A crucial question, obviously, is how far the technique of reproduction has been perfected, and in what measure indeed it could be perfected. Any edition of Shakespeare's plays which has been proofread accurately gives a reader as good access to Shakespeare's art as if he owned one of the first folios now deposited in the Folger Library. Is there something about a work of fine art which can never even in theory be copied? Is the work which the master himself put his hand to unique in its essence? And if it is, is this uniqueness in fact aesthetic? Or is it—assuming that an indistinguishable copy could be made—sentimental and historical?
I suspect that questions like these cannot be answered dogmatically, and that probably no one should attempt to answer them dogmatically. When Malraux says that painting has found its printing press, the answer surely is—not yet. Even an untrained eye can see that the color and texture of paintings are not now faithfully reproduced. But can one say that if the effort were made to reproduce them faithfully, that if the research were promoted and endowed, eventually modern technology could not arrive at the equivalent of the printing press?
In the meantime, and as an inducement to remain open-minded, it may be useful to analyze the idea of the unique object, attempting to isolate that which is aesthetic from that which is sentimental, historical, and, if I may say so, monopolistic.
It is an interesting exercise in criticism to inquire into the purely aesthetic reaction which the one and only original is uniquely able to produce. I think anyone who visited the National Gallery in London last season and saw Philip Hendy's exhibit of cleaned and uncleaned pictures must have come away from it not quite so clear as he once was; no longer naively certain that he had been reacting aesthetically to the original work of the master rather than to a joint and changing product in which the first artist had collaborated with time and circumstances across the centuries.
But of all the many facets of this problem of the work of art as a unique object, there is one which bears especially upon the theme that I have been discussing. Not all the paintings which are exhibited in museums are indubitably the original work of a surely identified artist. This fact has given rise to a fascinating profession—that of the connoisseurs who determine the attributions and perform in the world of art the functions of Sherlock Holmes and J. Edgar Hoover.
Theirs is, I have always thought, an enviable profession, full of mystery and romance. The innocent child who has been disowned and forgotten is recognized at last as the true prince of the realm, and the villainous pretender is cast into outer darkness and stored in the cellar. I look upon the great man-hunts of the connoisseurs as a preview of how we shall pass the time in the brave new world of the future when all the problems of war and poverty and class and caste have been solved, and we need thrillers—not as now to put us to sleep but to keep us awake.
The existence among us of these aesthetic sleuths is good evidence, I think, that the enjoyment of art is not altogether a simple, intuitive reaction in the presence of a masterpiece. If it were, what difference did it make that the alleged Vermeer in Rotterdam, which was so greatly enjoyed by lovers of Vermeer, was proved to have been the work of a modern forger? If all that matters is the purely aesthetic effect, then what is the purpose of the whole apparatus of scholarship, the search of the documents, the X-rays, and the chemical tests?
Does not our concern with attribution indicate that for modern men aesthetic enjoyment is almost inseparable from knowledge, that feeling alone does not satisfy us, but needs the support of understanding—so that if I may take the liberty of paraphrasing Plotinus, our passions may be intellectual and our intellects passionate? I think it does, and that is one more reason, and perhaps the most conclusive of all, why modern museums can no longer be, as they were a generation ago, places where original works are preserved and exhibited—why they are becoming also libraries and laboratories of research and education.
For the unique objects which any one museum can possess, however fine each of them may be, are incapable of satisfying the need to understand, the need to see not only the unique object, as such, in isolation, but to see it in the context of the whole work of the artist and of his school and of his period and of his culture. Without the context, which depends on the apparatus of knowledge, aesthetic enjoyment—because of the arbitrary and random scattering of works of art all over the world—would be mere eclecticism, the expenditure of emotion on a series of disconnected, unrelated, and inherently meaningless objects. For only knowledge can impose order and intelligibility upon the feelings and passions, which, if they are excited capriciously can never be satisfied, and become diseased. Thus it is only by the cultivation of the knowledge of the comparative history of art that modern men, exposed as they are to odd collections of bits and pieces of the creative world of all the ages, can begin to cope with the flux and the chaos of modernity.