The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

455px-Knight-Death-and-the-Devil Cosma Shalizi over at Three-Toed Sloth:

This thread over at Unfogged reminds me of something that's puzzled me for years, ever since reading this: why didn't prints displace paintings the same way that printed books displaced manuscript codices? Why didn't it become the expected thing that visual artists, like writers, would primarily produce works for reproduction? (No doubt, in that branch of the wave-function*, obsessive fans still want to get the original drawings, but obsessive fans also collect writer's manuscripts, or even their typewriters, as well as their mass-produced books.) 16th century engraving technology was strong enough that it could implement powerful works of art (vide), so that can't be it. And by the 18th century at least writers could make a living (however precarious) from writing for the mass public, so why were visual artists (for the most part) weren't artists? (Again, it's manifestly not as though technology has regressed.) Why is it still the case that a real, high-class visual artist is someone who makes one-offs? I know that reproductions have been important since at least the late 1800s, but for works and artists who first made their reputation with unique, hand-made objects, which is as though the only books which got sent to the printing press were ones which had first circulated to acclaim in manuscript.

Some possibilities I don't buy:

  1. Aesthetic limitations. There are valuable effects which can be achieved with a big original painting which prints just can't match. Response: there are effects you can achieve with an illuminated, calligraphic manuscript which you can't match with movable type, either. Those weren't valuable enough to keep printed books from taking over. Why the difference? Why not a focus on what can be done through prints, which is quite a lot? (Witness the experience of the 20th century and later, when most art lovers know most works of art they enjoy through reproductions.)