THE IRRESISTIBLE LURE OF THE ‘UNIQUE’
In his essay ‘An Original in Sculpture’, Jean Chatelain describes the dramatic changes which occurred in the arts when centuries of traditional workshop practice based upon the celebration of copying, of pupils emulating a master, who in turn strove only to perfect his craft, were swept away:
‘The revolutionary upheaval which shattered the traditional workshop system and the advent of an individualistic philosophy, followed the rise of romanticism and the development of the art market and speculation, destroyed this unity and substituted a hierarchy among the arts. All these factors contributed in fact to the emergence of a new concept, that of the artist as an inspired, exceptional being, endowed by providence or by nature with a gift for creating, innovating – for doing what others had not yet done – and so personal, so spontaneous, was this endowment that it could blossom only within the context of total liberty, supporting neither guidance nor hindrance’.
Chatelain then goes on to describe the implications of this momentous change: “Since it is the creative gift that makes the artist, it is by its innovative nature that a work of art is to be characterised. A true work of art is one which has never been done before: in short, an original work’.
The concept of the artist as an inspired being changes the entire practice of sculpture: ‘It comes to the point where any work realised by the artist himself is an original work. On the other hand, any reproduction of an artist’s work made by someone else, no matter what the process might be, is without real artistic value and therefore of an inconsequential price, for it no longer gives direct evidence of the creative impulse. It is an object ; it is not a work’.
This change in practice, despite being seriously undermined by developments in sculpture since the 1960s, has left us with important and lingering legacies, among which we might list the phenomena of the art work (which needs the personality of the artist in order to sustain itself) and, more pertinent to our subject, the curious paradox of the reproduced unique work.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE FIRST OR ORIGINAL EDITION
It would seem logical, to think that all original works should be by definition unique. However a combination of economic necessity and the fact that reproductive techniques are inherent to the practice of sculpture, have defied this logic. This is how Chatelain explains the paradox: ‘This new conception of a work of art inevitably brings about a classification of the arts which will tend to differentiate in more or less exact and telling terms between on the one hand, the noble or fine arts, and on the other, the applied or decorative arts. Let us put forward other, less commonly used terms, yet ones which to our minds seem closer to the point: the ‘simple’ arts and the ‘compound’ arts.’
Chatelain describes the simple arts as: ‘…those where the work is brought to term by the creative artist himself.’ and the compound arts as: ‘…those where the achievement of the work requires the intervention of – in addition to the creating artist – one or more craftsmen who give the work its definitive form.’
The practice of sculpture usually involves some use of what Chatelain describes as the compound arts: ‘More over, the debate is not simply theoretical and abstract, for the compound arts require the intervention of highly qualified artisans using materials which are oftentimes considerable and costly. If one wants to ensure continuity of these craftsmen and their skills, they must be given a minimum amount of regular work, that is reproduction.’
The basic role on which this compromise is founded is that the ‘matrix’ from which the skilled artisans work to produce the original edition should be made by the creating artist’s own hands and that their final completion be overseen by some agreed authority, usually, but not always, the artist. The notion of the first edition is simply that of all technically possible copies from the ‘matrix’. The first will be usually considered the most noble, beautiful and accurate, and the first edition will usually be small in number (under 10 examples). The reason for this is usually a balance between what is economically most advantageous to artist, artisans, agents and buyers alike. Sometimes the ‘matrix’ can only sustain a certain number of copies before failing. Sometime however, the notion of the original edition is used to fallaciously promote exclusivity which brings us to the very opposite of the first edition, the concept of mass-produced art.