Art, like everything else, has fractured in the 21st century. What once was curated by the distinguished museums of Paris and New York can now be found on your favorite Tumblr. Paintings that have sold for millions of dollars to the elite bourgeoisie decorate the backgrounds of iPhones. No longer do you have to trek half of Europe to see Van Goghs and Rembrandts. In the age of reproduction, art’s physical value has to be recalibrated to account for our technological capabilities, leaving us once again to question what is art and what is beauty?
For myself the question arose at the Art Institute in Chicago, on Black Friday of all days. The Institute is a world-class institution with many capital-I important pieces. Among them you have “American Gothic” and a whole wing dedicated to Modernist masterpieces. But the painting that did me in was Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks.
It wasn’t there the first time I visited the museum. A let down because I was already a considerable fan of Hopper’s. A few of his paintings hang at the Yale University Art Gallery, and admission being free, it’s easy to pop in just to see them. “Rooms For Tourists,” “Rooms By The Sea” might not be his most famous, but they are, like his others, sublime. There’s no real sense that Hopper attempted realism, but it’s not like the paintings are abstract or non-representative either. They are the feeling of a place, emotion in oil, which explained my reaction to his most famous work.
Turning a corner and having it there in front of me, I was overwhelmed. I became lightheaded, and understood how the French writer Stendhal felt upon seeing Venice for the first time. I was transfixed. I looked at it from every single angle. If I could have, I would have used a ladder simply to be sure that there was nothing I missed. When the museum announced that it would be closing, I made sure to loop back around just to see it once more.
I took a photograph of the painting. “Nighthawks” is easily one of the most recognizable and reproduced images in all of art history, so the urge to capture it myself was inexplicable. Staring at the painting, the original from which all reproductions are made, you understand that the artist created this. It is the artist’s invisible hand that moves in you. It was an attempt to capture what philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin would call the “aura” of the work of art.
In the age of reproduction, mechanical in Benjamin’s day and now digital, the original is the true work of art. In Benjamin’s words: “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.”
“Nighthawks” happens to be in Chicago, and nowhere else, despite my ability to see it at any time via the internet. This aura is the work of art as being-in-itself, the very essence of authenticity. The oil painting in Chicago is the alpha and omega of “Nighthawks” and all others reproductions are, and this goes without saying, nothing in comparison.
By making many copies, we have not diminished the adulation of beautiful objects, but increased it. The veneration of great works is still attached to it’s authenticity, which goes to some length to explain why photography, despite being around for over a century does not transfix in the same manner as traditional art. Even then, our most venerated photographs, despite being easily reproducible, must come with a guarantee that they are one of few if they are to hold any value (monetary or emotional). It is ironic that the guarantee often comes as a certificate of authenticity in the signature of the artist, something that lends authenticity to any artwork.
Standing in front of “Nighthawks” is a moment that I won’t easily forget. It is a great work of art because it is recognized as a great work of art, and being in front of it, the first, but not the only, is an experience of truth. “Nighthawks,” the one in Chicago in the Art Institute, is the true original.