The desperation to be original

Starry Night

It’s odd how something that’s on your mind is suddenly and from out of the blue given back to you. I was having lunch with an artist friend who was filled with impressions from a trip to San Francisco and a show at the De Young Museum. He had, like most people, seen prints of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” many times, and never been much impressed. (We were given it on a bread board last Christmas.) But the real painting had been a revelation. Incredible. Another experience altogether.

Then, just today, another friend, reporting on a trip to Chicago, described seeing two paintings in the Chicago Museum of Art, two paintings that she and her husband had prints of in their home. And again, the originals were enthralling. So much more exciting than the copies.

I was reminded of another picture, a portrait by Degas, a print of which I used to have on my wall in college.

Edgar Degas. Woman with Chrysanthenums. 1865.

I’d always loved it – something in the woman’s expression, and the softness of the colors. When I saw the real thing years later, I was disappointed. The colors were brighter, harsher, without the almost faded look of the print. I had gotten used to the fake, I guess. That may not say much for my taste. But it does say a good bit about our experience of works of art in an age of reproductions. I will never be able to look at that painting in a fresh way. Another version of it has been implanted in my mind.

Never before in the history of art have so many people had experience of so many great works. Certain pictures by Van Gogh (including “Starry Night”), Gaugin, Picasso…. have become part of our cultural landscape, even though we may have never seen the originals. Is that a good thing, or has it warped our appetites for great work?

Susan Sontag wrote about photographs from the same perspective—so many copies of so many things. We’ve seen so many photos of “the oppressed, the exploited, the starving, and the massacred” that they’ve lost their shock value. I remember when I worked with the Christian liberals we all worried about compassion fatigue. That fatigue was fed, of course, by those same photographs. We have been inundated on all sides by copies of “the real thing,” whether it’s great art or passing scenes, the ravages of war or domestic crime, our vision is jaundiced by our familiarity with what might just be too much.

I remember when I was a child on a vacation trip in Yellowstone how disappointing Old Faithful seemed to me. I’d seen so many pictures, and it looked exactly like them. Should the photos have been less grand or the geyser more astounding?

Eruption, 1948.

We have been desensitized by photography, says Sontag. It’s probably the reason we seek out the new all the time, trying to surprise, to shock—anything but the same old thing. Consequently, we are almost desperate to be original.

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