What’s special about an original?

Reflections on Caravaggio, Ai Weiwei, and the ‘aura’ of authenticity


Caravaggio’s long-lost Nativity with St Francis and St Lawrence, forty-six years after its mysterious theft, has been substituted by a digital facsimile. Whisked away from an oratory in Palermo one October night in 1969, nobody is any the wiser about the heist almost half a century later. Rumours abound, but most theories accept that the Mafia was probably involved. Now a replica of the seventeenth-century painting hangs where the original once was.

Commissioned by the Sky television network, it was made by Factum Arte, a Madrid-based company known for its hi-tech copies of major works. Without an original to base the replica on, they had little more than a few black and white negatives from the 1950s and a transparent slide photograph from 1968, which they used to study the brush marks and surface of the painting to mimic the style. Works thought to have been painted in Rome at the same time were also closely examined in order to replicate the scale, textures, density and tones of colour, and Caravaggio’s signature chiaroscuro technique.

A couple of points of interest stand out here. The first is that a painting by one of the great Italian masters, painstakingly created by hand, stroke by stroke, has been resurrected by means of the machine. The most advanced scanning and digital printing technology now gives us the power to imitate a centuries-old canvas with such perfect accuracy that any replica could, in practical terms, surpass any lost or damaged original. Yet this leads on to the second point: that the copy is, or must be, only a substitution for what once was. It represents a clone, an overdue reprisal for what was lost, or stolen. The replica hangs in the oratory with no claim to any of the political or sentimental value of Caravaggio’s missing original.

In the eyes of those elect who decide what’s art and what’s not, it seems to be this status that sanctions the existence of the replica. The loss of art – art being the ‘original’ – is a tragedy, a profound injustice, and replication is a deficient but tolerated remedy. If Sky started imitating all of Caravaggio’s paintings, faded but majestic in galleries around the world, somebody might have something to say about it. A masterpiece can’t be a masterpiece if bastardised versions of the work start sprouting up in the hands of everyone with two pennies to rub together. Snobbish as it is, this view underlies many of our assumptions about great art. Tourists flock to the Louvre to see a Venus de Milo with stumps for arms and devoid of all the colour and grandeur she would have evoked in ancient Greece, because this is the ‘real’, the original, to which we attribute an inviolable sanctity that cannot be replicated.

In his well-known essay of 1936, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin refers to this supreme authenticity as the ‘aura’ of a work of art. He examines the development of mechanical reproduction up to the state-of-the-art modern technology which allows for mass production of art with almost perfect accuracy. But the aura can never be reproduced. Even the most perfect replica is lacking in ‘its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be’. The ‘sphere of authenticity is outside the technical’, so the original remains independent of the copy. A photograph is an image of an image, just a shadow of the original creation.

Benjamin suggests that something is ‘lost’ from the original when it is reproduced mechanically, but this loss is not necessarily negative. In past times, he says, art provided a magical foundation for ritual and religious tradition. It symbolised a disembodied and supreme authority, whose aura could be defined as ‘the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it might be’. Since their value was based on their singularity, reproductions might liberate art from fetish and give way to new modes of perception. The death of the aura – the shift from hierarchy and the destruction of ‘distance’ from everyday life – opens the way for a new politicisation of art. John Berger’s reading of Benjamin’s essay in Ways of Seeing (1972) is rather less optimistic. Mass consumerism revels in mechanical reproduction, enabling the cameraman to manipulate the viewer and change the meaning of art: ‘the camera reproduces the painting on the wall, making it available in any size, anywhere, for any purpose.’ Buying a postcard of a great work makes us believe we can somehow possess it, and through this illusion, we are ourselves possessed. Reproduction is not democratic, but plays into the hands of the free market. This process thrives on mystification:

‘Having seen a reproduction, one can go to the National Gallery to look at the original and there discover what the reproduction lacks. Alternatively one can forget about the quality of the reproduction and simply be reminded when one sees the original, that it is a famous painting of which somewhere one has already seen a reproduction. But in either case the uniqueness of the original lies in it being the original of a reproduction.’

For Berger, the aura surrounding the original is strengthened in an age of mass consumption, rather than being diminished by its reproductions. The impressiveness of a work of art is defined by its market value, and millions of inadequate replications make an original all the more valuable and spiritually powerful.

Does this explain our modern distaste for the replica? The art market depends on the principle of a work being unique, or at least a rare, limited edition. All the hand-wringing about a work’s ‘authenticity’, involving lengthy processes of meticulous visual analysis, carbon dating and dendrochronology, makes a lot more sense when we consider how its value rockets if the artist is distinguished, and plummets if its provenance is doubted. If a painting found stuffed behind a sofa turns out to be a real Picasso (we hear such reports pretty regularly) then somebody is bound to get millions of pounds richer overnight. Two bronzes recently attributed to Michelangelo were quite a boon for the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge this year. Nowadays, replicas are conflated with forgeries, and we believe we are somehow being short-changed with either. You could certainly be forgiven for thinking, like Berger, that this hallmark represents little more than a glorified brand.

Yet this is not merely about commercial value, but a kind of socio-cultural marker as well. Dulwich Picture Gallery’s ‘spot-the-fake’ exhibition this year challenged its public to identify the replica amongst a collection of 270 Old Master paintings (only 10% guessed correctly). Dozens of online quizzes will test your ability to tell apart an image of a real painting from a fake. How well do you know your Rubens? Are you a true connoisseur? Take our test and see. Failure to pass is put down to shortcomings in an individual’s cultural education and artistic finesse – because otherwise an arbitrary and unstable system of valuation might be revealed, whereby we appraise art by its signature rather than skill. Remove the label and nobody knows what they’re supposed to think.

In one room at the recent Ai Weiwei exhibition at the Royal Academy, Neolithic vases dipped in bright industrial paint were displayed. Beneath the drip marks, evidence of their terracotta colour can still be seen as a marker of their age and value. Another is adorned with the garish red Coca Cola logo, debasing an ancient artefact to the most familiar commodity. A triptych of three black-and-white photographs which captures the artist’s performance of Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995) has scandalised many with its disrespect for history. But some have questioned whether the pots were really what their title claims. The point the artist is making is perhaps that nobody can know for sure, and so the importance we lay on authenticity is fundamentally superficial. In making artefacts into ready-made objects of mass production, he strips them of their aura and forces us to engage with a different value system. Echoing the potential Benjamin envisaged for modern art, the distance between work and spectator is destroyed. We become active participants in a new, de-aestheticised art, inseparable from everyday life.

Ai Weiwei, Neolithic vase with Coca Cola logo. (Wikimedia Commons, Victorgrigas 2013)

What is crucial for Ai Weiwei is not iconoclastic destruction, but the recreation of something new. Another work, Dust to Dust, consists of a large apothecary cabinet filled with large glass jars of terracotta powder, which turns out, very controversially, to be made of pulverised urns. The artist has recycled the original to create a new kind of replica, a far cry from the Caravaggio. The shock factor lies in his irreverence and the destabilising of questions of authenticity and value. While the Caravaggio replica pays homage to its lost original and humbly acknowledges its inferiority, Ai Weiwei boasts that the value of his works have exceeded that of the treasured urns.

Benjamin’s aura is alive and well in Western art, and we continue to mystify works of the ‘masters’ as inimitable masterpieces that must be revered. However controversial their practices, artists like Ai Weiwei make us think twice about these prejudices. Considering works of art as a cycle of destruction and reconstruction, rather than idols to be protected for eternity, might make us all a bit more assertive about our individual tastes, and allow us to broaden the boundaries of ‘true art’ accordingly.