the shock of the mimetic

I just watched a fascinating documentary called “The Mona Lisa Curse”, by the art critic Robert Hughes. A very personal polemic about how the financial markets now own – and ruin – what we call “art”, by treating it as a commodity and ignoring the underlying artistic statements, comments, and visions inherent in the work. Art is stripped down to a series of icons which now change hands again and again for exorbitant sums of money. (You can still watch this online for a few days, if you have a spare hour its worth taking a look, if just to see all the footage of the NYC art world in the 60s, and Hughes’ telling off of the modern collectors who have no idea about what art is, beyond its financial value).

What has this got to do with digital humanities? Hughes traces the phenomenon of art as commodity to a world tour made by the Mona Lisa in the 1960s. I quote from the documentary

over a million americans filed past it… I had this premonition…. it managed to turn the mona lisa into a kind of 15th century television set….
in 1963, in new york, the mona lisa was now treated like a photo in a magazine, to be quickly scanned and then discarded. When Andy Warhol heard that the painting was coming to new york, he quipped “why dont they just have someone copy it and send the copy? no-one would know the difference”. The work I had once so admired conjured up a nightmarish vision of the future of art. With swarms of passive art imbibers lining up to be processed by therapeutic culture shots. This glimpse into the future saw something quite real: the orgy of consumption that would tear open the art scene…

The documentary is about finances, and how money has ruined the art world. It didnt touch on modern media, really. But I wonder about this idea of reproduction and facsimile, about image and reproduction. How is digitisation any different? Is it a good thing to divorce the fetishisation of the material object from the “icon” it represents? We are now merrily creating and disseminating Warhol’s copies of masterpieces (and apprenticeship-pieces) via imaging and network technologies. How are these used? what evidence is there that this furthers research and study? Are we just feeding Hughes’ “passive art imbibers” via new media?

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