Story on Copy: Jelena Vesić, Lecture Performance

»In historical perspective of art, copy is something completely senseless, completely worthless… It’s the enemy of the art holder – the author, the genius, the man…« Independent curator, writer, and editor Jelena Vesić lecture-performance she presented together with media activist and writer Vladimir Jerić Vlidi at Akademie Schloss Solitude invites you to a sophisticated and humorous »Story on Copy« with Duchamp, Mondrian, and Benjamin. »Why it is interesting to be true believer in art – a critical art practitioner?« Read the full lecture in this post:

I’ll tell you something about the still invisible object of my book Story on Copy – the book that should come out by this summer in the co-production of the Akademie Schloss Solitude and tranzit Vienna.

This not-yet-visible object of printed matter has something to do with the bunch of the artifacts scattered around the large passages and meeting spaces of this castle, which together make the conceptual exhibition Story on Copy – the spatial inscription of visual and verbal tales, or the book by other means. To exhibit a book is »a suspicious business« – the act of the contemporary compiler, appropriationist or curator, the one who collects the authored or non-authored content-units and re-organizes them into the larger space-time narrative of the exhibition. But, there are also you – the observers, the participants of the story who are (re)constructing this narrative and writing it anew by your exploration-walk and dedicated acts of observation. Who is then the creator of the story, the author, the owner of these words; is it artifacts themselves or movements of bodies and minds around it that create the story?

Who is the author in this collective process?

This is an example of the book – or the artifact – which exhibits laziness, hesitation and over-accumulation of contents, of stories, and things … the book by Mladen Stlinović in which he repeated and copied the one and the same sentence, line after line, page after page, on 42 pages. The sentence I don’t have time, I don’t have time, I don’t have time, I don’t have time… is mercilessly repeated. And the inscription on the front page is equally merciless and absurd – I wrote this book when I didn’t have time, I propose you to read it when you don’t have time.

The Stilinović’s book is not among those scattered objects and tales as part of this exhibition, but I’m associating it with the labor I’m doing now, retelling you what’s in the book – in advance … and I have to do it within twenty minutes, which is the official length of this presentation, so yes – I don’t have time, You don’t have time and nobody has time. Win-Win, or Lose-Lose?

Even pronouncing this very sentence takes time

OK, all about copy in four sentences!

Or, maybe this Gobelin, this embroidery of the image of Duchamp’s Urinal or Fountain made after the black and white reproductions from art historical books is telling all about copy in one breath.

But, still I’ll tell you what I mean.

The material existence of a copy is producing mixed feelings in contemporary media industry and contemporary art. On one hand, it is the thing that endangers the ownership, private property, creative property, the invention, the patent – the property over content in the era of cognitive capitalism. On the other hand, copy is one of the friendliest devices of contemporary info-capitalism as the tool of distribution, of mirroring of information – it is the central »object« in the speedy circulation of the attention economy… In historical perspective of Art, copy is something completely senseless, completely worthless… It’s the enemy of the art holder – the author, the genius, the man…

And the image that we look at is the caricature of Bad Artist – a non-creative man who paints one and the same picture time and again … What we see is ha-ha-ha artist. The copyist. Not author, not genius and maybe not a man.

My book is about that…

This is the artefact presented in the glass box in the café of the Schloss Solitude, entitled Piet Mondrian, Composition II, 45x45cm, acrylic on canvas, 1969 (Private collection).


I’ll tell you one story on copy which is told to me by the doorman of Salon de Fleurus when I visited New York in 2003.

»One of Benjamin’s theses on copy relates to turning the known into the unknown. For example, we have Mondrian’s painting and its copy. The question would be: is the copy of Mondrian’s abstract painting also abstract, or is it maybe realistic? All of a sudden, from something that was entirely clear to us, from the original, we get something that becomes indistinct, ambivalent and unclear. The task of modern art was to turn the unknown into the known. The whole of modernity and all those adventures, discovering new laws, climbing Mount Everest, or traveling into the jungles of the Amazon and discovering new civilizations – all of that was discovering the other, the unknown, taming the wilderness, the primitive and the dangerous – turning the unknown into the known, creating a nicely organized garden in which we can recognize everything, and in which we feel comfortable. And then, copy turns our nicely organized garden back into a dark and dangerous jungle.«

The ultimate destination of modern and contemporary art was the THE CONCEPT, THE IDEA. Conceptual art, and one of its main protagonists Joseph Koshut, made the artwork called Art as Idea as Idea, which you can see on this slide … Obviously the highest moment of fetishization of the notions of concept and idea. We can say that this »ultimate destination« of art was shared by the Conceptualists and Academicists-Classicists – the founders of the Institution of Art – despite of all the negativity that Conceptual art was addressing towards the existing art institutions. It was the institution of art – Academia or the Museum – that gave birth to visual art as a Liberal Art (ars liberales), distancing it from the crafts, from the labour of »luxurious decoration« … Joshua Reynolds – one of the founders of the British Academy of Art in the 18th century – stated that »art is ennobled by the intellectual dignity« that »draws a line between him (the artist) and the pure mechanic who does not produce art but mere ornament.« … The fetish of the concept and idea is borne through the distinction between art-object-as-decorative-thing and art-object-as-the-thing-of-intellect.

In constituting the aesthetic as a distinct sphere at the same moment the institution of art establishes the attributes of uniqueness, originality, and authorship, the difference between high art and commercial culture of luxury craftsmanship was also introduced.

»The copy« has long been incorporated into the institution of art (i.e. Beaux Art Academy, Paris of the 19th century) as a tool, as a useful procedure for learning »the craft of art«. The gradation of learning art in the early school system assumed first copying great masters, then imitating styles and methods and in the end creating own works…

  • Copying
  • Imitating
  • Creating

The institution of art takes over the divine prerogative of creation…

God is dead. The artist is born.

I’ll read you the passage from the interview with former artist Goran Đorđević who began as Conceptualist in the 1970s, turned Copyist in the first half of the 1980s, and, in the end, withdrew from the art scene in 1985 as non-author and non-artist.

»I remember when once, quite some time ago, I saw a book on the program of the French Academy in the 19th century and in it a copy of one of Rembrandt’s self-portraits. I wondered: »Did the artist who made it think at all about what exactly he was doing?« To paint a self-portrait is a very intimate thing, a self-reflection of the artist. And now someone makes a copy of that? It seemed totally absurd to me. On the other hand, I found abstract modernist paintings the most challenging for copying. When I was copying a Mondrian in public in the museum, I brought an easel, put it in front of the painting, and started to copy it. From the aspect of the usual reasons for copying – learning the painting technique – this was completely idiotic. Even the guard in the museum came up to me and asked me why I didn’t choose a more complicated painting. I told him I was a beginner and that I would move on to something more complicated later.«

At first glance, the investment into copying appears to be a senseless business. But nothing is 100% senseless in contemporary art. It’s becoming harder and harder to make non-art. The fast metabolism of contemporary art digests everything.

However, the copy still leads us to the furthest possible point in relation to everything that is in any way considered valuable by modern and contemporary art. With the copy we move towards the furthest possible point of the reach of contemporary art, but at the same time we remain playing on the terrain of art.

Another story on copy …

»The story of modern art in the 20th century, which usually begins with cubism somewhere around 1907, was actually only created in the thirties, as it was told by Alfred Barr, then director of MOMA. In the Exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art Picasso’s painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was placed at the beginning of that story for the first time. We actually never were, and never will be capable of seeing that painting without seeing it through the eyes of Alfred Bar, even when we stand in front of the original. That painting has been interpreted so many times that we don’t know what we are looking at any more when we stand in front of it. It only became apparent that we will never be able to see it or experience it in any direct and unmediated way. When, recently, I went to see the MOMA exhibition in Queens I noticed a couple who were looking at the painting from a distance with an expression of awe. I watched them and wondered what in fact they were looking at. What do they see or imagine they are seeing? Their own admiration in front of something that is called »an original«? The greatest »masterpiece« of modern art in the 20th century?«

Walter Benjamin: Unmaking of Art, e-flux, New York, 2014 – This recent lecture performance is exhibited in the most remote corner of the long corridor of the Solitude Castle.


Unmaking of Art …

»The question of identity raised by copy is not only who is the author, but where is the author at all? Maybe the concept of the author belongs only to one specific story which we call »history of art«. Let’s go back to the past for a moment, when Christian images and relics played a crucial role. Relics were the object of adoration in a world that was completely permeated by Christianity. They represented material evidence for the authenticity of the Christian story. People lived entirely immersed into this Christian story, every day, all year, from birth till death. When, with enlightenment, another story was established, a story which we now call »history« (and history of art is only a part of that story) all of a sudden some other objects became important, and the objects that used to be important earlier, for example, Christian images, icons and other relics, acquired other meanings. Sacred objects are no longer sacred, but artefacts of an epoch with a specific artistic significance or craftsmanship value. That which we can infer today is that we too, as did the people of the Christian world then, are immersed in something that is an historic story, but we are not capable, not equipped, to see that when we talk about history we are actually talking about the story of the past, and not about the past itself. We are all pervaded with that historical story, and thus we are not capable to experience ourselves differently and think about the world in a different way. If we could distance ourselves from all this, change to a different position, then, from there, the historical story would probably be seen in total. From this new place an image with a Christian theme can be seen both as a Christian relic within the Christian story and as a work of art within the history of art.«

»Listening to Walter Benjamin’s lecture and thinking about all this, I could imagine a possibility which would allow for a copy of a Mondrian to become more important than the original. In the case that the story to which the copy of the Mondrian belongs becomes more important than the story of art history to which the original belongs. In the same way in which all significant »Christian sacred objects« became less significant »Historic artefacts from the Christian period«, or in the same way in which the clay figurines or tools of the prehistoric man that don’t even exist in the »Christian story« became very important to our »historical story«.«

Walter Benjamin: Mondrian 63-69, TV Galerija, Belgrade, 1987 – The lecture performance by famous philosopher exhibited here in the café made me think further about the Author.


»I gradually began to sense how copy, among other things, questions not only the uniqueness and originality of a painting or icon, but the uniqueness of individual identity, in example of the uniqueness and unrepeatableness of the subject himself. For each particular discourse, we would have to define who am »I« at that moment, what is my role in that story? I think it is not possible to believe that there is some universal, unique »I«.«

I’ll tell you the story on copy which is told to me by the doorman of the Kunsthistorisches Mausoleum, Belgrade:

»… The thing that I always found interesting was the position of the artistic subject outside Europe. In some ways s/he doesn’t represent a part of general history, at least not a part of its »main course«, including the story which we call »history of art«. S/He is generally always outside of the story. (The era of Modernism has established this »outside« through the geographical positioning of centers of cultures – i.e. the Paris-New York axis; In contemporary times this old modernist »outsideness« is exotified as peripheral, identity feature of Global culture.) Nevertheless, it is very possible that now, when we start looking for this place outside of the story of history, that might become an advantage. Today it is almost shocking to step beyond the canon of contemporaneity and its multicultural foundation saying or declaring yourself as »an expert« interested in Western or in European art. But, during the time of rationalism and enlightenment, whatever those terms meant, Western Europe established the historic story as a certain way of overcoming and taming the past. This story was later transferred to other nations and cultures through the process of colonization. On the other hand, Europe was simultaneously colonizing its own past with that story. I have a feeling that somewhere I came across the idea of »historic« and »non-historic« nations and cultures… «

»Question: If Cameroon, as a country in which good football is played, beat England, which, as we know invented football, whose victory would it be? Would it be Cameroon’s or England’s? At a certain level, it is, naturally, Cameroon’s victory, on another level, it is England’s victory, and on a third level, it could be both Cameroon’s and England’s victory. I would say that it is still England’s victory, even if it were beaten by Cameroon.«

Those who do not accept the existence of art for granted, who address certain negativity towards art, who introduce questioning, suspicion – are actually »true believers« in art.

Why it is interesting to be true believer in art – a critical art practitioner? Precisely because one perhaps invests (in the social sense) in another kind of labor that’s not a wage-work, this alienating invention of the capitalist production (and consumption). S/He invests in a labour that is free. Art holds the germ of the idea of free labour or even of a play as the radical romanticist would see it, Schiller being one of them, that dear guest of this Schloss, and one of its first fellows…