at least are not yet. So why struggle over something we don’t have to deal with right now? Maybe some people find reasons for doing that too. But let’s just hope that art will survive ― for now.
by Park Soo-mee
“The Breath of Great Masters” runs through March 1 at the museum in the Sejong Center of Performing Arts, central Seoul. Call (02) 786-3131.