The replica

Until the development of the first technologies, humanity’s encounters with the replica were restricted to the organic. Even then, true replicas they were not. A blade of grass, growing next to a thousand others of the same kind that share some key characteristics (but are never identical) have what Wittgenstein would refer to as family resemblance. Choose any acorn and it will do as well as any other for growing an oak tree.

This is the organic world, received by humanity through its encounters with natural regularities: seeds that produce certain plants, fruit that provides certain sustenance. In the meaning of these organic objects – that is, their function in primitive life and indeed today – we find the prototype for the replica. But it does not truly come to be until the advent of technology.

Every tool has a use that must be presumed in its design, and in the design of all things counted as being of the same kind, even though they may vary greatly in shape, size and material. And this is a classic problem found in Plato: what is it that the knife shares in, to make it a knife? Perhaps the notion of perfect form, or abstract paradigm, or blueprint. Every tool, be it knife or hammer, has a reason for its knife-ness or hammer-ness.

Regardless of the metaphysical relations at play, this abstract idea is foundational to technology: that something might be replicable, that a blueprint might lead to as many instances as there are resources to make it.

Art, then, would come to mutate this phenomenon in a strange way. For the experience of the work is what is replicable, and not, traditionally, the work itself. Each work is analogously a new technology, but its end is the experience it provides. It is as if, when art comes to exist, I might ask – as if it were a hammer or some other instrument – what does this thing do?

The answer, however, is immediate: it causes the affective experience I am having while I perceive it, whether this carries some significance or not.

One can be disappointed by the inefficacy of the tool just as by the artwork. But we have no qualms with repeated instances of the tool, so long as it performs its function. Yet for the artwork, this a problem if its power resides in its materiality of paint or sculpture. For tangible details make the difference between experiences, in a way which is much like famous recordings of music, or notable operatic performances: they are non-replicable.

So long as a tool functions as expected, we don’t care if there are multiple instances of it. Yet for the traditional artwork, multiple instances are a problem. Tools gain their legitimacy from their efficacy: do they function as intended, and function well? And in some sense, the artwork is legitimated in a similar fashion, primarily by the market. But conversely, for traditional art, we care a great deal if there are copies of it, and hope there are none.

The tool is a solution to an objective problem, while art is both problem and solution, brought about by the artist in a declaration. Traditional art sets and solves its problems in the material – paint, marble, textiles. We know that such works can never have true copies, even considering the very best forgeries. As such, works of traditional art that appear similar, even imperceptibly so, cause an anxiety to us: which is the truer of these problem-solutions? We decide it is not the forgery, which solves nothing: it merely imitates an existing problem and imitates its solution also. They can be considered simulations, so long as we are aware of the fact.

The advent of photography and cinema served to monumentally change this quasi-technological relationship between art and observer, because suddenly a replica was possible. Now, a negative would allow infinite reprints, but also, the photograph itself served not to interpret the world, but to truly depict it. So arose a new art form, where the brute, formal, material qualities of tradition – paint texture, the solidity of marble, the brushstroke and the shadow left by oil drip, the things only experienced in one space and time – became inconsequential. Rather, the space-transcendent abstract qualities would reign supreme: symbolism, metaphor, narrative, composition. People crowd around a painting to be absorbed in its singular presence; in film and photography, the physicality loses its relevance. All the more so for the digital art piece. The physical artwork is then a material aesthetic; the digital, photographic and filmic work an abstract aesthetic. In the former, the replica is called forgery; in the latter it is part of the nature of the medium. Such abstract aesthetics then are even closer in analogy to technology and the tool than the material aesthetic could achieve: they represent a blueprint, a possibility of conveying their problem-solution, be it complex and symbolic or simple and affective, much in the same way that the linguistic arts have, since the printing press, conveyed their abstract qualities through replica ad infinitum.

Written by Andrew11.

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