‘The Milkmaid’, one of Johannes Vermeer’s most famous pieces, depicts a scene of a woman quietly pouring milk into a bowl. During a survey the Rijksmuseum discovered that there were over 10,000 copies of the image on the internet—mostly poor, yellowish reproductions. As a result of all of these low-quality copies on the web, according to the Rijksmuseum, “people simply didn’t believe the postcards in our museum shop were showing the original painting. This was the trigger for us to put high-resolution images of the original work with open metadata on the web ourselves. Opening up our data is our best defence against the ‘yellow Milkmaid’.”
“But it’s not the original, it’s just a facsimile!” How often have we heard such a retort when confronted with an otherwise perfect reproduction of a painting? No question about it, the obsession of the age is for the original version. Only the original possesses an aura, this mysterious and mystical quality that no second hand version will ever get. But paradoxically, this obsession for pinpointing originality increases proportionally with the availability and accessibility of more and more copies of better and better quality. If so much energy is devoted to the search for the original — for archeological and marketing reasons— it is because the possibility of making copies has never been so open-ended. If no copies of the Mona Lisaexisted would we pursue it with such energy — and, would we devise so many conspiracy theories to decide whether or not the version held under glass and protected by sophisticated alarms is the original surface painted by Leonardo’s hand or not. In other words, the intensity of the search for the original depends on the amount of passion and the number of interests triggered by its copies. No copies, no original. In order to stamp a piece with the mark of originality, you need to apply to its surface the huge pressure that only a great number of reproductions can provide.So, in spite of the knee-jerk reaction —”But this is just a facsimile”—, we should refuse to decide too quickly when considering the value of either the original or its reproduction. Thus, the real phenomenon to be accounted for is not the punctual delineation of one version divorced from the rest of its copies, but the whole assemblage made up of one —or several— original(s) together with the retinue of its continually re-written biography. It is not a case of “either or” but of “and, and”. Is it not because the Nile ends up in such a huge delta that the century-old search for its sources had been so thrilling? To pursue the metaphor, we want, in this paper, to behave like hydrographers intent in deploying the whole catchment area of a river, not only focusing on an original spring. A given work of art should be compared not to any isolated locus but to a river’s catchment, complete with its estuaries, its many tributaries, its dramatic rapids, its many meandering turns and, of course, also, its several hidden sources.
To give a name to this catchment area, we will use the word trajectory. A work of art —no matter of which material it is made — has a trajectory or, to use another expression popularized by anthropologists, a career. What we want to do in this paper is to specify the trajectory or career of a work of art and to move from one question that we find moot (“Is it an original or merely a copy?”) to another one that we take to be decisive, especially at the time of digital reproduction: “Is it well or badly reproduced?” The reason why we find this second question so important is because the quality, conservation, continuation, sustenance and appropriation of the original depends entirely on the distinction between good and bad reproduction. We want to argue that a badly reproduced original risks disappearing while a well accounted for original may continue to enhance its originality and to trigger new copies. This is why we want to show that facsimiles, especially those relying on complex (digital) techniques, are the most fruitful way to explore the original and even to help re-define what originality actually is.