No surprise that in “Masterworks for One and All,” an article about how museums have begun to offer free, high-quality downloadable images of works from their collections, the New York Times’ Nina Siegal brings up Walter Benjamin. The preoccupations of the philosopher behind “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” may seem more relevant than ever in these days of not just mechanical reproduction, but universal, developed-world ownership of the means of mechanical reproduction — and nearly instantaneous, effortless mechanical reproduction at that. Many rights-holders, including certain museums, have effectively decided that if you can’t beat the mechanical reproducers, join ‘em. “With the Internet, it’s so difficult to control your copyright or use of images,” Siegal quotes the Rijksmuseum’s director of collections as saying. “We decided we’d rather people use a very good high-resolution image of [Vermeer's] ‘Milkmaid’ from the Rijksmuseum rather than using a very bad reproduction.” (See our previous post: The Rijksmuseum Puts 125,000 Dutch Masterpieces Online, and Lets You Remix Its Art.)
Siegal goes on to mention the efforts of Washington’s National Gallery of Art, which has so far made super high-resolution images of 25,000 works freely available on NGA Images, a site that describes itself as “designed to facilitate learning, enrichment, enjoyment, and exploration.” You can browse the images by collection — French galleries, self-portraits, music — view the most recent additions, or pull up the works of art most frequently requested by others. Leonardo’s portrait of the Florentine aristocrat Ginevra de’ Benci, seen up top, has proven particularly popular, as has Claude Monet’s The Japanese Footbridge just above. But does all this bear out Benjamin’s concerns about mechanical reproduction cheapening the original aura of a work? “I don’t think anyone thinks we’ve cheapened the image of the ‘Mona Lisa,’” an NGA spokeswoman said to Siegal. “People have gotten past that, and they still want to go to the Louvre to see the real thing. It’s a new, 21st-century way of respecting images.”
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.