Giclée Prints and the Question of Authenticity

My original page on giclee prints brought forth a deluge of emails, mostly very emotional. Most agreed with me, a few attacked me with enthusiasm. One was from a painter who wrote to tell me her own "horror story" with giclee prints. Her story about what happened when she ordered some giclees of her own paintings got me thinking about a different problem. These paragraphs were part of my email to her, which she dubbed in her weary amusement an "ebook".

I'm not sure what authenticity means, but a giclee is in some way different from a traditional print, let's say an engraving or a lithograph. An engraving or a lithograph was usually designed to be an engraving or a lithograph, even if based on a painting. Every stage in its creation demands the personal skill, work, and involvement of a human being. If an artist sells a signed and numbered lithograph which he has pulled himself, the signature and number represent something aside from an artificial attempt to boost the price. Among other things, it represents a personal relationship among the artist, the buyer, and the viewer. This relationship is important in determining the viewer's response to the artwork. The viewer feels differently toward the work, and toward the depiction, as he sees himself the successor or the opponent of the artist, or of the original patron or purchaser. (His new relationship with the long-dead model is often just as important, but it's not relevant here.)
Even a print of a photograph was intended from the instant of exposure to be the print of a photograph; the printing process is something the artist has done for the purchaser and subsequent viewers, and the signature and number, if present, symbolize the artist's consciousness of and intent towards his audience.

A giclee starts out as a photograph of another artwork; that photograph is designed to be as mechanical a copy as possible. Some more machines, a computer and a printer, then turn it into a giclee. The machines can be run by the artist or not; what difference does it make? The artist can then sign and number it, but this has nothing to do with art; it's purely a question of marketing. In what way is a digital photographic print of your own painting, which print you now own only because you have paid for it, and because the law in some places says you own the rights to it, different from a stock photograph of the Venus of Cnidos which one can download from the Internet? Would the stock photograph be more (or less) of an artwork if we could get Praxiteles to sign and number it? Does he have any connection with the print made in 2003, or would the sculptor just be cheapening himself by signing a commercial product which someone else made, or someone else might just as well have made, from his work? I wouldn't blame him if he did it for the money, but I wouldn't be surprised if he eventually blamed himself.

Despite appearances, by the way, I am still not 'against' giclees. A mechanical process does not necessarily prevent an artwork from being an artwork, or a good, pleasant, and satisfying one. My little art nouveau lady is still a pretty girl. But before we buy or sell a giclee as an 'original', we ought to think about what the word means.

And yet more on authenticity, especially with reference to photography and printmaking.

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