We live in a world where we're starting to get so good at faking things, we need to reassess the value of what is real.
If I could offer you a real Picasso or a perfect copy of a Picasso, which would you take? You probably said the real one, right? After all, it has more value. Even if a copy is exact, down to the last brush stroke, it still wasn't painted by Picasso. If you were to sell them, obviously, the original would be worth more.
What if you never intended to sell it? What if you only wanted to use it for its intended purpose -- to hang prettily on your wall? You'd probably still want the original, right? It is more authentic, and you assign it more value for its authenticity. And, likely, we assign some value to originality in art. The original Picasso painting sprung from the mind. The second sprung from the forger's hand, and it is no doubt easier to copy The Old Guitarist or Don Quixote than it is to envision them.
In fact, it is so easy, we now have a robot that can easily copy great paintings. Watch it happen:
The robot, developed at a German university, can't paint anything on its own. It has no artistic dreams, but it can copy anything (though it is still learning to paint in color as well as it can in black and white). How valuable is the robot copy compared to the original?
Before you answer, consider a slightly different question. If I offered you a Stradivarius or a violin made last week, which would you take? In many ways, every violin since the Stradivarius Golden Age has been a copy of those great instruments. They are so valued that the world's premiere violinists often borrow them, because few can afford the multimillion-dollar pricetag. There is a belief among these performers that no instrument could possibly be better than these nearly priceless works of musical art.
What if they're wrong? What if we can make a better violin today than Stradivarius could? As it turns out, we can.
In a double-blind study, 10 of the world's greatest violinists were surprised to find out that they generally preferred the sounds of modern violins, some costing only $50,000, over those authentic, multimillion-dollar Strads.
If you've got 28 minutes, I urge you to watch this video about the experiment.
Since you probably don't have 28 minutes, let me give you the short description. Some of the world's best violinists agreed to come together and conduct a double-blind study where they played several of the world's best modern violins and some of the world's best Stradivarius violins. Each master would play each instrument blind and then listen to their fellow soloists play each instrument. They'd play them in a concert hall, with and without accompaniment, and with a full orchestra. They would then grade each instrument and guess which were old and which were modern.
The world's greatest violinists not only decided that the modern instruments were better than the Strads, but they had absolutely no ability to pick which instruments were which. Their guesses about which instruments were old and which were new were wrong as often as not. In other words, the copies are now better than the original.
This has happened before. E2 readers of a certain age might remember the 1976 Judgment of Paris, in which French wine tasters were asked to taste the best wines from France and California blindly and were shocked to discover that those horrible Americans were making better wine than their own countrymen. It changed the perception of American wine and the economics of wine forever.
It should come as no real surprise that the reason we value something has to do with our perceptions and the stories we weave around it as much as it does with the object's intrinsic value. Marketing companies have worked for decades on this concept to get us to buy one deodorant over another, even though they are essentially the same. A placebo effect arises in judging anything we value. If we think something is real, it will look better, sound better, taste better -- whatever.
Now, excuse me while I go a little highbrow on you (as if the violins and the wine and the art weren't enough). This is what the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard called a simulacrum -- an imitation of something so good that the concepts of "real" and "artificial" lose all their meaning. The copy is so good, it destroys the notion that there is an original.
Baudrillard said that movies and television were becoming so realistic -- and marketing so pervasive -- that they blurred the lines of what is necessary for life. (He eventually said the same about the Internet, though the book on simulacra came out in 1981.) He also said that simulacra distort the real exchange value of goods and services. In other words, a $50,000 violin might be better than a $1 million violin, or a wine made by hippies in California might not sell as well as the stuff made by a guy wearing a beret.
Sometimes, as with the wine, we can fix our perceptions, especially if there is an intrinsic value (such as taste) associated with the item. Sometimes, as I suspect will be true of robot copies of the painting Dogs Playing Poker, we can't. And so here is the question: What makes the fake worth as much as the original? When do you take the California wine or the modern violin, and when do you take the original Picasso? As simulations become more real, the answer gets harder, doesn't it? Which would you rather have -- the real or the fake? The best or the first? Comment below.