Rockefeller and His Clones


LOOKING TO BUY some art work? You want a Picasso? It's yours. Well, sort of. Would you believe a very good copy?

Our culture can now turn art into a "reproducible commodity." Nelson Rockefeller pushed the ability to copy art into a $4 million investment. Several weeks before he died, he mailed more than 500,000 catalogs to an upper middle-class audience he hoped would splurge for one of his 118 high-quality reproductions, ranging in price from a $65 teapot stand to a $7500 bronze statue.

Rockefeller filled his Manhattan living room with reproductions he said gave him the same pleasure as the originals, which he also owned. For those of us not lucky enough to possess a Matisse, Rockefeller offered to "share" his collection. "They ought to have it around," he said, "I think it does something to you to live with beautiful things."

Yet critics question these reproductions as possible aesthetic ripoffs that don't even deserve to be considered art. They argue that reproductions have nothing to do with the "experience afforded by a genuine work of art." Reproductions may serve as aids to memory, as "educational tools," but they are "momentos of experience," far below the work itself in merit. To claim that these reproductions may function as equivalents of the artist's own work, critics suggest, is a "corruption of taste." By implication, these reproductions demean the artist's own work.

YET FROM A distance of more than two feet, the copies can pass for the originals. Rockefeller's craftsmen used a photographic process called Cibachrome to suggest the texture as well as the color of paint. To a viewer with no forewarning, the copy would give him the same "experience" as the original. It is the critic's bias against the reproduction that somehow makes it "worse." If the reproductions offer the same experience as the original, why shouldn't they be considered worthwhile? For centuries artists have reproduced their art--engravers like Albrecht Durer and William Blake made rough woodblocks of their originals and printed dozens of copies to sell. They certainly didn't consider it demeaning.


Rockefeller has made large editions of his reproductions in order to encourage a wide distribution. Critics questioned this unusual behavior--didn't Rockefeller believe in the pride of sole ownership and the satisfaction of a meaty price tag? Obviously Rockefeller didn't just view art as money on the wall, aesthetic stocks and bonds. "A banker once admired some Picassos of mine," he says, "When I told him they were reproductions, he said they had lost all meaning for him. I said you mean they've lost any sense of monetary value."

After the publication of his catalogue, the Association of Art Museum Directors attacked Rockefeller, publishing a statement "On the Abuses in the Manufacture and Sale of Reproductions of Works of Art."

How pure were their motives? They could not be out to save art. More likely, they are thinking about the fistfuls of money museums stand to lose if Rockefeller's slick catalogue catches on. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is itself now heavily dependent on the money it brings in by selling its reproductions, and its administrators are deep in elaborate reproduction promotions of their own. Their true objection to Rockefeller is that he is a competitor, and not that he's defacing art.

THE QUESTION REMAINS: why would anyone want to own one of Rocky's "clones." Rockefeller appeals to snobbery in his catalog. The reproductions will be "framed in a similar manner and by the same framer Mr. Rockefeller uses in his own home." When we buy one of his reproductions we earn the title of art collector.

But Rockefeller has not only appealed to the snob, he has appealed to the investor. His "limited editions" imply that there might be some resale market for the cunning purchaser, that a buyer today might be able to go out and resell his copy for a profit in the future. Don't count on it. Once the promotional steam clears, no one will be interested in a fake Rodin.

The best reason not to want a reproduction is that a careful shopper can still find original Picassos for under Rockefeller's price of $650. Not the same piece that Rockefeller offers but of the same caliber--you can own an original and save a little money as well.

Economics aside, can anyone living in 1979 really say they don't believe in reproducing art, that it's demeaning? Hardly. We live in a country that not only believes in artistic reproduction but dreams of its perfection. If this seems strange, go home and look at your stereo and record collection. Records are nothing more than musical reproductions of a performer's inspiration. The more you paid for your stereo, the more you should believe in Rockefeller's innovation. Does it matter if you copy onto plastic or canvas? Millions of dollars are spent annually trying to achieve the perfect sound. Nelson Rockefeller tried to achieve the perfect art reproduction--did he really deserve the abuse?