The Work of Art Before the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

The Arts and Crafts movement of Victorian England raised a profound issue that still confronts aesthetics: the place of human skill in our age of mass production and mass media. During human evolution we had no machines capable of mechanically reproducing images, ornaments, or objects of art. Now we have machines that can do so exactly and cheaply We are surrounded by mass-produced objects that display a perfection of form, surface, color, and detail that would astonish premodern artists.

Mechanical reproduction has undermined some of our traditional folk aesthetic tastes. Veblen observed that when spoons were made by hand, those with the most symmetrical form, the smoothest finish, and most intricate ornamentation were considered the most beautiful. But once spoons could be manufactured with perfect symmetry, finish, and detail, these features no longer indicated skilled artisanship: they now indicated cheap mass production. Aesthetical standards shifted. Now we favor conspicuously handmade spoons, with charming asymmetries, irregular finishes, and crude ornamentation, which would have shamed an 18th-century silversmith's apprentice. A modern artisan's ability to make any sort of spoon from raw metal is considered wondrous. Such low standards are not typical of premodern cultures. Drawing on his wide experience of tribal peoples in Oceania, Franz Boas observed in his book Primitive Art that "The appreciation of the esthetic value of technical perfection is not confined to civilized man. It is manifested in the forms of manufactured objects of all primitive peoples that are not contaminated by the pernicious effects of our civilization and its machine-made wares."

Likewise, the cultural theorist Walter Benjamin pointed out that, before photography, accurate visual representations required enormous skill to draw or paint, so were considered beautiful indicators of painterly genius. But after the advent of photography, painters could no longer hope to compete in the business of visual realism. In response, painters invented new genres based on new, non-representational aesthetics: impressionism, cubism, expressionism, surrealism, abstraction. Signs of handmade authenticity became more important than representational skill. The brush-stroke became an end in itself, like the hammer-marks on a handmade spoon.

A similar crisis about the aesthetics of color was provoked by the development of cheap, bright aniline dyes, beginning with William Henry Perkins's synthesis of "mauve" in 1856. Before modern dyes and pigments were available, it was very difficult to obtain the materials necessary to produce large areas of saturated color, whether on textiles, paintings, or buildings. When Alexander the Great sacked the royal treasury of the Persian capital Susa in 331 B.C., its most valuable contents were a set of 200-year-old purple robes. By the 4th century A.D., cloth dyed with "purpura" (a purple dye obtained from the murex mollusk) cost about four times its weight in gold, and Emperor Theodosium of Byzantium forbade its use except by the Imperial family, on pain of death. Colorful objects were considered beautiful, not least because they reliably indicated resourcefulness—our ancestors faced the same problem of finding colorful ornaments as the bowerbirds. Nowadays, every middle-class family can paint their house turquoise, drive a metallic silver car, wear fluorescent orange jackets, collect reams of glossy color magazines, paint the cat crimson, and dye the dog blue. Color comes cheap now, but it was rare and costly to display in art and ornament during most of human evolution. Our ancestors did not live in a sepia-tint monochrome: they had their black skins, their red blood, the green hills of Africa, the blue night, and the silver moon. But they could not bring natural colors under their artistic control very easily. Those who could may have been respected for it.

Before the age of mechanical reproduction, ornaments and works of art could display their creator's fitness through the precision of ornament and the accuracy of representation. Modern technology has undermined this ancient signaling system by making precision and accuracy cheap, creating tension between evolved aesthetics and learned aesthetics. Our evolved folk aesthetics still value ornamental precision, representational accuracy, bright coloration, and other traditional fitness indicators. But we have learnt a new set of consumerist principles based on market values. Since handmade works are usually more expensive than machine-made products, we learn to value indicators of traditional craftsmanship even when such indicators (crude ornamentation, random errors, uneven surface, irregular form, incoherent design) conflict with our evolved preferences. Yet within the domain of manufactured goods, we still need to use our folk preferences to discern well-machined goods from poorly machined goods. This can lead to confusion.

For example, there was a famous case in 1926 when Constantin Brancusi sent his streamlined bronze sculpture "Bird in Space" from Europe to New York for an exhibition. A U.S. Customs official tried to impose a 40 percent import duty on the object, arguing that it did not resemble a real bird, so should be classed as a dutiable machine part rather than a duty-free work of art. Following months of testimony from artists and critics sympathetic to modernism, the judge ruled in favor of Brancusi, stating that the work "is beautiful, and while some difficulty might be encountered in associating it with a bird, it is nevertheless pleasing to look at." Although "Bird in Space" exhibited a perfection of form and finish that Pleistocene hominids would have worshiped, it was almost too perfect to count as art in our age.

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