BY Sam Thorne in Opinion | 15 JAN 09

A Reader Responds

We received the letter below in response to ‘Not so Black and White’, a column by Jennifer Allen published in issue 119 of frieze (Nov-Dec 2008)

S
BY Sam Thorne in Opinion | 15 JAN 09

Dear Editors,

In reply to Jennifer Allen’s baffling attack on the value of reproductions (‘Not so Black and White’, issue 119, Nov-Dec 2008) allow me to inject a modicum of common sense.

Allen’s claim would seem to be that reproductions in some way spoil the experience of actually seeing the work, or that there is some confusion between the two. Firstly, reproductions are not an instance of the work, although, there are some Conceptual artworks that test this distinction. A reproduction copies a work only in selected and generally obvious respects. It represents the work on these terms. It can show many overall or structural features to a whole; indicate linear, tonal and colour schemes, often something of surface or facture, if only in detail. Fidelity or accuracy in these matters is by no means guaranteed, anymore than in other representation. It would be naïve to expect so. Questions of scale or dimensions, material, date and location are generally supplied in accompanying captions, in the case of installation views on gallery websites, scale and colour value are often illustrated through comparison with surrounding architecture.

So, reproductions do not compete with more direct acquaintance of the work, nor unduly foster false or misleading comparison, contemplation or anticipation. Actually they only add to the information people use anyway. People bring all sorts of information to ‘the experience’ of seeing the work first-hand and it enriches the experience. They are able to discern not only qualities missing from reproduction, but qualities easily caught there and usefully shared amongst suitable classes or styles of work. They bring a great deal more from private memory and education and this too colours their reception of the work, either in reproduction or first-hand. There is no point advocating an experience of the work stripped of all expectation, any representation, without severely diminishing what counts as ‘experience’. Nor is there point to a distinction between the kinds of information available, without similarly damaging any sense of information or representation.

But beyond questions of reproduction and a pure or authentic ‘experience’, there is also in Allen’s article, a misplaced faith in the identity of the work, discerned in ideal isolation. Even upon first-hand experience, appearances can prove deceptive. The work seen in a plain white cube may rob it of more reliable perceptions of scale and colour, the work endured amid a crowd of noisy school children may acquire an unfair distance. Lighting, even when graded to a perfect colour temperature may be soiled or tired, enfeebled by insurance or security constraints, obscured or deflected by the customs and fashions of visitors. In short, there is no reliable situation in which to experience the work in possession of all and only its properties.

Instead we allow that these emerge from various encounters, that the basis for this is argued as custom or established practice. Even museums have their fashions in presentation. Identity of a work, while obviously vital, cannot anchor ‘experience’ in any single or simple encounter. It too depends upon reproduction and other representation in setting practices, sharpening senses. The case for reproduction finally is one for a fuller, more discriminating experience of the work working to its fullest.

Yours truly,
Gerry Bell

—————————————————————————————————————

Dear Gerry Bell,

Thank you for your mail. If I can be totally honest with you, Gerry – do you mind if I call you Gerry? – everyone has been agreeing with me lately: “Right on, Jen.” “I agree 110%.” “You’re on top of your game, Jen.” Does it have to do with the Winter Solstice? Or did someone put something in the punch? I don’t know, but I loved your feisty letter, which I read over and over, especially the parts about me being “baffling” and lacking “common sense.” That’s the real me, Gerry. How come no one else can see?

But let’s get down to disagreeing. I was not making some Platonic argument – reproductions are misleading, the real is better than the fake and so on – I was trying to underscore different ways of seeing. It’s about reception, not representation; people, not art. Just forget the art. Take you and me instead, Gerry: if you send me a picture of you, then when I meet you, I’ll immediately recognize your face, even if you use some touched-up photograph taken seven-and-a-half years ago. And if we’d met seven-and-a-half years ago – or even earlier – I’d recognize you, too. Our ability as humans to recognize whom and what we have seen before is uncanny. We don’t need irises, fingerprints, odour, spittle or blood, let alone captions, to make a positive ID, although that could be fun.

So, if we have seen someone before – in a magazine spread or in an exhibition – we are seeing in the mode of recognition. In recognition, we tend to link the present to the past to get a little identity and continuity going in our heads. Why do you think everyone still uses that classic pick-up line: “Haven’t we met before?” But who knows WHAT is better? The magazine or the exhibition? The first meeting or the second? The tenth date or the second day of the fourth vacation? Maybe the divorce! I believe that I looked better in the past, whether reproduced or live. And I must add that I look better in photographic reproductions than in person. But that’s just me and my judgement. Maybe you will hate my photograph but fall in love with the real me on the tenth date. Worse things have happened.

Now, when I meet you face-to-face after seeing your photograph, I will recognize you and be surprised, because, while I gazed at your photogenic countenance, I will have started to make all sorts of decisions, both consciously and unconsciously, about the rest of you. See? Even before getting your picture, I decided that you are photogenic! Maybe I imagine that you walk like banker, but you walk more like a lumberjack who’s been sitting all day on a log, not in an office chair. I believe you are a man, but you are a woman. I think you type with ten fingers but you type with only two, like a pair of chickens pecking at the keyboard (please let know about that one). In any case, I will always be surprised. As there is no one true photograph of a person, there is no one true appearance of a person. Ditto for an artwork.

And who knows what is best? We all want to be pleasantly surprised, but pleasure depends on who’s looking. Remember that weird movie Sex, Lies and Videotape? That guy who could get off only by watching videos he had made of women talking about their orgasms? Clearly, he preferred the reproduction to the real thing (it’s significant that he jerked off not while filming but while viewing, once the lady had left). Critics can’t air such preferences, if they have them; and they can’t review shows they have not seen, although we learn about much art from books and magazines. And plenty of people love art from afar, like the Sex, Lies and Videotape guy. I hope you’re not like that guy, too. But, again, that’s just me and my judgement. Are there ideal conditions for seeing a person? No. There are only un-ideal conditions, Gerry: in a coma or in a casket. As for art, many would argue that such unfavourable conditions were met in the Aue-Pavilion at the last Documenta.

It is true I did imply that the real thing is the best thing with art – you got me there, Ger. But that’s because I am an art critic (we critics are not allowed to judge reproductions of shows, so why should we be the only ones to have the fabulous experience of trying to locate some new back-alley public platform?). And I like surprises. Seeing exhibitions should be like going on a blind date, not like internet dating. Plus, I worry that our experience of art has become too dependent on reproductions – so dependent that we simply stop at the moment of recognition, even when presented with the real thing. What if the classic pick-up line got this response: “Yes, I am Jane, and we were in the same yoga class.” – and then Jane walks away forever! You may laugh, but how many times have I seen people go through exhibitions, only to turn the work list into a check-list. Even the Sex, Lies and Videotape guy could do better than that.

What about competition? Do reproductions compete with more direct acquaintance of the work? I hate to break it to you, Gerry, but here’s where I start to get a bit Platonic. Research has demonstrated that our conscious and unconscious investments in reproductions tend to get confused with each other and with historical facts. Remember how people thought they had seen the Zapruder film at the time of the Kennedy assassination, although the film was first aired on television in 1975, 12 years after the tragedy? Moreover, reproductions can indeed take the place of direct experience. People presented with photographs of children at a circus will start to tell stories about their own childhood visits, even if they never went. That’s why Plato was so worried – and he didn’t even own a digital camera!

But let’s get back to you and me, Gerry. After reading your letter – and nothing more – I’m already imagining that we’ve already had a date! Woah. Isn’t that cool? We yelled at each other, but we thought that we should see each other again because there is no single or simple encounter. On our next date, we agreed that artworks are like people; they cannot be seen in isolation, they must be seen again and again, in every possible context, “good” or “bad,” real or reproduced. And on our next date, we thought that we should always write about the conditions in which we see art: Not just the lighting and the curating and the catalogue but what we ate before we saw the show, what mood we were in, how noisy school children and a cute guard distracted us, how the architecture made a strange yet compelling shadow that left us both melancholic yet mildly amused.

Are you with me here? On our fourth date, we made a pact to write about even more specific experiences of art: artworks getting unpacked, installed, priced, sold, bought, shipped. We planned to make a movie featuring planes taking off with artworks inside! And a sequel featuring only customs officials. On our fifth date, we wrote a manifesto calling for “complete and true biographies” of artworks, which list not only where the art work was exhibited but also every other artwork with which it has been shown. And on our last date last week, we got so extremely excited because we knew that we are right on. We agree 110% with each other. We are both on top of our game. Then I realized that everyone always agrees with me, which drives me nuts, so I never called you again, even though you are a photogenic, tall lumberjack who walks like a banker and types with ten fingers.

Gee, Gerry, when I started this response, I didn’t mean to write you a “Dear John” letter – or a “Dear Jane” letter, whatever the case may be. But I guess it’s come to that. As Sophie Calle’s ex once famously wrote: Prends soin de toi.

Jen

Dear Editors,

In reply to Jennifer Allen’s baffling attack on the value of reproductions (‘Not so Black and White’, issue 119, Nov-Dec 2008) allow me to inject a modicum of common sense.

Allen’s claim would seem to be that reproductions in some way spoil the experience of actually seeing the work, or that there is some confusion between the two. Firstly, reproductions are not an instance of the work, although, there are some Conceptual artworks that test this distinction. A reproduction copies a work only in selected and generally obvious respects. It represents the work on these terms. It can show many overall or structural features to a whole; indicate linear, tonal and colour schemes, often something of surface or facture, if only in detail. Fidelity or accuracy in these matters is by no means guaranteed, anymore than in other representation. It would be naïve to expect so. Questions of scale or dimensions, material, date and location are generally supplied in accompanying captions, in the case of installation views on gallery websites, scale and colour value are often illustrated through comparison with surrounding architecture.

So, reproductions do not compete with more direct acquaintance of the work, nor unduly foster false or misleading comparison, contemplation or anticipation. Actually they only add to the information people use anyway. People bring all sorts of information to ‘the experience’ of seeing the work first-hand and it enriches the experience. They are able to discern not only qualities missing from reproduction, but qualities easily caught there and usefully shared amongst suitable classes or styles of work. They bring a great deal more from private memory and education and this too colours their reception of the work, either in reproduction or first-hand. There is no point advocating an experience of the work stripped of all expectation, any representation, without severely diminishing what counts as ‘experience’. Nor is there point to a distinction between the kinds of information available, without similarly damaging any sense of information or representation.

But beyond questions of reproduction and a pure or authentic ‘experience’, there is also in Allen’s article, a misplaced faith in the identity of the work, discerned in ideal isolation. Even upon first-hand experience, appearances can prove deceptive. The work seen in a plain white cube may rob it of more reliable perceptions of scale and colour, the work endured amid a crowd of noisy school children may acquire an unfair distance. Lighting, even when graded to a perfect colour temperature may be soiled or tired, enfeebled by insurance or security constraints, obscured or deflected by the customs and fashions of visitors. In short, there is no reliable situation in which to experience the work in possession of all and only its properties.

Instead we allow that these emerge from various encounters, that the basis for this is argued as custom or established practice. Even museums have their fashions in presentation. Identity of a work, while obviously vital, cannot anchor ‘experience’ in any single or simple encounter. It too depends upon reproduction and other representation in setting practices, sharpening senses. The case for reproduction finally is one for a fuller, more discriminating experience of the work working to its fullest.

Yours truly,
Gerry Bell

—————————————————————————————————————

Dear Gerry Bell,

Thank you for your mail. If I can be totally honest with you, Gerry – do you mind if I call you Gerry? – everyone has been agreeing with me lately: “Right on, Jen.” “I agree 110%.” “You’re on top of your game, Jen.” Does it have to do with the Winter Solstice? Or did someone put something in the punch? I don’t know, but I loved your feisty letter, which I read over and over, especially the parts about me being “baffling” and lacking “common sense.” That’s the real me, Gerry. How come no one else can see?

But let’s get down to disagreeing. I was not making some Platonic argument – reproductions are misleading, the real is better than the fake and so on – I was trying to underscore different ways of seeing. It’s about reception, not representation; people, not art. Just forget the art. Take you and me instead, Gerry: if you send me a picture of you, then when I meet you, I’ll immediately recognize your face, even if you use some touched-up photograph taken seven-and-a-half years ago. And if we’d met seven-and-a-half years ago – or even earlier – I’d recognize you, too. Our ability as humans to recognize whom and what we have seen before is uncanny. We don’t need irises, fingerprints, odour, spittle or blood, let alone captions, to make a positive ID, although that could be fun.

So, if we have seen someone before – in a magazine spread or in an exhibition – we are seeing in the mode of recognition. In recognition, we tend to link the present to the past to get a little identity and continuity going in our heads. Why do you think everyone still uses that classic pick-up line: “Haven’t we met before?” But who knows WHAT is better? The magazine or the exhibition? The first meeting or the second? The tenth date or the second day of the fourth vacation? Maybe the divorce! I believe that I looked better in the past, whether reproduced or live. And I must add that I look better in photographic reproductions than in person. But that’s just me and my judgement. Maybe you will hate my photograph but fall in love with the real me on the tenth date. Worse things have happened.

Now, when I meet you face-to-face after seeing your photograph, I will recognize you and be surprised, because, while I gazed at your photogenic countenance, I will have started to make all sorts of decisions, both consciously and unconsciously, about the rest of you. See? Even before getting your picture, I decided that you are photogenic! Maybe I imagine that you walk like banker, but you walk more like a lumberjack who’s been sitting all day on a log, not in an office chair. I believe you are a man, but you are a woman. I think you type with ten fingers but you type with only two, like a pair of chickens pecking at the keyboard (please let know about that one). In any case, I will always be surprised. As there is no one true photograph of a person, there is no one true appearance of a person. Ditto for an artwork.

And who knows what is best? We all want to be pleasantly surprised, but pleasure depends on who’s looking. Remember that weird movie Sex, Lies and Videotape? That guy who could get off only by watching videos he had made of women talking about their orgasms? Clearly, he preferred the reproduction to the real thing (it’s significant that he jerked off not while filming but while viewing, once the lady had left). Critics can’t air such preferences, if they have them; and they can’t review shows they have not seen, although we learn about much art from books and magazines. And plenty of people love art from afar, like the Sex, Lies and Videotape guy. I hope you’re not like that guy, too. But, again, that’s just me and my judgement. Are there ideal conditions for seeing a person? No. There are only un-ideal conditions, Gerry: in a coma or in a casket. As for art, many would argue that such unfavourable conditions were met in the Aue-Pavilion at the last Documenta.

It is true I did imply that the real thing is the best thing with art – you got me there, Ger. But that’s because I am an art critic (we critics are not allowed to judge reproductions of shows, so why should we be the only ones to have the fabulous experience of trying to locate some new back-alley public platform?). And I like surprises. Seeing exhibitions should be like going on a blind date, not like internet dating. Plus, I worry that our experience of art has become too dependent on reproductions – so dependent that we simply stop at the moment of recognition, even when presented with the real thing. What if the classic pick-up line got this response: “Yes, I am Jane, and we were in the same yoga class.” – and then Jane walks away forever! You may laugh, but how many times have I seen people go through exhibitions, only to turn the work list into a check-list. Even the Sex, Lies and Videotape guy could do better than that.

What about competition? Do reproductions compete with more direct acquaintance of the work? I hate to break it to you, Gerry, but here’s where I start to get a bit Platonic. Research has demonstrated that our conscious and unconscious investments in reproductions tend to get confused with each other and with historical facts. Remember how people thought they had seen the Zapruder film at the time of the Kennedy assassination, although the film was first aired on television in 1975, 12 years after the tragedy? Moreover, reproductions can indeed take the place of direct experience. People presented with photographs of children at a circus will start to tell stories about their own childhood visits, even if they never went. That’s why Plato was so worried – and he didn’t even own a digital camera!

But let’s get back to you and me, Gerry. After reading your letter – and nothing more – I’m already imagining that we’ve already had a date! Woah. Isn’t that cool? We yelled at each other, but we thought that we should see each other again because there is no single or simple encounter. On our next date, we agreed that artworks are like people; they cannot be seen in isolation, they must be seen again and again, in every possible context, “good” or “bad,” real or reproduced. And on our next date, we thought that we should always write about the conditions in which we see art: Not just the lighting and the curating and the catalogue but what we ate before we saw the show, what mood we were in, how noisy school children and a cute guard distracted us, how the architecture made a strange yet compelling shadow that left us both melancholic yet mildly amused.

Are you with me here? On our fourth date, we made a pact to write about even more specific experiences of art: artworks getting unpacked, installed, priced, sold, bought, shipped. We planned to make a movie featuring planes taking off with artworks inside! And a sequel featuring only customs officials. On our fifth date, we wrote a manifesto calling for “complete and true biographies” of artworks, which list not only where the art work was exhibited but also every other artwork with which it has been shown. And on our last date last week, we got so extremely excited because we knew that we are right on. We agree 110% with each other. We are both on top of our game. Then I realized that everyone always agrees with me, which drives me nuts, so I never called you again, even though you are a photogenic, tall lumberjack who walks like a banker and types with ten fingers.

Gee, Gerry, when I started this response, I didn’t mean to write you a “Dear John” letter – or a “Dear Jane” letter, whatever the case may be. But I guess it’s come to that. As Sophie Calle’s ex once famously wrote: Prends soin de toi.

Jen

Sam Thorne is director of Nottingham Contemporary, UK. 

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