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John Haber

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Laura Mulvey [...]

The Originality of the Avant Garde

"What would it look like not to repress the concept of the copy?" Well, obviously, not very much different. Which is how we know it is a copy. Or do we?

The question, from Rosalind E. Krauss, comes at the pivotal moment in her essay "The Originality of the Avant Garde." Krauss has observed freshly made casts of The Gates of Hell in a Rodin retrospective. Rodin is dead, and yet she has seen new Rodins. They lead her to see the copy, the inauthentic, as the long-repressed underside of Modernism. Fortunately, postmodern artists have already begun to turn from "repression" to "play." They "demythologize...aesthetic purity and freedom" and "watch it splintering into endless replication."

To ask that we revalue copies is to question how art relates to the past, its past and ours. In fine-art traditions, skill was attained by study of past masters. In our century too, fine art has been pillaged, but quite often along with commercial culture. Theft has served the avant-garde agenda of making art and the world anew.

I shall argue that Krauss's notion of the copy is the wrong way to phrase modernist and postmodern appropriations. It tries hard to use the past and to rebel against it, but it ends up by doing neither one.


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