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Head of a Young Man, conclusion

March 23, 2010

Steve Martin famously said that “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”  Trying to explain or even replicate the visceral impact of one medium in another is usually a fool’s errand, and there’s a reason for that.  Replicating a work in its own medium is false enough; replicating it in another is a pale copy indeed.

Having spent more time staring at Bronzino’s drawing than I’ve probably ever spent on an original work of art, I now also understood how a trillionaire who would rather kill than part with a nickel to save another’s life (“that’s soceelizm!”) could so easily part with many, many millions to possess an original work of art.  I wanted to possess the Head of a Young Man, but J. Paul Getty had beat me to it (it’s in the Getty Museum’s permanent collection, on loan to the Met), and barring Powerball’s nine-figure intervention in my life, there it will remain. 

See, the problem is that for a work like this, a duplicate just isn’t good enough.  I went to the Met gift shop to see if they had a poster of this drawing – for reasons known only to Marketing Departments and Licensing Agreements, the show’s poster was a still, almost pastoral drawing of a modest woman, rather than the fantastically energetic head I’ve been going on about.  They had a print of one other piece (I believe from memory it was this one, though I can’t find it in the online store), but when I asked the cute young guy at the counter upstairs he told me no, those were the only two drawings from the exhibit that had been replicated. (I saw that a couple of times on my trip, Cute Young Guy Living in NYC and Working at the Museum – what an awesome life to be living, going to college or art school at the same time in pursuit of Something Wonderful as a career…I’ve wasted my life.)

The catalog had a small black-and-white version of the drawing – astonishing that the online copy linked above would be truer to life in its replication of the paper’s current color than the catalog was; who knows, maybe the original drawing’s paper was also white as snow, once – we think of Greco-Roman columns and statues as clean and bare in their whiteness, whereas actually they were gaudily garnished with garish pastels.  I went back and forth between the exhibit’s mini-shop and the original drawing, only a few feet away, contrasting and comparing…there just seemed no point in buying a copy.

There was a dimension to the original that none of the copies captured – the life in the eyes was present only in the original.  The reality of the subject was there in the microscopically different layers of chalk that gave it its “3D” effect, that made me think I was looking into real eyes. Every copy had lost the effect.  I know now that they’ve got computers digitally “repainting” Impressionist works with near-perfect accuracy (I can’t find the link right now to the company that does this), recapturing the “realism” of a work far better than a print can.  No doubt some day they could crank out a perfect copy of “my” drawing, too.  I wonder if that would be good enough.

Pace David Shields, there is indeed a “reality hunger” afoot in the world, as there always has been.  But it’s a hunger for originality, not for collage.  Museums are popular because they give us reality, how things were and still are and not corner-cutting “mashups” in which appropriation if not expropriation are the order of the day.  Yes, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies could make the case that it “added value” to the original, empowering Austen’s essentially powerless women to do more with their lives than wait with nail-biting anxiety for a husband.  But when I went to the Morgan Library to see the exhibit of Jane Austen’s letters (purchased by trillionaire J. P. Morgan when it became clear that there were no original Austen manuscripts to be had), I saw people who were thirsting to touch the source of what had been appropriated – for the most part, pretty much the polite, quiet, middle-aged women you’d expect to see, standing respectfully back while you got up close to try and read Austen’s handwriting for yourself, while you flinched at Cassandra Austen’s scissor marks and wondered what was missing (now there’s an opportunity for an imaginative writer – filling in the blanks in Austen’s correspondence, created by someone with an overactive sense of propriety).  The letters are available in print, but it’s not the same as reading Austen’s words just as her original audience did, seeing her use up every centimeter of white space on the precious expensive paper, clearly having more to say than she could afford to write.

On the USS Intrepid, I saw people who wanted to feel what it was like to be on an aircraft carrier, to touch the huge ropes that held the anchor (permissible), to take the steep, small, perilous steps from one level to another, to stand on the bridge and visualize the planes taking off and landing.  No video game, no documentary, could give you this particular feeling.

We feel it when we see an original:  all copies are pale copies.  The End of Days is nearly here for creatives working in copyable formats – recorded music and writing, especially.  As I’ve said before, I fear the day is coming when art returns to its 19th Century state – a state in which only ladies and gentlemen of leisure will paint and write and play a little, because the artistic middle class is being liquidated by digitalism, and art will become a pursuit of the well-off because nobody else will be able to make a full-time go of it.  (Those willing to live in permanent poverty comprised the other artistic class in the 19th Century, and will again.) 

The only way for musicians to make money in the future, as even the advocates of full-on piracy acknowledge, is through live performances, a “real” experience that can be recorded, but not duplicated.  The day will come when our best novelists will write, by hand, in journals, a novel for a patron who will possess what is guaranteed to be the world’s only copy – a person willing to pay the writer a living wage to read his latest work, willing to subsidize the time and materials required to create, who may then choose to release it to the stingy, non-paying world, or not.  Bill Gates’ purchase of the Leonardo Codex is not the last acquisition of a great work in private hands, but only the first.  Visual artists with the talent of Bronzino will survive – drawings and paintings and sculpture can be copied, but they are not “identical” to the original.

I can only wait patiently now till the Head comes home to the Getty.  It seems completely absurd to say that someday soon I’ll go to LA (a loathsome place) and, at last, to the Getty just to see this drawing again.  Completely absurd unless you’ve already seen it in person, in which case it makes perfect sense.

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