In the October 2016 issue of Art in America, I published “Unknown Makers,” an essay about how, as digital technologies enable increasingly accurate reproductions of artworks, museums—as well as artists and lawyers—are grappling with the complex aesthetic, legal, and political implications of copying. The essay ranges from the Met’s copyist program to Courbet to the “piratic Enlightenment” to Oliver Laric to legal dilemmas regarding 3-D printing to Mahayana Buddhism to Nefertiti to Duane Linklater.
Here’s an excerpt:
I may enter the Metropolitan Museum of Art, sketchbook and pencil in hand, and walk through the stately hallways until I arrive in gallery 811, where Gustave Courbet’s The Source (1862) hangs. I may take a seat on the glossy wood bench, place the sketchbook on my lap, train my eyes on the nude woman whose arms thrust into a cascade of spring water, and attempt the most perfect copy. I may not use ballpoint pens, ink, markers, fountain pens, or watercolors, but I may use crayon, pastel, or charcoal if I’m on a supervised tour that grants permission. I may not photograph the painting, even as I witness visitors momentarily pause between me and The Source, elevate iPhones, and blithely jab thumbs into screens. I may have to fight the urge to hiss at the offenders, such is my concern for this institution being turned into a classy Instagram backdrop.