Recycling Culture

I often tussle with the idea of originals and copies; and with Philip Tinari’s idea of the ‘original copy’. He argues that some copies are originals, since they bear the trace of their maker. This is an interesting idea that highlights the nitty gritty of copy-making. Whether it’s painting, woodblock printing, or sculpture, the small things begin to stand out if a copy is strongly scrutinized. 1913. Readymade- bicycle wheel, diameter 64.8 cm, mounted on a stool, 60.2 cm high. Original lost. Replica. Private collection.

The evenness of the ink press, the color saturation, brush stroke, and plasticity are all factors that don’t easily shake the mark of their maker. Thus, even if a painting is copied, it still retains some essence of its creator. This much is true; but the idea implies that art gains its value through technical skill, rather than conceptual originality. Yes, there are thoughtful reworkings: collage, readymade, and reference all require some synthesis of a new-ish concept. However, the truth is that these ‘copies’ can’t stand up on their own; they are leaning on something: history. SO can there ever really be an original? Isn’t everything the manifestation of a person’s exposure to certain milieu?

Obviously we can’t mention matters of originals and copies without invoking Benjamin’s discussion regarding aura. The ‘original’ has an aura, it has born witness to historical events and has survived the passing of time. It wears the mark of the artist’s hand (sound familiar?). Copies are appropriate for educational purposes, but the original is always superior.

Contemporary art theory complicates the idea of an ‘original’ in the art historical sense. Modern art, beginning with DuChamp, has championed the readymade, which has been thoughtfully altered. This is in part because we now live in an era of reduced resources that has brought about a common consciousness of the need to recycle. Images and objects thus take on a certain potential energy.

The viewer is an active viewer, when we see something (anything) we think of what else it might be useful for. Hybrid forms are paramount in a society where culture is recycled rather than invented. The super-saturated media culture prefers pastiche to austerity– a play on the old rather than a painful recognition of the new. The idea of inventing new meaning has transcended the need to discover. We are past the ages of exploration and discovery and have arrived at a collision point of culture-sharing.


“Movement #1913–2007” by Michael Gumhold.

Philip Tinari. “Original Copies.” In The Craft Reader (Book, 2010) [UC Berkeley Libraries], 297–303. 1st ed. Oxford ; New York: Berg Publishers, 2010.



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