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Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.
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A selection from Guernica. (Painting: Pablo Picasso)

A selection from Guernica. (Painting: Pablo Picasso)

Now that we can view high-definition reproductions of virtually any artwork from our computer screens, why do people visit art museums anyway? Sure, arranging individual pieces into compelling exhibitions enhances our appreciation, but it’s doubtful too many people come for the curation.

Clearly, encountering original artworks in person is a unique experience. Viewing a copy of Guernica is not the same thing as seeing the actual Guernica. But why?

Recently published research suggests that, when staring appreciatively at that Picasso, casual art lovers are engaging in a sort of magical thinking.

Authenticity is always a tricky issue when it comes to art, but it clearly plays an important role in our reactions.

A team of scholars led by George Newman of Yale University argues that “art is seen as a physical extension of the self, and imbued with the person’s soul/essence.” That being the case, the researchers write in the journal Topics in Cognitive Science, “the original possesses an essence that cannot be duplicated.”

This dynamic, they add, does not apply to more mundane object such as tools.

Authenticity is always a tricky issue when it comes to art, but it clearly plays an important role in our reactions. In a series of experiments, Newman and colleagues Daniel Bartels and Rosanna Smith provide evidence that a key element in judging a work of art seems to be the ability to trace it back to the original artist’s eyes and hands.

One of their experiments featured 302 adults recruited online. They saw an image of an abstract painting titled Dawn and read one of several versions of the story of its creation. Among other variations, they “either read that the artist ‘spent several weeks physically painting it with his own hands,’ or that ’he gave instructions to one of his assistants, who then painted it.’”

All were then told that, after the stored painting was discovered to be infested with mold, its owners “hired a different artist to create an identical copy.” Eventually, the mold destroyed the original, leaving only the copy. Participants were then asked to rate, on a scale of 100, whether they considered the surviving painting to be Dawn.

“Overall, participants were more likely to agree that the duplicate was not the same painting when the artist painted (the original) himself,” the researchers write.

“When participants provided more elaborate justification, they made reference to notions of contagion and the artist’s soul,” using language such as “It is a copy, not the original which (the artist) poured his heart and soul into.”

Newman emphasizes that these results concern how people think about what makes originals valuable, not what in reality makes them valuable. As he and his colleagues note, these findings suggest a certain duality in our intuitive thinking about art.

“Almost by definition, a soul or essence is an immaterial entity,” they write. “And yet, it is precisely in the cases where people seem to assume the existence of some soul/essence that they employ a very physical model of how it persists across time, and how it may ‘infect’ other objects.”

So, if you view the Mona Lisa, you’re not just admiring Leonardo Da Vinci’s artistry; you’re reaching back through the centuries and establishing a visceral connection with the artist himself. While that’s an admittedly nebulous notion, for most of us, it is powerful enough to put a wispy little smile on our lips.