One of a kind, we’ve all used this phrase to describe something we value in life. So when something isn’t one of a kind, but instead a reproduction spread in thousands across the globe, do we value it any less? Throughout the world today, artworks are constantly available to the masses in ways simpler and more convenient than ever before. Printmaking, lithography, and photography make it possible for a work of art to be mechanically reproduced and available to anyone who wants to get their hands on it. The original piece no longer matters, because all of the replicas are exactly the same whether they were the first made or the thousandth. Is this availability taking away the value of artworks produced today? Is the idea that a piece no longer having scarcity, but produced an excessive amount of times, make art less impressive? By being limited, is a piece of artwork really better? Or is it its rare state that makes people adore it, rather than its actual beauty? Why must value be contingent upon the limited edition? I believe that art value is relevant. It is relevant to the time in which it was created, the culture in which it is viewed, and the context in which it was made.
The Value of Art
The way art is valued has changed over time, through the production of new technologies and ideas. In the past, the rarity of an object was what constituted its value. When works of art were made for ritual purposes, and were made only once, in one location, for one particular reason, they were considered to be very valuable. Pieces such as statues of Greek gods, or even the Sistine Chapel were produced in one location where they were meant to stay. The fact that, in order to see these pieces, one must leave their home and go to the their locations. This makes the pieces worth much more both in value and emotionally. Famous, valuable pieces were made once, there may have been fakes and replicas, but the only piece with value was the original; the piece that was in the location that it was meant to be in, and was made first, with a purpose. “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be” (Benjamin). If the piece is not an original, it is not emotionally valuable; therefore it is not worth nearly as much as the first genuine piece.
Art value is definitely dependant on time. Nowadays, in printmaking, lithography, photography and other medias, exact replicas are able to be produced countless number of times. Though art replication has always been available, it was more readily and rapidly available with lithography. “Lithography enabled graphic art to…keep pace with printing” (Benjamin), which was then surpassed by photography, “The work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the authentic print makes no sense” (Benjamin). The quality of the work is what makes the print valuable, not the authenticity. Photographers today purposely print their pieces for a large audience, not just to be hung once. They want their work to be spread, and viewed by as many eyes as possible. An artist creates a piece of art to be viewed by people, and through mechanical reproduction, many more people are able to see each piece. No one is looking for the first original photograph, because all of the pieces are exactly the same, and made from the same negative. Therefore, it would not be hair to base the value of a piece of art on its quantity today.
Not only does the easy accommodation of a piece of art make it valued by more people, but it also makes the pieces more valuable by allowing viewers to view the pieces in their own element and enjoy them in their own way. While it is wonderful to go to the museum and see the Mona Lisa, there is also an element of excitement in being able to view a work of art in your own home. The fact that you can do this at ease does not make the piece you are viewing any less valuable. While the piece has the same quality as the original, it is even more valuable in the way that it can be viewed from wherever you’d like to see it, in whatever surroundings suit you. “By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced” (Benjamin).
The way that things can be reproduced so easily today through photography, Lithography and other medias, value can no longer be put on original pieces the way that they were in the past. Different people value artwork differently; there is not necessarily a universal value set. Instead, the value is relevant to the time in which it was created, the circumstances of society at that time, the culture that is viewing it, the artist who created it, and the means in which it was created. Something may be highly valued in one society, and looked down upon in another. The quality of the work is what should really determine its value, no matter how many copies of it there are. If a piece of art has a big impact on viewers, even if there are reproductions of the piece all over the globe, it will still have the same impact. If anything, the impact will be bigger because it will reach so many more people than it would if there was only one original piece and no reproductions.
Benjamin, Walter. Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1935.
Kazis, Richard. “Benjamin’s age of mechanical reproduction.” Jump Cut. 2004.
Web. 3 Nov. 2014.