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.