REPRODUCTION OF AN ORIGINAL2018-02-22T13:21:41-07:00

In the August 1982 issue of Harper’s, Prof. Edward C. Banfield of Harvard University raises once again the question of whether a first-rate reproduction of a great painting is not just as valuable—to the viewer—as the original. In an article entitled “Art vs. Collectibles,” he draws a distinction between the work as an investment and as an aesthetic communication. He asks whether the wide public distribution of great art is not ultimately more important for our culture than the insistence that only the “original” is valuable (as well as expensive). Is a good reproduction really a “fake” or is it a perfectly acceptable version of the artist’s intent?

The issue is complex, and full of subtle aspects not easily resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. The title given to the controversy on the cover of the magazine, “Let Them See Fakes” is an amusing allusion to Marie Antoinette’s infamously elitist remark about bread and cake. But what is of exceptional interest to us are the references to music, and to comparison with visual art.

“How many people,” ask Dr. Banfield, “would not dream of having a ‘fake’ Rembrandt on their walls, however high its quality, yet own and enjoy record sets of the Beethoven symphonies?” Observing that not only the crude but superb reproductions of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa are available to millions, he remarks: “It has been suggested that something like this has happened to the great musical classics—that the Beethoven symphonies are degraded, the aesthetic joy of hearing reduced, by too frequent hearings, however excellent the reproduction. But the purpose of encouraging the reproduction of visual-art masterpieces is not to enable people to see them often enough to get sick of them, but to enable more people to see them at all. . . .”

It is a truism of art history and aesthetics that the visual arts exist in space and the musical arts exist in time. The difference is crucial. While the painting or the sculpture or tapestry are singular objects with the artist’s fingerprints tangibly upon them (though in some cases a sculpture may exist in an “edition” of several copies or versions), the original score of musical work is almost never seen by the public at all. Valuable and emotionally affecting though it may be as an object “handled” by the author himself, it is only a blueprint which must be copied, distributed, studied, and interpreted before it can reach an audience in performance. Even allowing for differences in general size, lighting and general ambiance, a painting—original or reproduced—conveys the same information, the same “message.” The musical work, however, is never the same twice, even when performed by the same artists on successive days; it cannot be. A recording, as the great American composer Walter Piston once pointed out, is a “frozen moment”: it provides a specific version of the work in a permanent unchanging form, with all the dangers and advantages “thereunto appertaining.” A live performance, on the other hand, is bound to vary from any other in a number of subtle ways, and each time it is attempted, there occurs a genuine “re-creation.”

A well-produced painting, therefore, comes as close to the artist’s original intent as possible. There is now a veritable industry of expert copies, produced not with the intent to deceive, but by their very quality creating new problems of authentication and price-versus-value. The interpretive musician, however, operates on a whole series of assumptions of what the composer really wanted, and if the latter is a master long dead, he might be very surprised—if not shocked—by the results of those assumptions. A reproduced Rembrandt is still a Rembrandt; a Japanese wood block print may still be “by” Hiroshige or Hokusai. But a reproduced or recreated Beethoven is Szell’s Beethoven, Maazel’s Beethoven, Ceccato’s Beethoven. They will be similar, conveying approximately the same “information” or “message,” but they will still be almost as different in details as Gielgud’s Hamlet is from Olivier’s. We say “almost” because the stage play is capable of a yet wider interpretive range than the piece of music. The instructions provided in and for a symphonic score are specific, and they may be honored in observance as well as in the breach. While it is possible to say that “Beethoven wrote ‘suddenly louder’ here,” there must be good reason to do so, not to do so, or how to do so. The exact emphasis in a speech by Shakespeare is a matter much less clearly defined. Music and drama are “time arts,” filling an approximate block of minutes or hours in different ways, while the painting or sculpture stands in space and fills a viewer’s time according to the latter’s personal decision, not that of a “middleman” or interpreter.

A musical performance, therefore, is always a reproduction, based on an original envisioned (enaudited?) by the composer author, and differing from it by necessity. What is interesting to an audience at a concert is just that difference in interpretation, from one artist or a group of artists to another. Within certain limits, each version may be valid, instructive, illuminating. A painting incorrectly reproduced however—with color levels changed, with higher or less gloss, in a size that alters the proportions of the whole work in space—will always be “wrong.” In music, “wrong-ness” is much more difficult to prove, unless the composer’s instructions are utterly ignored or contradicted; one may take the issue of the “correct tempo” as just one example of how first-rate interpreters may come to quite different conclusions.

Prof. Banfield’s provocative thesis does not come to grips with the issue of magic—the strange and moving fact that Van Gogh’s or Picasso’s hand was actually on that original piece of canvas, and no reproduction, however good, can make that claim. But while one may continue to argue with his proposal of making visual arts more widely available to the public through acknowledged “fakes,” one must accept with pleasure and gratitude the fact that musical art can only exist through that inconsistent, varied and often arbitrary process called “interpretation.” One of the marvels of recordings is that one can compare, repeat, study, live with that composition, come to “own” it in a deeply personal sense. There are currently some forty versions of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony available on recordings; some, surely, are better than the others, but none is a “fake.” Each attempts to be, if not an “exact” reproduction of an imaginary original, at least an imaginative one.

© 1993 Musical Arts Association