Anyone can hang a version of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in their home or view it online. But seeing the original fulfills the desire for a pilgrimage.
What does it mean for a painting or a musical piece to be endlessly replicated and copied? Is a good reproduction of the Mona Lisa still a Mona Lisa? Is a march by John Phillips Sousa captured on old Victor acoustic recordings that he hated still a Sousa march? And what does it say about our sensibilities that a lot of people on the rim of the Grand Canyon seem to be preoccupied with a digital device rather than the glorious and unmediated view?
Budding critics and art scholars are usually required to take a look at Walter Benjamin’s seminal 1935 piece, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. He addresses the question of how we should treat a copy of an original at a point in time when copies of everything are mostly what we know. Benjamin claims an original has an “aura” that a reproduction cannot match. And yet, as the recent BBC/Netflix series Fake or Fortune makes clear, it may require the precision of an electron microscope to tell the difference between a Renoir and a good fake. We see millions of paintings done in the style of French master. If we love the style, why not love them all, regardless of their pedigrees?
To say the least, our relationship with an original in its own place is peculiar and unstable. Anyone trying to actually see the Mona Lisa in Paris or Vincent van Gogh’s iconic Starry Night in New York is likely to experience the same kind of crowding that happens on a subway platform. The mob scenes in the galleries often block a clear view of a painting, mostly because of a forest of cameras held high to catch the moment. What brings these crowds out? Is the real thing that much better than a good print? Do the hordes expect some sort of transference-by-proximity?
It’s usually the case that a photo of a painting or a bootleg of a concert will be a degraded form of the original. But I suspect the expectation of seeing more in the original is usually not the point. A better explanation is fundamentally social: tied to being in the presence of a recognized icon, even when the actual experience is surely a long way from what the artist envisioned as an ideal viewing experience. Indeed, the fact that there are so many copies of a cultural artifact surely increases the impetus to find the original.
Being in the space of the original is what functions as a kind of secular pilgrimage.
My theory: as individuals, we occasionally need just one degree of separation rather than six. We need to be at the scene of what everyone else celebrates second hand. And we need to take home some evidence that we were there. Anyone can hang a version of the Mona Lisa in their home or view it online. But being in the space of the original is what functions as a kind of secular pilgrimage. Somehow our status as an occupant of the planet is formally affirmed. Our own Hajj can lay claim to the association factor that comes with being in the same place.
None of us are immune to this pull. Ask anyone what they have put on their personal ‘bucket list,’ and you are bound to hear about places that are crowded with people on their own pilgrimages. These might include throngs of tourists in Times Square, the daily homages paid to any number of pieces of art sitting in a city’s premier museum, or even a tour of the Warner Brothers back lot. We seek the aura that Benjamin suggests, even though the circumstances of our attendance usually end up sabotaging what is or was so sublime about the original.
For example, in Burbank we can still visit outdoor sets used in the shows The Music Man, Gilmore Girls and La La Land. But with film, the fakes are actually the sets, which are used along with a number of photographic “cheats” to make them look authentic. With film, the real thing is what actually ends up on a screen out in Duluth or Denver.
Of course being ‘in the scene’ says little about understanding what makes a work a masterpiece. For that we need the practiced eye of a dedicated appreciator, and maybe a sense of the consciousness an artist originally experienced. All may be more easily captured away from the crowds and planted in front of a good facsimile. But of course this deprives us of the social act of visiting our own version of Mecca.