The process and value (commodity vs. cultural wealth) of lithography.
Abstract: In this paper, I will be discussing the art of lithography, and more specifically, focus on the lithography of printmaker, Albrecht Dürer. I will give a brief overview of its developmental history, the process of creating a lithograph, as well as discussing its value to society. I will be examining, “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, the work of German literary and cultural critic, Walter Benjamin. Using this source will allow me to properly discuss the true value of lithography because this essay provides clear differences between the commodity value of an item versus its cultural value/wealth. Distinguishing these two types of value will enhance my further discussion of the kind of value that Albrecht Dürer’s lithography held in society in the past and the kind of value it will hold in the present and future.
Lithography is a popular surface-printing technique that was patented by Alois Senefelder in 1798. It was a more easy and cheap method for him to print text, more particularly, his theatrical works. Lithography is based on the concept that oil and water don’t mix (“Lithography: Type of Printmaking”). This is why oil based inks are used because the ink will repel water. The desired text or illustration to be printed gets directly applied to a stone or metal plate using a greasy crayon or ink. The artist must work on a separate stone or plate for each color that will be used in the final print. The four main colors used for lithography are cyan, magenta, yellow and black, so this is where the four color process first originated. The plate is then placed on a special press with two rolling cylinders. Paper gets placed on top of the stone or plate, and then both get rolled through the two horizontal cylinders by hand. Each color plate is run through separately to produce the final print (“What is Lithography”).
As an art form, lithography quickly caught on to graphic artists who saw this technique as an ingenious way to mechanically reproduce many copies of the same original artwork. Specifically, lithography was applied to poster making, advertising and later on, newspapers, allowing for the artist’s work to reach a wide variety of audiences, including the masses. This was revolutionary because now, art was affordable and accessible to any and all people. Going to a museum or some other high-end establishment to view art was no longer a practice that only the wealthy could enjoy (Benjamin). The ability to combine color, image and text on one surface, made the lithographic poster one of the most powerful means of communication in late 19th century and early 20th century (“Lithography: Type of Printmaking”).
The affordability and accessibility of lithographic prints leads to the real discussion of this essay. If dozens and dozens of copies of the same original artwork have the ability to reach a wide variety of people, rich and poor, then how valuable is a lithograph? Here’s where Walter Benjamin’s perspectives on value come into play. The word “value” will have to be examined in two senses of the word. Firstly, value exists in a commodity sense, meaning how much money something is worth. The mechanical reproduction of lithography, especially applied to news print, blurred the lines between the bourgeoisie and the working class because it led to a rise in mass communication. The advent of inexpensive illustrated newspapers meant that everyone had access to current events no matter how rich or poor they were. Every piece of news had become the business of the masses, making possible their involvement in mass culture and mass politics. Inadvertently, this made the concept of news and knowledge less of a hot commodity (Kazis).
Based on the principles of supply and demand, lithography was not very valuable in a commodity or monetary sense of the word. What once was only affordable to some was now affordable to all. Lithographs were cheap to produce, hundreds of exact replicas would come from one drawing, and therefore made them cheap to sell in the form of illustrated newspapers and such. Mechanically reproducing lithographs inevitably destroyed their authenticity and uniqueness as an art piece, depreciating their commodity value (Kazis). With fine art, only one original painting or sculpture exists and only one person would be able to own it. It’s one of a kind and nothing else like it exists. When there’s only one of something and everyone would die to get their hands on it, that item’s value is exorbitant. But when there’s hundreds of copies of the same exact item, it’s commodity value goes down because there’s less of a fight or struggle to obtain such item. Lithographs were one in the same, so they were seen as less valuable in a monetary sense. The presence of the original was the key to unlocking the concept of authenticity, which is what distributing lithographs on a large scale lacked (Benjamin).
Despite its low commodity value, the cultural wealth of lithography cannot have a price put on it. Its importance to artistic development in society is where its worth truly lies because there is value in the concept, time, and skill lithography required as an art form. Sure, lithography became ideal for quick and simple illustrations for printable mass media, but when it came to reproducing actual works of art like that of Albrecht Dürer, you may form a different opinion.
Albrecht Dürer was an ingenious painter and craftsman, but probably his biggest accomplishment was elevating the status of printmaking to an independent art form, expanding its tonal and dramatic range and providing the imagery with a new conceptual foundation (Wisse, “Albrecht Dürer” ). One of his most famous woodcut pieces would undoubtedly be from The Apocalypse series, Four Horsemen, in which he instills a sense of heavy motion and danger into this climactic moment from the Book of Revelation. Dürer skillfully places the silhouettes of the four horses and riders against a backdrop of parallel running lines that create a dynamic middle tone. The volume and strong diagonal motion of the figures further enhance the impact of the image, all the more highlighting the outstanding visual display that Dürer was able to foster with this medium (Heilbrunn Timeline, “Four Horsemen”).
When reproducing a lithograph of any artwork, one would have to draw the image of the original artwork backwards on the plate so when it was rolled through a press, it would come out on paper how the original artwork appeared. Drawing the print exactly as it appeared, still using four different plates for all four colors, is a skill in its own right. But now adding in the extra task of doing all of this backwards was a whole other ball game. With Albrecht Dürer’s prints, this was an exceptionally difficult task because of the amount of intricate detail and shading his prints were famous for having. Darks and lights, parallel and perpendicular lines would have to be resembled at exactly the right places going in the opposite direction. It was without a doubt the most tedious task in the whole process. Of course it requires an incredible amount of skill in drawing, but also calls for a massive amount of brainpower in being able to think and decipher the proper location of values and other visual elements as they would appear opposite. It takes a true artist to master these skills, and this is where the true value of lithography lies.
Conclusion: A lithograph was only successful as an art form if it was a perfect representation of the original artwork. In order for this to happen, an incredible amount of time and energy had to be put in on the part of the lithographer. Time is extremely valuable and there is only so much of it. So the amount of man hours put in to carefully and successfully reproduce an original artwork speaks volumes on a lithograph’s worth. Hand craft and brainpower as well are skills that money can’t buy, you either have it or you don’t. So this also is a testament to the worth of a lithograph. In reality, very few lithographs of original artworks get reproduced. This preserves its commodity value because as stated earlier, when less of a particular item exists, people are willing to pay more to obtain it. However, since they are not authentic woodcuts, they would never be more valuable than the original When it comes to owning a lithograph of an original Albrecht Dürer print, it’s essential to also remember that he’s been deceased now for hundreds of years. Never again will another Albrecht Dürer woodcut be produced. Therefore, there’s a limit to the amount of his works that can be reproduced. So the ability to own one of a few Albrecht Dürer lithographs means that you’re the closest you can be to having your hands on the original. In essence, you own a piece of history, and in terms of cultural wealth, a lithograph is priceless.
“Albrecht Dürer: Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (19.73.209) In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History . New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–.
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Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Schocken/Random House, n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2014.
Kazis, Richard. “Benjamin’s Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” JUMP CUTA REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Oct. 2014.
“Lithography: Type of Printmaking.” Lithography: Printmaking Technique. Encyclopedia of Printmaking Art, n.d. Web. 26 Oct. 2014.
“What Is Lithography?” The Artists’ Press. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Oct. 2014.
Wisse, Jacob. “Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528)”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–.
<http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/durr/hd_durr.htm (October 2002)>.