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I contributed 4 works to a local art exhibit around "freethought and the body", that starts this Sunday.

When I went to hang my artwork, someone crashed into my car from behind as I stopped for someone taking a left turn. Damage wasn't too bad, except for the parking sensors which are now inside the bumper, and my neck is a bit sore. But anyway.

Since I create most of my art digitally, when I want to show something, I have it printed out. This time I had 3 works printed on canvas (although the cheap prints needed heavy retouching so they're mostly "hand-made" now) and one on a coated aluminum plate, which looks quite gorgeous.

A question that invariably comes up with my art prints is "where is the original?"

So let's think about that for a moment. Why do people care about "the original" for art that looks like paintings and drawings, while I don't know anybody who turns up their nose at reading books that aren't original manuscripts, or thinks that poems written in vi are somehow less "real" than poems written on paper?

It's an attitude that seems to lack consistency, even if we stick with representational art; what about woodblock artists like Hokusai or Hiroshige? Is their work less valid because it only ever existed as a print?

I think there are several possible reasons for the "original" fetish.

First is of course the capitalist notion of market value. An original artwork has great monetary value because investors are willing to pay great sums of money for it. This value has very little to do with artistic merit, as it is just another manifestation of our tulipomania-based economic system where value is determined by what people think other people would be willing to pay.

What's also interesting in this regard is that we can see an historic reversal between the roles of the craftsman, who used to sell their work on the market, and the artist, whose work was sponsored by patronage. Today the famous, big-name artists are more like the artisan of old, creating work for sale to fill the demand of the market. An artist in this market is not supposed to be too original, but to make clearly "recognizable" works to maintain "brand-name" recognition. It could be argued that so-called hobbyists who support their creative efforts by their own or others' patronage are actually closer to the historical notion of the artist.

What is art? Is it a product on the capitalist market, or is it essentially a gift in a gift-based economy?

The second argument that occurs to me is the idea that the "original" is almost magically transformed by the touch of the artist, who arranged everything "just so" - the exact shade of the pigments, the imprint of every hair of the brush, etc. - and no reproduction could possibly capture all these subtle nuances. I feel this view casts artists as some kind of ultimate control freaks; from my own experience, creative work is much closer to a kind of controlled accident than to the meticulous physical reproduction of a super-detailed mental image.

What is art? Is it a rare object in the vault of an investor, or is it an idea that might touch people's hearts?

I don't think there's anything WRONG with people wanting to collect "original" artwork, any more than with people who collect original movie props or anime celluloid or stamps with rare production defects. But we mustn't mistake collection with the final cause of these artifacts. Like stamps, artwork is meant for communication first, not collection.

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