By now, you've probably heard about the fuss over the Auguste Rodin sculptures going on show at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum in a few weeks, on tour from the MacLaren Art Centre in Barrie, Ont. The Paris museum that administers the estate of the artist, who died in 1917, has complained that the exhibition's various plaster sculptures are not true Rodins. But their complaint is not that the works don't look the way Rodin would have wanted them to, or that the sculptures are significantly different from casts they label "authentic"; it's that the Barrie works may not quite abide by the complex traditions, rules and laws that determine what counts as an original version of an editioned art work -- a category which includes cast sculptures, but also most fine-art prints, as well as photographs, videos and other contemporary multiples, as we'll see in a minute. The Musée Rodin's complaints have almost nothing to do with artistic issues; they are about who gets to regulate the flow of money and power through the art world.
In the Canadian controversy, the only question worth an art lover's time is whether the Barrie sculptures have the same effect on a viewer that versions approved by Rodin have. The answer seems to be that they do.
In paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, say, or Claude Monet, where the irreproducible manual "touch" of the artist has a lot to do with a picture's effects, there is a real difference between an original and a copy, and that's why it's important to see such unique works up close and personal. Most of Rodin's works, on the other hand, were always meant for mechanical reproduction, therefore any successful cast, in bronze or plaster, of his hand-worked original model conveys the artist's goals as well as any other. Someone at the ROM ought to point out that, in the 19th century, the first and most prestigious public display of a new sculpture was often as a plaster cast, which was only done in bronze or marble versions according to demand. So long as there's good reason to believe that a sculpture shows just what Rodin had in mind for a piece -- rather than being cast from work he considered unfinished when he died, as has sometimes happened -- then the issues of authenticity that the Musée Rodin is making so much noise about are artistically irrelevant.
Except, crucially, in that they can actually help to restrict the public's access to great works of art, rather than spread the news of them -- a goal which you might think would be close to the heart of any art museum.
Or to the hearts of those contemporary artists, social activists one and all, who believe in the capacity of their works to touch a wide audience.
You'd think that, in an age of perfectly reproducible high-tech and digital art, the old issues of authenticity would fade away. After all, Rodin's sculptures still record the expressive touch of the master's fingers in wet clay, so it makes some sense to worry about how accurately his handiwork has come down to us through the delicate mechanical process of casting. With much of contemporary art, however, the artist's hand skills have been deliberately tossed out in favour of the images their minds can make technology yield to us. And this technology, borrowed from modern mass production and mass media, is all set up to make as many perfect copies of a product as you'd ever want. So I ask myself why a technically straightforward video by American genius Bruce Nauman only exists in a few copies, each selling for tens of thousands of dollars, when it could easily be run off in numbers that would let it find a place in every household's VCR or DVD. Why do digital images, as does much of today's most important photographic art, get printed off in batches of 10, when the computer files and fancy ink-jet printers that generate them could just as easily turn out an extra thousand or two?
The answer, of course, is that we haven't got the guts to directly fund our artists just to make the best work that they can, so all of us can learn from it and enjoy it. Instead, we still expect them to live by selling their work, forcing them to put entirely artificial limits on its supply. (Imagine if we forced our scholars and scientists to live off limited-edition copies of their articles, bought and controlled by wealthy patrons?) By starving our artists, we also guarantee that only a tiny few of us will get to savour the stuff they make.
I wonder if Rodin, the file clerk's son who is said to have sent out about 300 casts of his famous The Kiss, would have approved. Blake Gopnik is chief art critic of The Washington Post.