Tuesday, September 14, 2004

The Real Thing

A Polish-American was bothered by my failure to appreciate the reconstructed Old Town in Warsaw. I knew the reasons for the lack of original structures, but my reaction to the aesthetic experience of being there was still muted. The lack of authenticity undermined the uniqueness of the experience of place; this version of Old Town could be erected anywhere.

But why is the experience so tied to the perceived authenticity of the place or thing? Why should anyone care if burnt buildings rise again, complete with jaunty paint jobs, or if formerly noseless sculptures are fitted with marble prostheses? Virginia Postrel probably could say something about this. I can only piece together my intuitions. Is it that imagining the past becomes more difficult, that it requires more of a suspension of disbelief, when we are confronted with reproductions rather than artifacts? That would imply that our aesthetic pleasure in the presence of the ancient is derived partially from some totemic connection that we feel these objects provide with the past.

Is it distrust of the recreator as intermediary? Do we fear that our appreciation might be for the interposed modern elements intentionally or unintentionally introduced and thus hold ourselves aloof from the artistic mixed bag a reproduction entails?

Some might say that in a world which constantly finds new ways to introduce artificiality and commercialism, something authentically old provides a welcome respite, an object that we can be assured was not created with an eye to manipulating us into some modern channel of behavior. The images are based on the state of the art at the time of their creation, which was probably a time in which, for better or worse, things were closer to their natural state.

I cannot concisely explain my dissatisfaction with such recreations and reproductions. While Warsaw might have been painstakingly reconstructed so we remember, the elimination of the evidence of destruction can as easily make one forget. It's easier to feel a connection with the past when the evidence is solid beneath your feet. (Although the cobblestones might have been original - in a sea of crisply painted buildings, those were dark with memory.)
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