THE MYTHOLOGY OF LOST ART

“What the Photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially.”
― Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography

With an infinity of images at our fingertips, how has the value of the original work of art evolved/devolved?

The empty frames remain on view in the Gardner, haunting the galleries.

I’ve just finished The Gardner Heistone of the most thrilling books I’ve read in quite some time. Reading the book has gotten me thinking a lot about the value of works of art as physical objects which carry the stories (or myths) of our species’ history. It’s been a very Roland Barthes-heavy week, too, as last Saturday’s Creating the Periphery symposium at SFMOMA had me thinking about how works of art record history, and how the myths carried by a work of art can be consecrated through the canon of art history.

When artwork originally valued at $300 million was stolen from the Gardner in 1990, the institution went into shock. Isabella Stewart Gardner created the 15th-century Venetian-style palace after the death of her husband, and it is currently the only private art collection in which the building, collection, and installations are the creation of one individual. In bestowing her magnificent life’s work to future generations of art lovers, Gardner’s will created an endowment of $1 million and outlined stipulations for the support of the museum, including that the permanent collection not be significantly altered, and that nothing in her home/galleries could be changed for as long as the institution existed. Despite all of her cunning ways, Gardner could not have anticipated anything as unsettling as what would come to occur. From the museum’s website:

On the night of March 18, 1990, a pair of thieves disguised as Boston police officers entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and roamed the museum’s galleries, stealing thirteen works of art.

Since then, not a single one of the artworks has been recovered.

Obviously, this was and still is a big deal. Numerous people have been murdered in relation to this case, and the man who is believed to have information that could potentially bring the artwork back was the 2nd Most Wanted criminal in the world– second only to Osama Bin Laden– until his capture in Santa Monica last year. The Gardner case has unravelled into a web of mystery and dead-ends, and the lost artwork–now valued at $500 million– could be anywhere and in any condition.

As I was reading The Gardner Heist, I had the feeling that if I Google’d the names of the missing paintings, I might see empty grey boxes where the images of the artwork should have been. However, upon entering the names of the works, I was rewarded with a copious supply of large-ish images of the stolen paintings. On the Gardner’s website, even, there was a tool that allowed me to “explore” the works by zooming in and reading a curator’s analysis of the pieces. In my own way, I felt like I had partially uncovered the missing artwork, as the images I pulled up allowed me to understand the book in a much deeper way.

Here’s a selection of what we have left of Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, 1633, one of the 13 stolen Gardner artworks:

Google search results for “Rembrandt, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, 1633”

The Gardner’s description of “Rembrandt, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, 1633”

The Gardner’s “Explore” feature, which allows us to view this painting as part of their Dutch Room collection.

From The New York Times; Mar 20, 1990;

The question all this left me with is, what happens to the myth of a work of art when the original art object is stolen or destroyed? Obviously the answer to this question would have been completely different 100 years ago, before we had photographs of works that clearly depict what the piece looked like. A hundred+ years ago, a stolen work of art would have lived on only in the memories of those who saw and studied it, or through descriptions solidified through the written words of a critic’s analysis or a scholar’s dissertation. But now, nearly everything of cultural value is photographed, reproduced (these days, often physically through high quality posters or faux canvases), and shared through an infinitude of online networks. And, as museums and galleries work harder to make the online experience of viewing artwork much richer, it’s becoming more and more acceptable to study a work of art through a digital reproduction rather than traveling to view the original artwork. Sometimes, we can see much more through a digital reproduction–many famous works are so shrouded by security protection or cluttered by other on-lookers that a close, uninterrupted inspection is virtually impossible. So with all this documentation, I couldn’t help but play the devil’s advocate and think, is it really worth the $500 million to get the original paintings back? And if so, can that importance be concisely articulated?

Today, the Internet allows works of art to be reproduced in front of the eyes of anyone with a laptop or smartphone in a variety of settings. As museums spend more time and money bolstering their online collections (not to mention more brain energy working to determine what an online visitor should symbolize in terms of “worth,” if anything), I wonder how we will begin to define the experience of viewing artwork online versus viewing it in person. Online, we may have instant access to a curator’s essay on the piece, other works by the same artist, the Wikipedia entry on the piece, and possibly a network of other people who have commented on the work. In person, I would argue that the experience of viewing a work of art is much more visceral- in the singular moment of experiencing the work in front of us, we must rely on our own senses and memory to interpret and enjoy.  Culturally, which is more desirable–having access to a working knowledge of other viewers’, scholars, and curators perceptions, or going it alone to feel the work out on our own terms? Do we still need both kinds of experiences to feel fulfilled?

I leave you with another quote from Barthes:

“It no longer matters whether the passion is genuine or not. What the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself.”

If we can learn everything there is to know about passion through secondary sources, do we still need to feel passion in order to understand it?  Is it possible to create first-degree passion through a range of second-degree experiences? If we can have a remarkable experience viewing and learning about Rembrandt’s stolen painting through the Gardner’s website, is it still worth paying criminals hundreds of millions of dollars to hang a (potentially decaying) canvas back up on the wall?

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