sphagnum moss, dark water, and politics
Saturday, November 18, 2006
The Gross Clinic in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.
Bit o' background: For everyone who doesn't follow Philly and/or art-world news, The Gross Clinic is a 19th century masterpiece by native son Thomas Eakins that's hung for countless years in Thomas Jefferson Medical College (at Thomas Jefferson University). Most appropriately, it depicts Dr. Samuel Gross teaching a group of Jeff students during an operation, and was happily sold to a group of Jefferson alumni for $200 after shocked 1876 Centennial Exhibition judges rejected it. Last week TJU suddenly announced it had - following secret negotiations - decided to sell the painting to the National Gallery and the Walmart-heir-funded under-construction Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas for a cool $68 million, to help fund expansion.
However, it also gave Philly whole 45 days to try to raise that sum and keep it in the city. (Despite reports to the contrary, the words "in small unmarked bills" and "if you ever want to see it again" apparently weren't involved, nor was the offer spelled out in cut-and-pasted magazine letters or over the phone using a creepy phase-shifted voice. I think). So there's been an firestorm of criticism, and breast-beating, and lamentations, , and also frantic fundraising efforts . . . (But no reassuring Law&Order detectives, although this being Philly we'd have to either settle for a canceled crime-solving ex-cop cab-driver or possibly a small boy who sees dead people, which might not be the most useful talent in this case, though one never knows . . .)
So, Wednesday, WHYY local public-radio show Radio Times ("with Marty Moss-Coane," and how awesome is it to have "Moss" as a last name?) had various folks on discussing it, and "Jay from Center City" called in with the following (as fitfully transcribed by yours truly):
. . . It's wonderful to have great - high regard for art. I'm an artist myself. I regret that the painting may leave. However, we live in an age when a good reproduction can be obtained . . . we don't actually have to have the original . . .Marty interrupted to ask why, as an artist, he thought a reproduction would be as good as the original, and the rest of the exchange focused on technical aspects, but what immediately came to mind was Walter Benjamin's famous uber-essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (full text here).
Benjamin argued that, historically, the changing conditions of production - the rise of capitalist production and techniques of mechanical reproduction - has led to the withering of the aura of the work of art, the - ah, bugger this, I'm just going to quote from Wikipedia:
Benjamin used the word "aura" to refer to the sense of awe and reverence one presumably experienced in the presence of unique works of art. According to Benjamin, this aura inheres not in the object itself but rather in external attributes such as its known line of ownership, its restricted exhibition, its publicized authenticity, or its cultural value. Aura is thus indicative of art's traditional association with primitive, feudal, or bourgeois structures of power and its further association with magic and (religious or secular) ritual. With the advent of art's mechanical reproducibility, and the development of forms of art (such as film) in which there is no actual original, the experience of art could be freed from place and ritual and instead brought under the gaze and control of a mass audience, leading to a shattering of the aura.And Benjamin noted
At the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics.One could go all manner of places with this - the importance of the painting within its - indeed, quasi-ritualistic, and certainly tradition-based - setting, ideas about city status and importance which in Philly, I think, is sometimes tied up in very odd ways with ideas of the past and authenticity, various musings on cultural vs. financial capital, and the absolute perfection of it being bought in part by a scion of that corporation dedicated to bringing enormous quantities of mass-produced items ever closer to "the masses," via deceptively smilely-faced low prices and increasingly regressive and carnivorous capitalism . . .
. . . but I must help input kindergarten grades. Off to do that. And I can never keep this sort of talk up for too long, and there are too many bloggers with excellent theoretical and political backgrounds around to make it worth the effort . . .
However, concerns about wear and tear on the painting from transit between Washington and Arkansas? All too realistic. The following is a bit of an extreme case, but when I was interning at the [name withheld] Museum, we were taking down an exhibit, which included sending a beautiful, ornate, and rather massive 1880s Wooton Patent Desk back to its home museum out West. We had used the company before with no problems, but - well, as was eventually worked out many phone calls and emails later, apparently somewhere between Philadelphia and New Mexico the guys transporting it started worrying that the top part was shaking around a bit too much, so they . . . sawed . . . it . . . off.
Center City Jay's other point was about whether that was really the best use of 68 million dollars, given Philly's very human needs, which, well . . . they never really quite addressed, actually. (And yes, a lot of that money probably would go towards cultural causes anyway, but even so, you could fund a whole lot of art-in-the-schools programs with that . . .)
posted by Dan S. on 2:21 PM | | link
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