Talking with a friend about authenticity and realness, I remembered the moment when I really understood the power of the real thing.¹
Longer ago than I care to admit, I went to MoMA with my dad, and saw, up as close as you could get to a glass case, Meret Oppenheim’s fur lined tea cup, Object, or Luncheon in Fur.
I’d seen slides, and illustrations in books, but only when I saw the object did I really understand what it was about. Unfortunately, even having seen Duchamp’s “Bride Stripped Bare” in person, I still don’t get that piece. Such is life.
So what is it about the fur-lined tea cup in person that makes it so different? What is it about Jacob Lawrence’s Migration series that makes it different? Or Pollock, for that matter? Why is the real thing so ineluctable?
I don’t know, really; what I do know is that it matters. I’ve held a transparency of The Migration of the Negro, Panel no. 1, in my hand before, and it’s not as good as seeing the marks Lawrence put down in gouache. I’ve held a Robert Capa print in my hand, marked on the back with publication notes from the 1940s and it still gives me goosebumps to think of it, to think of him in the water off Normandy on D-Day. Existential ambiguity of the wrecked emulsion be damned: those images, held in your hand, are more moving than you can imagine from seeing them published in Life or any monograph.
I’ve had people say to me recently that “it doesn’t matter,” that no body will know if they’re wearing 1774-1783 clothes at a 1790 event, and I disagree strongly and thoroughly. It does matter. The mattering is the whole reason museums exist. It’s why we go to see our favorite music performed instead of sitting home with Victrola or iPod listening to the crackle of Bessie Smith² or album-produced Billy Bragg. Listening at home puts us at a remove, polishes the roughness and steps back from immediacy.
To say that the image in the book or the not-really-right clothes are the same at the real thing does a disservice to ourselves and to the public. Are we really suggesting that audiences for art or history are that stupid? Or that we are so unmoved ourselves that it just doesn’t matter?
I’m too old for nihilism. Bring on the real. Let’s get it right, because it does matter. I know when it’s real, and so do you.
¹Sadly, this goes through my head with the phrase “the real thing.” Curse you, Douglas Coupland, for capturing my generation’s fixation on pop references.
²Yes, I know she’s dead, go with me here.
Anna Worden Bauersmith said:
It is seeing Bruno Liljefors’ work in person, with the lights on, with the lights off, with a little light over here, with it rainy out…. I can’t explain it. I don’t think I want to try to explain it. It just is.
Ah, but is there such a thing as too real or too accurate? I’m thinking here of wearing the perfect 1819 outfit to represent 1819, for example. Wouldn’t it be more believable for most ordinary folk to refresh the trimmings on last year’s dress, or to continue wearing the comfy broken-in shoes to go to market? How out of date can one be if portraying a servant wearing second-hand clothes?
I’m not asking this to be flippant at all! I really think this is one of the more difficult, and more interesting, questions to address!
The “prefect” period interior often doesn’t ring true, because ordinary folk would accumulate furnishings over time and alter things to “update.” Only the very wealthy could start out with complete up-to-the-minute interiors. Can the same be said of dress?
I agree, just take a look at your own home, street or closet
T.H. Gray said:
The joy and madness of our historical pursuits includes the fact that there are multiple meanings and perspectives for everything, including:
T.H. Gray, Director-Curator
American Hysterical Society
Nancy N said:
Wonderful discussion, and it’s made even more layered with the ideas of what happens in the media — can it be a film about the Korean War when all the men have hair below their ears? Unless of course it’s some kind of re imagination of the era…
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