The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Great Hall, 1925, showing plaster casts of marble sculptures. 

As digital technologies enable increasingly accurate reproductions of artworks, museums are grappling with the complex aesthetic, legal, and political implications of copying.

 

Museum Without Walls

I may enter the Metropolitan Museum of Art, sketchbook and pencil in hand, and walk through the stately hallways until I arrive in gallery 811, where Gustave Courbet’s The Source (1862) hangs. I may take a seat on the glossy wood bench, place the sketchbook on my lap, train my eyes on the nude woman whose arms thrust into a cascade of spring water, and attempt the most perfect copy. I may not use ballpoint pens, ink, markers, fountain pens, or watercolors, but I may use crayon, pastel, or charcoal if I’m on a supervised tour that grants permission. I may not photograph the painting, even as I witness visitors momentarily pause between me and The Source, elevate iPhones, and blithely jab thumbs into screens. I may have to fight the urge to hiss at the offenders, such is my concern for this institution being turned into a classy Instagram backdrop. 

If I’m enrolled in the Met’s copyist program, which was established in 1872, I may request to copy one work in the permanent collection with oil on canvas or oil-based clay. I may imagine myself as the young painter in inventor Samuel F. B. Morse’s monumental painting Gallery at the Louvre (1831-33), reproducing the greatest hits of Western art history, making myself more refined with each minute and each brushstroke. After getting clearance from curatorial and security, I may set up my easel and drop cloth four feet from The Source, so long as my copy does not exceed thirty-by-thirty inches and differs from the dimensions of the original work by at least 10 percent; or I may sit on the floor and mold my own version of Marble head of Herakles, a Roman reproduction of a Greek statue attributed to Lysippos, so long as the size doesn’t exceed one cubic foot.

In the late 1800s, the Met was very much devoted to procuring and exhibiting copies. “We can never expect to obtain any large collection of original works, but we can obtain casts, which, for students of art and archaeology, and indeed for the general public, are almost their equivalent,” reported the Met in 1891.1 Though originals may have been far-flung, replicas could be configured so as to provide a full impression of the culture of any era or the relationships between styles separated by oceans and centuries. At the time, European institutions were not only accumulating casts but churning out copies of their own artworks to sell to other museums and collectors. The Met’s report singled out the Royal Museum in Berlin, which set an example by striving to acquire copies “of all the masterpieces in the different collections of the world, and bring them together under such an arrangement as would best exemplify the progress of the plastic arts at all epochs."2

The Met, which lagged behind its compatriots in Boston, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., determined to do the same, and estimated that $100,000 would be required to “follow examples of European nations in developing an artistic perception common to their people, but slightly manifested by Americans.” Curator Edward Robinson dispatched agents to Europe to procure and commission replicas of classical statuary. “Doubtless there are many who join us in the wish that every city might have its gallery of reproductions as well as its public library,” wrote Robinson in The Nation in 1889. He envisioned “a gallery in which children could grow up familiar with the noblest productions of Greece and Italy, in which the laborer could pass some of his holiday hours, and in which the mechanic could find the stimulus to make his own work beautiful as well as good.”3

By 1902, the Met had amassed 2,607 casts, some of which were displayed to great fanfare in what is now the central hall. Aspiring artists assembled to draft their own impressions of the Parthenon frieze, the Uffizi Wrestlers, Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise (1425–52), and Luca della Robbia’s Visitation (ca. 1445). As Alan Wallach points out in Exhibiting Contradiction: Essays on the Art Museum in the United States (1998), the exaltation of replicas is essential not only to American museums but to the cultivation of popular values and tastes in general. The prominence of casts speaks to the importance of all kinds of copying in a country that for so long had very few original works of art and literature. The colonial publishing landscape was crowded with magazines devoted to reprinting, without permission, articles and book excerpts imported from Europe; rampant piracy was understood as the foundation for the fledgling nation’s creativity and eventual autonomy.4

Now, the gallery of reproductions is everywhere, much to the benefit of children and laborers and mechanics, so long as they aren’t sued by the Recording Industry Association of America or the Motion Picture Association of America or textbook publishers or copyright trolls. Yet museums like the Met, which by the 1940s had warehoused its casts and focused on originals, may still be perceived by most visitors as custodians of unique objects, even as the notion that any object is really unique, or at least formally inimitable, has come to seem dubious. In fact, museums have been turning into manufacturers and managers of images and various other coded representations of artworks, which they circulate to engage and edify audiences as well as to fill coffers. They’ve resurrected nineteenth-century ideals and wielded twenty-first-century innovations—all while retaining twentieth-century legal teams.

At the gift shop (which in 2015 accounted for 16 percent of the museum’s annual revenue), the Met may sell postcards of The Source that mark the image as copyrighted, even though the painting is in the public domain. But the Met also makes available online a high-res image of The Source, which juxtaposes two age-old symbols of poetic inspiration—the muse and the spring—and refers to Ingres’s 1856 nude of the same name. Viewing this image, I can zoom in so close that I can discern the splotches of paint that compose each fleck of water and crease of flesh, and also plaster the image onto pillows and coffee mugs via Zazzle—or perhaps not the same image, but a version in which my signature overlays Courbet’s. The online shop of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (“If you ever wanted a Vermeer above your bed, look no further”) enables customers to order exquisite reproductions on paper or canvas, complete with the museum’s logo on the border, to mark the copy as genuine. The Van Gogh Museum, also in Amsterdam, reproduces paintings like Sunflowers (1889) with a 3D-printing process called reliefography and offers the resulting Relievos, which record the contours of both sides of canvases and every indentation and protuberance caused by brushstrokes and the passage of time, for $34,000.

“Anything unique is at risk of vanishing: we make a twin—a notarized copy, a plaster cast, paste diamonds, Thayer’s working replicas,” writes Hillel Schwartz in his compendious The Culture of the Copy: Striking Likenesses, Unreasonable Facsimiles (1996). “An object uncopied is under perpetual siege, valued less for itself than for the struggle to prevent its being copied. The more adept the West has become at the making of copies, the more we have exalted uniqueness. It is within an exuberant world of copies that we arrive at our experience of originality.”5 Museums—in their contradictory treatments of artworks, in their various investments in restricting and freeing information, in their enthusiasm for exploiting intellectual property and ennobling the public—are excellent avatars of our vexed relationship to copying of all kinds. The ways in which we now understand, or fail to understand, the function of museums and art objects (all objects, really) reflect more general confusion about the rights we possess and violations we routinely commit, the kinds of copies that are “good” or “bad,” and how reproduction might fortify or degrade the commons. 

We revel in the dematerialization of objects and images, and even testify to the erosion of those categories. We herald the everything-on-demand future, to be driven by global migration to the cloud and 3D-printer-powered manufacturing hubs. Yet we remain ensnared by the notion of art and literature as original works that are fixed in a tangible medium of expression. We cling to notions of creativity and property that date to the Industrial Revolution—and even then hardly satisfied anyone—as we handle books, algorithms, databases, YouTube videos, varieties of flora and fauna, geographical indications, trade secrets, and gene sequences.

 

After Polykleitos

Photographs taken in the early 1900s show gleaming casts of torqued warriors, serene goddesses, and assured statesmen crowded together in museum halls like thoroughbreds assembled for inspection before the race. Only in the following years—as scribes, pantographs, and pointing machines gave way to Electro Copyists, photostats, mimeographs, Speedographs, Ditto machines, Neo-Cyclostyles, and Rotos—did museums in Europe and the United States cement the dichotomy between original and copy. Connoisseurship was professionalized and oligarchs like J.P. Morgan steered the boards of major museums, which began to esteem originals: rare commodities, products of individual genius, artifacts of bygone civilizations, testaments to the collector’s discernment and status. Numerous cast collections were secreted into warehouses or destroyed. The Met’s casts ended up in a rundown depot in Upper Manhattan, under the West Side Highway. Heads were severed, faces were cracked, limbs were lost, torsos were blackened.

Sensibilities changed as the figures moldered. By the 1980s, casts had come to seem important to the history of art of the nineteenth century. They were useful for the study or conservation of artworks that had been destroyed or degraded by war. They were valuable to teachers who wanted to transport the museum to the classroom. And they jelled with the zeitgeist: Genius and originality were under assault, and there was a vogue for simulacra, pastiche, unending repetition. To copy was to deprive the king of his crown, and also to assert that images were for the taking and recycling, and always had been. Narratives of authorship and authenticity, equally prevalent in art history and copyright law, were undermined (occasionally in both realms at once).6 As Warhol was deified, the mantle of the avant-garde was claimed by artists like Richard Prince, Jeff Koons, Sarah Charlesworth, and Louise Lawler. Digital technologies were heralded for their potential to grant unfettered access to—i.e., distribute infinite copies of—all the world’s information, even all the world’s artworks. So after decades in which any art professional who proposed lavishing funds on fragile derivatives of Western classicism might as well have submitted a résumé to the Department of Motor Vehicles, the Met salvaged its collection, embarked on a restoration campaign, and loaned casts to Princeton University, Carnegie Mellon University, and the New York Academy of Art, among dozens of others.

Today, New York’s Institute of Classical Architecture and Art (ICAA), where ancient techniques never go out of style, employs 120 casts donated by the Met as teaching aids. A pristine cast of the Diadoumenos, a young athlete fastening a triumphal band to his head, bears the marks of the lost ancient Greek masterpiece, a bronze by Polykleitos, from which it derives. (The cast may also, or may primarily, bear the marks of one of the manifold Roman copies, and, of course, many of those copies were altered and/or made from older replicas.) Posed in an unassuming room with windows overlooking midtown office buildings, the cast is surrounded by plaster busts and friezes placed on boxy plinths, hung from peach walls, rested on the polished wood floor. The Diadoumenos cast strikes me as oddly inert, more like a product of texture mapping and digital extrusion than muses and manual chiseling. It might as well be compressed data inscribed on an imperfect storage medium, one of thousands of copies of copies of mythical originals; each has its own character, a combination of the artist’s hand, the mold-making process, and the passage of time. 

I’m reminded of the box in my basement packed with booklets of CD-RWs that store albums and movies copied from friends. To me, they now represent the world in which they were burned, however many microprocessor-generations ago, as much as the MP3s and MPEGs imprinted on their surfaces. They might soon be joined by hard drives full of digital models of classical statuary, such as those fabricated by artist Oliver Laric, who has recently devoted himself to making 3D scans of objects from institutional collections and offering them for free online. The resulting caches of STL files—presented with the artist’s names, object numbers, materials, and locations, but destined to roam far from the controlled gallery environment—prompt us to ask how and why we encounter originals and reproductions in (and on the websites of) museums, and what is afforded by these various situations and media. For Lincoln 3D Scans (2013), commissioned by the Usher Gallery and The Collection in Lincoln, England, Laric scanned scores of sculptures, friezes, chairs, and vessels, which were then published online along with an archive of works by other artists and tinkerers who employ the models. In these scans and subsequent versions of objects, we can see the absorptive quality of chiseled stone being supplanted by manipulable data; the artwork is liberated but also comically compressed as it migrates from marble to the surface of an image.

If plaster casts were expelled from museums because they contradicted elite opinions about authorship and originality, only to be recuperated in an era when museums and collectors competed to acquire artworks that hinged on transgressive copying, they now seem like typical—and typically anachronistic—features of the media landscape. I know, when I look at the ICAA Diadoumenos, that the cast is not the real thing. At the same time, I’m unsure what, if anything, “original” and “copy” mean, given that everything so frequently and promiscuously manifests as objects, images, texts, series of zeros and ones.

Laric, nurtured by this sense of infinite mutability, revives musty bronzes and democratizes collection data, but he evokes the specters as well as the promises of digitization. He joins in the reconfiguration of museums into digital publishers, and the conversion of the objects to which they assign meaning and value into equivalent pieces of content, all in the name of access and engagement. To me, the Lincoln 3D Scans files seem strangely elegiac, as they’re marked by deficits of information that are bound to grow as the source becomes more distant, and that speak to a great mass of remaindered data—the ghostly balance of technological progress.

 

Owning Data

The confusion, enthusiasm, and inventiveness fostered by today’s tools for converting between objects, images, and data recall, among other historical episodes, the popularization in the mid-1800s of the electromagnetic telegraph. The telegraph made “one neighborhood of the whole country,” according to Morse (who by middle age had given up on painting), and heralded a revolution in communications, but also undercut principles of originality and authorship—as well as the business models based on them.7 Similarly, the recent dissolution of distance and sudden mobility of media has spooked the acolytes of Sonny Bono and supplicants of Mickey Mouse. From Hollywood film studios, Silicon Valley rec rooms, and Capitol Hill steakhouses, they lust after rights management and insist that copyright continues to stimulate creativity (as gauged by economic output), even as protections are extended for so long that the primary beneficiaries are likely to cash checks on another planet, even as the inextricability of copying and creation gives rise to our best bromides, e.g., remix culture.

Judges are increasingly likely to be asked whether the law might accommodate the prosaic violations of copyright facilitated by digital technologies. Often, rulings issued in disputes between major corporations have reverberating effects. In the 2008 case of Meshwerks v. Toyota, Meshwerks, a design studio, was hired by Toyota to produce 3D depictions of cars to be used in a single commercial. Meshwerks sued when Toyota continued to use the wireframes in additional commercials. To make the wireframes, Meshwerks had painstakingly scanned the car from numerous angles, which produced an extremely rough image—a digital maquette, basically. According to Meshwerks, 90 percent of the work was in what followed: the laborious manual “sculpting” of visual data, which took its designers nearly one hundred hours. Toyota asserted that, while a photograph inherently has the mark of originality, simply as a result of a human being’s pointing and clicking, a scan is purely mimetic and not eligible for copyright. Siding with Toyota, the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit concluded that any originality in Meshwerks’s digital files was an attribute of the cars they depicted.

Charged with making sense of 3D imaging, the court conflated various notions of originality. The Toyota was understood to have the kind of originality associated with artworks (despite the car being a “useful article”), and the wireframe was understood to be a replica (despite being a digital representation, and one that hardly looks like the car). As a precedent, the court cited an earlier case in which Bridgeman Art Library, an English firm that contracted with museums to license photographs of their artworks, sued the American software company Corel, which had produced a CD-ROM that ostensibly duplicated Bridgeman’s images of European masterworks. The judge in Bridgeman v. Corel found that reproductions cannot be copyrighted when they “do nothing more than accurately convey the underlying image,” when they are “slavish copies.” The decision discounted the creativity and skill of photographers who precisely record existing objects; they might as well be making Xeroxes.8

Taken to its logical extreme, this line of legal thinking implies that realism—in photography, drawing, or painting—is akin to making a copy of whatever is depicted. “Put simply, realism is not contrary to originality,” writes law professor Edward Lee in “Digital Originality” (2012), which excoriates the Meshwerks ruling. “Raw facts are not copyrightable, whereas depictions of the world are.”9 Lee argues that Meshwerks is a sign of the legal system’s struggle to maintain a coherent definition of authorship as computers take on much of the work associated with creativity. To help courts distinguish between the labor of machine and human, the role of operator and artist, he proposes a “doctrine of digital originality,” which requires a consideration of whether or not “the creative powers of the mind” are involved when someone clicks on an iPhone camera or a 3D scanner. But even if such a doctrine were implemented, for how long might we hold on to any notion of where the work of the mind ends and the work of the machine (or algorithm) begins? 

According to Marcus Boon’s In Praise of Copying (2010), our ongoing “cultural crisis” points to the basic “inability of the law to resolve, both intellectually and practically, questions about the identities of objects,” which is made conspicuous by the “apparent indifference of the general public to whether the things that they buy are ‘real’ or ‘fake,’ ‘original’ or a ‘copy.’”10 The crisis is only exacerbated by the efforts of markets, galleries, governments, record companies, and fashion brands to regulate the forms and values of goods. Boon suggests we turn away from the legacy of the Platonic distrust of mimesis, which is thought to distort the connection between outward appearance and inner essence, and toward non-dualistic and Buddhist philosophy. He proposes that we understand the similarity of original and copied objects as pointing to a common emptiness, a fundamental lack of essence shared by all objects, regardless of which came first and which came second.

Of course, the legal system is not about to adopt Mahayana Buddhism, turn away from the illusory realm of appearances, and embrace flux. In the meantime, Boon cheerily suggests we make do with the internet, which offers “the opportunity to render visible . . . the instability of all the terms and structures which hold together existing intellectual-property regimes, and to point to the madness of modern, capitalist framings of property.” If we produce and circulate enough copies, with the aid of BitTorrent and data breaches and 3D scanners and printers, we might drive the courts to admit that certain laws governing intellectual property are not only antiquated but so unenforceable as to seem like fantasy. Then what? 

Copyleft adherents, digital utopians, additive-manufacturing entrepreneurs, and trendcasters at magazines from Wired to Harvard Business Review envision a world in which anyone with a laptop can function as a factory: Grab designs online and print your own home, then decorate it with extruded ancient Greek busts, Alexander Calder mobiles, and Joseph Cornell boxes; maintain your farm by fabricating shovels, chicken feeders, meat grinders, replacement blades, irrigation spigots, and hydroponics systems; mock up one-of-a-kind Lego fortresses with the kids. Artificial scarcity wanes, imports come to seem extraneous, and artisanal producers displace mega-retailers like Walmart. Consumers turn into creative coders and establish decentralized networks that allow them to exchange knowledge and “physibles” and enable them to sate their own appetites for commodities. In the view of Adrian Bowyer, founder of RepRap, an open-source rapid prototyping system that can replicate itself by manufacturing its own parts, 3D printing augurs “Darwinian Marxism”: The proletariat takes control of the means of production but “without all that messy
and dangerous revolution stuff, and even without all that messy and dangerous industrial stuff.”11

 

Cultural Memory

I may be aware of the laws governing intellectual property, but I hardly notice all the violations I engage in (or benefit from) each day: I wake up and grasp for the alarm on my knockoff nightstand, amble into the office, listlessly gaze at the unauthorized reproduction of a recent artwork that occupies my desktop, play an illegally downloaded song, load a pirated version of Adobe Acrobat in order to search a book nabbed from Aaaaarg—and that’s all before I’ve had coffee. In these moments of impulsive breach, I occasionally realize what a chasm exists between the regulation of intellectual property and my daily routine, even my natural instincts.12

I’ve barely changed my behavior, though, except to mask my internet traffic by paying for a virtual private network. Perhaps the arm of the law is not really so long, or perhaps hardly anyone heeds the occasional examples made by prosecutors and trolls. (It’s impossible to say for sure, because so many defendants can’t afford decent representation, so they cease and desist rather than make their mark on the legal system.) Nevertheless, to parrot “Areopagitica,” John Milton’s foundational polemic against licensing, censorship, and the regulation of thought: “I fear yet this iron yoke of outward conformity hath left a slavish print upon our necks; the ghost of a linen decency yet haunts us.”13

Yet I don’t believe we’ll reach Shangri-La 2.0 by leveling the distinctions between original and copy, marble statue and CAD model, and insisting on the essential equivalence of all manifestations of all things. To do so is to disavow the meaning that imbues objects as they become vessels for our personal memories and collective histories, as they are marked by our rituals and caresses—which may be trivial when it comes to torrents of Hollywood films and knockoff Louis Vuitton clutches, but paramount when it comes to ancient artifacts and cultural relics (which is how we’ll eventually describe torrents and knockoffs). The museum’s traditional role as custodian of objects cannot be divorced from the task of registering and manufacturing the value of those objects through research, publication, education, conservation, and exhibition. A sculpture on a pedestal in a museum is always a signifier of meaning to be found elsewhere.

So what, precisely, is copied when one scans and creates 3D-printed versions of an artwork from a museum’s collection? The answer depends on the artwork, the museum, and the relationship between the artwork and the museum. Whereas Laric’s scans range from Victorian busts of British authors to Bronze Age urns to nineteenth-century Nigerian figurines, German artists Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles recently captured the iconic bust of Queen Nefertiti that resides at Berlin’s Neues Museum. Last October, they walked into the museum—Al-Badri with a customized Microsoft Kinect motion sensor strapped to her chest, concealed by a black leather jacket and vogueish azure scarf—and headed to Room 2.10, which is devoted to the pacific likeness of the Sun Queen. The museum’s website indicates that the bust was made with limestone and stucco around 1340 b.c. by court sculptor Thutmose and used as a model by contemporary portraitists (which is to say the original was designed to be copied). As for provenance, the museum is oddly terse: “She was found in 1912 during the excavations of the German-Orient-Association in the city of Achet-Aton, today known as Amarna.”14 James Simon, a Jewish patron and philanthropist, “funded the excavations in Amarna and acquired ownership of the bust when the finds were divided and bequeathed it to the National Museums in Berlin.” 

Al-Badri circled the towering vitrine and, whenever the guards seemed distracted, pushed the scarf aside and made a scan.15 She and Nelles gave the data to designers to assemble a digital model, which was made available for download two months later—as The Other Nefertiti—and widely praised for its accuracy, given the circumstances. They then created a 3D-printed version out of polymer resin, which was put on display at the American University at Cairo: an avatar of the bust and a polemic against its appropriation by Germany. Al-Badri and Nelles lament the Neues Museum’s failure to even acknowledge that ownership of the bust is highly contested: The Egyptian government claims that fraudulent documents were used to shuttle the statue out of the country, and officials have requested numerous times that it be repatriated; Germany was on the verge of doing so in 1935, but Hitler interceded. (“Nefertiti continually delights me,” he wrote, outlining his plan for the bust to be the centerpiece of a new museum devoted to Egyptian antiquities. “I will never relinquish the head of the queen.”)

Does the Neues Museum, which has made an extremely precise “museum quality” scan of the bust for the purposes of research and conservation, have the right to stash that data, to treat it as intellectual property rather than a public good? Does the museum have the right to determine who gets to access artworks and cultural heritage? The museum might like to argue that, for those who can afford to visit Berlin, the most enriching and secure environment in which to encounter the bust of Nefertiti is Room 2.10. But why must this preclude schoolchildren and scholars in Cairo and Toronto from scrutinizing Nefertiti’s flat-topped headdress and L’Oréal lips? What is lost when high-quality scans begin to circulate alongside thousands of shoddy and illicit iPhone pics? Why should the museum limit digital or physical reproductions so long as they have no effect on the original, especially since the bust of Nefertiti is ostensibly held in the public trust? If the scholarship on markets for designer clothing and knockoffs is any guide, the museum need not be concerned that the half-million people who file through Room 2.10 each year will instead opt to stay at home—or go to Cairo—and satisfy themselves with 3D-printed versions. Perhaps the answer has to do with the potential devaluation of the museum’s own copies: 3D-printed and hand-painted replicas, made last year in an edition of one hundred, retail for $10,000. 

Museums around the world may have shut down their plaster cast workshops, but they are increasingly capable of turning digital models into extremely convincing—and therefore marketable—replicas, which will soon only nominally differ from the original artworks. And while Nefertiti may always be on view, the bulk of the Neues Museum’s artifacts are warehoused, as tends to be the case with European museums, whose collections keep paying dividends on colonialism. So why not revive the model of the museum devoted to plaster casts, on the basis of reparations for plunder, and repatriate Nefertiti and her ilk?

This proposal heralds the arrival of perfect copies even as it upholds the value of the original—not as an artwork so much as a symbol of the genesis over millennia of Egyptian culture, and its persistence despite the regularity of conquest and desecration by megalomaniacal foreigners. For the symbol to function properly, the object must be possessed. But even if Egypt were to get the bust of Nefertiti returned, the actual sculpture would remain notional to the vast majority of people, whose vacation allowances are nil. And the narrative of the Egyptian nation might just as well be expressed by the proliferation of digital representations of the sculpture as by the gypsum lacquer that has been mottled by the passage of centuries but still enlivens the queen’s face. 

Since the invasion of Iraq, new urgency has been granted to the question of how physical artifacts and their binary manifestations act as stores of cultural memory, especially in light of campaigns to rid territories of the histories of ethnic and religious minorities. Organizations like CyARK, the Million Image Database, Palmyra Photogrammetry, and Learning Sites have been working to create 3D models and virtual reconstructions of damaged and destroyed monuments. (The Institute for Digital Archaeology’s 3D-printed marble version of Palmyra’s arch, which was assaulted by ISIS last year, was installed in April at London’s Trafalgar Square.) Artist Morehshin Allahyari recently reconstituted a statue of King Uthal, ruler of the Roman-era city of Hatra, that was shattered by Islamic State militants at the Mosul Museum last February.16

Allahyari made the 3D model of the sculpture available as STL and OBJ files, along with her cache of research, images, maps, and videos; she also stored this data on a flash drive and memory card nestled within a plastic replica. This miniaturized, crystalline figure of a bearded royal seems spectral in contrast to the stone masses being pulverized by smug militants in an ISIS propaganda video—as much an elegy as an act of recovery. Allahyari’s 700-megabyte version might be an appropriate container for cultural memory: People can circulate, manipulate, and annotate the files; they can assign their own significance to the work and put it to their own uses; they can claim ownership of the data and limit access, or they can allow the data to degrade and disappear. Which is to say that this transformation also augurs an age of promiscuity for artworks, as they might no longer be bounded by museum walls or tethered to institutions that assume responsibility for taking care of them and shaping their meaning. The alternative is apparent when I gaze through the extruded plastic that makes up King Uthal: I glimpse the outline of data storage devices and nothing of the world in which he ruled.

 

The Future of Originals

Perhaps the original is most valuable to most people as a source for continual reproduction: Imagine Thutmose’s satisfaction at the multiplication of his masterpiece, which might reside, along with all the world’s cultural treasures, in a punctiliously regulated, apocalypse-proof underground facility—the art equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Every museum (and every museumgoer) would have access to the same digital store of objects, with copies being instantly materialized and guiltlessly trashed. Blockbuster traveling exhibitions—which cost fortunes, burn through tons of oil, and harm artworks—would be supplanted by shows with low-cost facsimiles and VR versions of legendary performances. Conservation would become as focused on software rot as the decomposition of paints and papers; artworks would become defined as much by parameters for fabricating reproducible objects as certificates and signatures.  

We can glimpse something like this future in the farrago of copies made, facilitated, and proscribed by museums like the Met as they uphold their traditional roles while permitting the dematerialization of artworks and diffusion of collections. But the bleeding edge is elsewhere. Consider the Otsuka Museum of Art in Naruto, Japan, founded in 1998 by an industrialist, Masahito Otsuka, who had no art collection but wanted the Japanese people to have access to Western masterpieces, and for his unremarkable hometown to partake of the Bilbao Effect and transform into a cultural hub. Otsuka decided to stock his museum with one thousand reproductions of Western artworks created between the Renaissance and the 1960s, from the Sistine Chapel to Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych (1962). Whether out of politeness or confusion, Otsuka’s son-in-law traveled the world to secure permission to copy works from museums and private collections that, in most cases, hold copyrights only to their own documentary photographs. The museum then created the reproductions with a technique, developed by one of Otsuka’s companies, for implanting photographic images in ceramic sheets. The copies preserve the surface textures of the originals and will outlast them by millennia. “Mind blowing museum,” reads the TripAdvisor review by MaurTee from Melbourne. “Amazing to have all of the worlds best art work shown in one place. The reproductions are very impressive especially the cave drawings and art work on the walls of chapels located in very remote places in real life.”

The Spanish company Factum Arte, which specializes in “the production of works that redefine the relationship between two and three dimensions,” replicates not only artifacts but entire archaeological sites in order to prevent their degradation. Factum Arte recently worked with Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities to create a facsimile of Tutankhamun’s tomb by measuring every millimeter of every surface, converting the textures and colors into data with laser scanners, and reconstructing the space via machine-operated blades. The result is “identical to the original at normal viewing distances” and impervious to tourists—those camera-toting, sweat-secreting, humanoid humidifiers. Pilgrims to the prehistoric cave paintings in Lascaux, France, are familiar with this strategy, as the original site was closed in 1963 and visitors were soon directed to a nearby reproduction, Lascaux II. Thanks to stereophotogrammetry, slide projections, 3D photographs, and a unique mortar, a painter named Monique Peytral was able to mimic the hues and textures of the ancient artworks, the effect of seventeen thousand years on earthen pigments.

What might be lost as the greatest hits of human civilization are safely transferred to hard drives? The passage of centuries registered in the fissuring of the supple flesh and glinting pool of Courbet’s The Source; our sense of ourselves as stewards of objects that testify to our histories and capabilities, given that everything can so simply be stored and retrieved. 

Museums offer a concentrated dose of the vexation caused by our stubborn reverence for originality and intensifying devotion to copying, our sensual investment in hallmarks of human achievement and satisfaction with databases of lifeless versions that can be browsed from bed. But they also prompt us to ask how our creations might meaningfully be governed by laws, quotidian behaviors, and collective desires, and how the status of artworks might change as a result. They even use fashionable devices to enable us to see and understand artworks in ways that might previously have been impossible.  

Generally, credit is due not to the schemes of digital strategists but to the intervention of artists like Duane Linklater, an Omaskêko Cree artist who lives in Ontario and often describes the mutation of cultural artifacts as they are wrested from their sources and housed in museums. Last year, for an exhibition at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, Linklater scoured the American Indian collection and made 3D-printed versions of headdresses, clay pots, masks, a totem pole, and a kachina, which were shown alongside prints on linen that reproduce Navajo textiles. The names of the artists of the original works, which were collected between 1875 and 1978 and exhibited in an adjacent gallery, are all unknown to the museum. Linklater’s sculptures, made of uncolored plastic resin, are like low-resolution copies, with the detail and workmanship of the originals supplanted by peculiar blurs and abscesses. His prints, derived from photographs of a screen displaying images of the textiles, trade the vivid colors and precise angles of the original patterns for digital effects and distortions. 

Linklater’s works allegorize the loss of information and, more important, the depletion of cultural significance that occurs when headdresses and masks are given over to pedestals and vitrines, and complex forms of authorship—which may balance individual artistry and collective ownership—are reduced to the conventions of wall labels. Linklater’s sculptures suggest that perfect fidelity is always out of reach. But rather than simply register degradation, they testify to the role of the museum, whose unique ability and staggering responsibility is to present objects at once as elements of sacred rites, pedagogical tools, colonialist booty, exquisite artworks, documents of contested histories, and fragments of a highly particular collection. Focused on the relationship between specific objects and specific contexts, Linklater challenges the museum to provide additional explanation rather than circulation, and fix rather than continuously redirect our attention. 

While Linklater may be unmoved by the possibility of digital files endlessly trafficking between platforms and users, museums are now all too eager to address us as makers as well as viewers, and indulge our desire for their paralytic—and paralyzing—grip on artworks to be eased. The British Museum organizes “scanathons,” which coax visitors to brandish smartphones and make haphazard captures of artworks to be delivered to a crowd-sourced digital archive. The Met’s MediaLab invites museumgoers to scan artworks from the collection as part of the occasional “hackathon” or while wandering through the galleries, and posts many of these images and models on platforms for sharing 3D files, such as Sketchfab and Thingiverse. These exercises seem not to be intended to scrutinize the role of the museum in the twenty-first century, much less reform outmoded laws and correct misguided views concerning intellectual property. “We encourage everyone to use our content, which represents the world’s cultural heritage, to create their own creative works,” reads the Met’s Thingiverse profile, a tangle of buzzwords from museum education departments and Silicon Valley. “These are scans for fun, for sharing, and to inspire creativity.” In other words, the Met will continue to hoard its “museum-quality models,” which would actually be useful to researchers or those wishing to experience an artwork, not a cartoonish distortion, from afar. But at the gift shop you can buy an impeccable marble reproduction of Marble head of a youth, an Ancient Roman copy of a bronze by Polykleitos, for $425 (member price: $382.50).

 

Alexander Provan is the editor of Triple Canopy.