For less than a hundred dollars, one can have a framed print of William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s masterpiece, Song of Angels. The obvious advantage of such a cost-affordable gem of Western and Catholic art is the price tag. For the cost of a good steak dinner for two, one can have in a room in the house nearly the same aesthetic pleasure as an aristocrat from the 1800s who would have had to pay tens of thousands.
Now, I know there are those who dispute the aesthetic advantage of prints over originals, since the differences of surfaces are different. But these differences are, well, superficial. To the artist–I humbly submit to you that I know a thing or two about art, being an amateur artist myself–these differences are more pronounced, but to the casual art appreciator, they are imperceptible.
Art has become, through commercialization and technological innovation, ever more accessible to the common man without a Rolls-Royce in the drive, and I think this is a very good thing. The only difficulty is that it is hardly appreciated and taken advantage of. Let me explain.
When one goes into a Hobby Lobby, for instance, there he is met with décor art, with seaweed mermaids and seashells and lifeless beach scenes. These are not made my man but machine and motor. They smack of a vague and lifeless landscape, devoid of personality, movement, or vibrant life-giving pigment. They are, in short, not art, but décor.
Such decorations are welcome, and I have a piece or two in my own home, purchased before I learned or was interested in art. But now, that I am no longer a child but a man, I have left off the things of children. There are those who have not, and I do not blame them. For the same forces, the mechanical and commercial, which have made art ever more accessible have also made reproductions of true art inert and irrelevant. There are whole warehouses filled with gilded framed prints of masterpieces just waiting to be purchased, but contemporary markets do not have the appetite for steak, but only hamburger, or rather tofu-burger.
But the accessibility of reproductions of fine art is a very good thing, whether it is appreciated and taken advantage of or not. Often times when I am praying the Rosary, I will look up at the Song of Angels, and my devotion is touched by filial affection, moved to feel what I express with my heart and lips. That is the power of devotional art: it incarnates the spiritual. And, for just a Franklin or two, one can have a fine gilt framed piece of religious art.
Having offered a word or two as the advantages of having fine art works available to the masses, it remains to be said why this may prove disadvantageous, which may be stated in many reasons, but I shall confine myself to three: with respect to the art, with respect to the viewer, and with respect to art in general.
To the first, the artwork as such, the piece hanging in a museum for instance, is a work of human hands, a sub-created entity with a material reality which is quite lost upon the reproduction, which a machine produces. The oil surface, for instance, is something that very few people have ever even seen, let alone appreciated, yet this is one quality that many artists prize as the work of an authentic piece of art, the jewel-like surface, the way light penetrates the glazed surfaces (with oil paintings, there are multiple layers or surfaces which reflect back light), and glows from within. These beauties are wholly lost in a reproduction, and people are not even aware that such qualities exist, unless they have studied art and visited museums. True, like I said above, these qualities of surface are imperceptible to the casual art appreciator, but casual appreciation is not an ideal. The ideal is rather, if not expert, at least a studied appreciation of art. Reproductions make this imperfect, because they leave the living materiality of the work of art aside, and only capture its form.
Next, there is the viewer, which I have slightly touched upon. With reproductions, the viewer takes for granted the thing in itself, since it is not really the thing in itself at all, but a replica. It is the difference between meeting an actor playing Lincoln and meeting the man himself. In the first instance, one admires the words and gestures of the actor portraying Lincoln, such as in Daniel-Day Lewis’s moving performance in Lincoln. But that is only the superficial form of Lincoln. The smell of his aftershave (if he ever shaved) is not there, nor is the very being and soul of the man Lincoln, who many believe to be the savior of America. He was a walking piece of art, and all we have are replicas, either in film or photography and paintings. We do not have the art itself. We have a piece of art of art.
Finally, art for art’s sake, as it were. Art suffers from reproduction, because the whole point and pleasure of art is the uniqueness of every piece. Reproductions try to get around this pride of art by limiting prints, but that is next to impossible with the advent of ever more accessible digital prints. Art becomes just another commodity to be produced and sold, which is a kind of profanation of art. Art is the person and the world mediated through matter. Take away the matter, and the person and the world are left hollow, a mere seashell without the music inside.
Overcoming the Difficulty
As Catholics we have the richest and most fecund tradition of art of any culture or people in the history of the world. The artworks of Catholic culture are incomprehensible, and I am not one to say one should only go to museums to appreciate and cultivate an artistic sentiment. There is such a thing as a via media, which would allow for both the reproduction of the artwork while at the same time not being completely satisfied with it. If taken meditatively, one may see an allegory in the reproduction of art. All art, even original works in oil on canvas, are reproductions of earthly and heavenly realities. They are not the things themselves, the living and breathing and moving dramatis personae, but only stick figures composed in a still life for all eternity. Yet they are something still, which have the power to move us emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually, even being lifeless pigments and oil–and so too reprints. Though not the thing itself, the artwork, reproductions of fine art capture the form if not the matter of the thing and communicate that to our souls. You can cultivate an appreciation of the matter by going to the museum. But that doesn’t mean you cannot derive good in such formal beauty of the reprints.
So, if you find that you have a few bucks lying about, and want to enrich your walls and your soul with some timeless Catholic artwork, do so, and leave off the things of a child and be a man.