Art and originals

Imitation might be the sincerest form of flattery, but that doesn’t mean that it is always appropriate in the art world. On the contrary, for centuries great importance has been placed on the notion of an ‘original’. This word has various meanings and comes with ‘baggage’, so to speak – it once was a term used in philosophy and science meaning the thing from which something arises, a usage which is no longer current but which of course relates to art in the sense that pieces which show an ‘original’ (that is to say, innovative) train of thought are sometimes the instigators of new movements or trends in art. More commonly, though, it means that the work was created firsthand, and can be shown to be made by a particular person. It is The Work, the real thing – and from it, copies can be made. The copies are generally harmless – I am not talking about instances of fraud, but merely reproductions of a painting or sculpture (for example) that can give those who will never see the original the chance to do so, or allow ordinary people to take that Van Gogh home with them – even if it is, after all, only a print.

The Starry Night, Vincent Van Gogh, courtesy of

Copies of this nature if anything only contribute to the mystique surrounding the original, because they publicize the image and familiarize people with it whilst always remaining separate and in a sense in a lower sphere. You might have seen a reproduction of the Mona Lisa a hundred times, but if you get the chance you would probably like to see the original itself, which retains a hold on popular consciousness regardless of the millions of copies available – there’s a reason it lies behind bulletproof glass surrounded by alarms. A reproduction, even an extremely convincing and clever one, is not the same – consider the insult that Isabella II of Spain paid to the Vatican when she presented the Pope with a painting she claimed to be by the Spanish master Murillo and which she in fact knew to be a copy (it seems she was too fond of the painting to give the original up at the time – though she did later give it to King Luis of Portugal).

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