Even better than the real thing

If Google Earth takes away the thrill of seeing an original painting, what's going to replace it?

I love Google Earth. So much more convenient than the real thing. You can be flying down a Himalayan valley one minute, peering into your neighbour's garden the next – especially fun if they happen to be in it, sunbathing, naked ... Of course it's not quite as good, and in the latter case certainly not as embarrassing, as in reality; but in the context of things to do while sitting at home wasting time, it takes some beating. In the case of Madrid's Prado museum, however, the position has been reversed: it's now the real thing that has some catching up to do.

I'm sure we're all familiar with the quality gap between the paintings we read about and study in reproduction – earnestly rehearsing accounts of their hidden depths, philosophical significance, revolutionary techniques, etc – and the moment when we finally confront the paintings itself. We buzz along to the gallery, expecting to be knocked off our feet by the experience. Typically, though, the only thing knocking us over is the combination of exhausted "museum legs", the violent jostling of other visitors, and the imminent threat of strangulation by the cable of your pocket tour guide. Yet despite this, there's always a sense of "yes, here's the genuine article, the actual canvas marked and smudged and worked over by Velazquez or Bosch". And the knowledge of this adds to the aura of the experience, so that in spite of everything, the painting draws you in to itself with a force that no reproduction could ever muster.

All visual art puts a premium on the idea of the original. Ostensibly, with music and literature (and self-evidently with cinema), the concept of reproduction comes already built-in. While there are qualitative differences between reading a first edition and a cheap paperback, for example, or between one peformance of a piece of music and another, there is no sense that one experience is necessarily better or more "real" than the other. In these cases, the identity of the work itself is something virtual, which controls the relationship between writer and reader, composer and listener, through entities such as the text or score. The idea of the original manuscript or first performance has a value which is much more documentary than artistic. But with visual arts, if you're not looking at the original, but at a mere reproduction, you're not looking at the artwork itself.

So has Google's spanking new reproductive technology changed all this, and if so, for better or for worse? On the plus side, the reproductions are truly extraordinary. I filled my entire 19" screen with the eye of Velazquez's infanta Margarita in an effort to figure out why, when I saw her in the flesh (so to speak) in London a couple of years ago, she looked so damn smug. Margarita's state of mind will, of course, remain a mystery whatever the degree of magnification. It will remain a mystery not because there are things about her childhood we don't know, or because there are things about Velazquez's technique and artristry that we don't know. It will remain a mystery because to confront her gaze at first hand is to confront the vital force that animates any living human being's gaze. While the princess herself is long dead, this image of her basks in a glow of otherness that is entirely stripped of the bland, habitual psycho-social frameworks that prevent us from seeing the people we meet in real life with anything like the same force, or openness of spirit.

Despite the efforts of almost all visual artistic movements of the last century, our conception of art is still saddled with notions of illusion and imitation, and the idea that the purpose of art is to represent something more real than itself. It isn't, and never should have been. On the contrary, the idea of art is precisely to restore our sense of reality – not in the sense of arming us with the facts of the matter or furnishing us with exhaustive information about the details of life – but in the sense of refreshing our ability to engage with the world in the here and now, of equipping us with the emotions, living thoughts and unanswerable questions that lend to our life with others its properly human dimension.

The perfection of techniques for reproducing paintings won't alter this, although the sapping of aesthetic force by the click culture can undeniably lead to a cheapening of all artistic experience, in music and literature as much as in painting. But if originality becomes less prized as reproductive techniques improve, something else will fill the vacuum left behind – something else that demands we engage with the real, and grounds this experience in an object of mind. And if most of what is nowadays churned out under the increasingly vague rubric of conceptual art is anything to go by, contemporary artists better get busy.

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