When does an artwork cease to be original?

I was at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) yesterday for several hours and as I walked in I saw that three artists/restorers were at work retouching/restoring the huge canvas on the ground floor by Marc Chagall, “A Wheatfield on a Summer’s Afternoon.” Later, as I was looking at the works of Marcel Duchamp I noticed on the wall plaque that this famous “Fountain” was actually a 1950 replica of the 1917 original and that, similarly, his 1919 work “50cc of Paris Air” had been “broken and later restored.”

As I was contemplating these pieces the thought came to me – when does an artwork cease to be original? Using these three examples I can understand that artworks deteriorate and may need to be restored, and I fully see the requirement to “preserve” Chagall’s work by retouching, but at what point does it become the restorers work? The original brushstrokes are not preserved. Are the pigments used exactly the same composition and color as the original – in every stroke?

This concept becomes even more problematic in the case of the Duchamp examples.  

When “50cc of Paris Air” was repaired the glass vial may well look the same (well, sort of – it’s hardly an invisible mend), but was it repaired in Paris, in the same place that Duchamp created it? And even if so, it certainly would not contain the same air from 1919 which was no doubt differently polluted than more modern atmosphere. 

170316_Duchamp_ParisAir
Finally, in the case of making a replica piece, what are we to make of this? Is it original art or is it not? I assume that as long as Marcel Duchamp was involved in the process then it is still original, albeit derivative, but if not then is it simply a “worthless copy” created by someone else?

170316_Duchamp_Fountain

And what of the digital world? Almost all my 2-D art is created electronically and exists in multiple backup copies as binary data stored on my laptop and other drives. Where is the original art in this case?

So, a lot of questions – does anyone have any thoughts on this?

~Richard

 

4 thoughts on “When does an artwork cease to be original?

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  1. “Fountain” is difficult to call “original”, given that Duchamp didn’t make the urinal and didn’t even use his own name on it. I know it’s understood as “dada” or anti-art. But it also seems akin to conceptual art, so using the actual urinal or a copy doesn’t seem to matter as much as the basic gesture.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Brian (and sorry for the delay in responding). As i mention in another post, I am a late convert to modern art, and especially conceptual art. I find Duchamp’s approach fascinating. It came at a time of huge upheaval in the world, almost exactly a century ago, around the time of the industrialization of warfare with WWI. His idea of taking a made object and just saying it is art is a very interesting approach that certainly must have influenced others such as Koons, for example.
      My point though also extends to all the old works that have been restored. It becomes a little like the old workman’s broom joke “I’ve had this old broom since I started 40 years ago. It’s has 5 new heads and only 2 new handles…”

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