Thursday, June 19, 2008

Reproduction: Intransigent Hierarchies

Resistance from reigning elites has usually accompanied the democratic possibilities of advances in reproduction technologies. William Tyndale (1494-1536) [PLATE 5] was born the same year that Ship of Fools was published. Exactly one century after Gutenberg's invention, Tyndale was burned at the stake for attempting to publish the first English translation of the Bible in Britain.

Privileged opposition to the printing press was widespread from the outset, ranging from disdain to censorship to far worse. Libraries and their patrons favored hand-copied Latin manuscripts; scholars praised the aesthetic and spiritual qualities of handwritten codices.[1] Such deep attachments to the purity of hand-made arts and traditional modes of communication echo throughout the ages. The most sophisticated gatekeepers of "high culture" typically have frowned on new technologies and more popular styles of expression that promise greater public access and appreciation.

Painting and sculpture were regarded as manual crafts in the Western World until the Renaissance, when the status of such visually accessible creations was finally elevated to the level of arts alongside poetry and music.[2] Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) helped establish the prominence of painters, sculptors and architects with his Lives of Artists (1568) [PLATE 6], but continued to dismiss woodcuts and other printmaking techniques, and certainly any print not made by a painter's hand.[3] The same prejudice is integral to the structure of the visual art market to this day, with New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman calling prints, "the proverbial stepchild" of the visual arts.[4] Originality, authenticity, provenance, rarity, and quality are the hallmarks of value in fine art. This is a profoundly political equation. The flip side is at the core of Walter Benjamin's seminal 1935 article, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," which has become so influential that contemporary art guru David Ross quips, "it seems everyone is required to quote from [it]."[5]

By the end of the Renaissance, the lowly status accorded printmaking by the Guild of Holland was precisely why Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) [PLATE 7] began etching. Working in a medium at the periphery of established artistic concern freed him to experiment outside of academic controls and dogma. Rembrandt's exclusive relationship with his publisher and dealer Hendrick van Uylenburgh is emblematic of the significance of printing to his life as an artist. Rembrandt not only lived in Uylenburgh's home for years, but even married Uylenburgh's cousin Saskia, the subject of many Rembrandt masterpieces.

Rembrandt's lifetime marks the birth of licensing in the West, which began as a means for censuring "naughty printed books" (as stated in Henry VIII's proclamation of 1538) and protecting the interests of church, state, and a small oligopoly of commercial printers.[6] "The contractual association between artist and publisher was at the heart of the printmaking enterprise and represents an essential pattern of early licensing," according to legal scholar Brooke Oliver."[7] In 1662, the King of England decreed the first European licensing act, and in 1710, the Statute of Anne was passed, becoming the first copyright act in the world. Controlling the reproduction of words and images was paramount, as interest in such forms of expression was not quelled by hierarchical standards and bias alone.

1. Death of William Tyndale (1536). 1563.
On a platform before castle walls, Tyndale ("Lord opé the king of Englands eies"), in a loin cloth, is chained to a stake by an executioner; a large crowd of soldiers, monks, and civilians look on. Series 3 (2nd) Implied Book, Friars, one gesturing with hand Loinclothed martyrs, incl. Jerome of Prague. John Foxe. Actes and Monuments of These Latter and Perillous Dayes, Touching Matters of the Church ("Foxe's Book of Martyrs”). John Day, London, 1563. Courtesy of Ohio State University Library.

2. Giorgio Vasari. Title Page, Lives of Artists. 1550.
From The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. Florence. Courtesy of The Australian National University.

3. Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn. Beggar Leaning on a Stick. ca. 1630.
Etching, 3-3/8 x 1-7/8 in. (8.6 x 4.8 cm); sheet: 3-1/2 x 2 in. (8.9 x 5.1 cm). Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

[1] Keating and Hargitai 1999.
[2] Witcombe 1997.
[3] Wyckoff 2000, p. 15.
[4] Kimmelman 2005.
[5] Ross 1999.
[6] Unwin, Unwin and Tucker 2004.
[7] Oliver 2004.

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