Tiffany Jenkins: License to print 3D masterpieces

3D printer is great at producing objects that have already been invented. Picture: Contributed
3D printer is great at producing objects that have already been invented. Picture: Contributed
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The innovation of 3D printing is heralded as revolutionary, but it will never threaten the value of originality, writes Tiffany Jenkins

Take a look at a 3D printer in action and you will soon get an idea of what it can do. I watched a small 3D printer produce a hand-sized bust of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti; an elaborate ring for my finger; and a model of the Parthenon that now sits on my desk, all at the push of a button from plastic, at low cost, with very little waste.

However, 3D printing, known as additive manufacturing, will be used for far more than gimmicks and toys. So it is no surprise that the concept has fired the imagination of everyone from creatives in design through to industry, the medical field, multinational corporations, and even governments. In his State of the Union address in February, US president Barack Obama declared that 3D printing had “the potential to revolutionise the way we make almost everything”.

As with any new technological development today, you will find those that say it will change everything for the better in no time at all, and those who prophesy doom and gloom. Those on the side of The End is Nigh worry that it will see us all printing guns and drones in our homes, and displacing people in low-skilled manufacturing jobs. Those on the side of the hype make breathless proclamations about how it will democratise innovation (we all could print our own products in our own home and become widely successful); will bring about a revolution in manufacturing; and significantly revive the economy. The Economist has compared it to the printing press, the steam engine and the transistor.

Both factions overestimate the power of this technology.

In the art world some have become animated about possibilities and some great claims require a deal of scrutiny. This is not because it is does not have potential but hopes tend to underestimate social, political and cultural factors that influence the making and meaning of things. The 3D printer is great at producing objects that have already been invented and it can stimulate invention by making it easy to produce the embryo of an idea of an object, but we cannot rely on it to invent things from scratch. There are already too many artists using the technology as if the technology is so interesting that their work is good by default, but there is only so much a very able printer can do.

Elsewhere, scientists at the Delft University of Technology in Holland have been beavering away to try and produce 3D reproductions of artistic masterpieces. They have built a scanner that records depth and colour in such incredible detail that some say it results in a printed picture that has all the complexity of the original, down to the appearance and indentation of every pocket, lump and bump of paint. The team have produced a 3D reproduction of Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride, one of his self-portraits and one of van Gogh’s sunflowers.

Fujifilm, the Japanese firm, have developed a process which not only replicates the painting, but also the frame and even the back of the work. Together with the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam they have made copies of five of the artist’s paintings, in limited editions, which have sold for as much as £21,000. The idea is not just that we can then hang them in our living rooms without paying the millions of pounds required for an original, but that galleries and museums could show them. Muritshuis Museum in the Hague is talking to the Delft University project with a view to hanging a van Gogh in an exhibition. It’s as good as the real thing, some say, so hang and an audience will flock.

The technology and results are impressive, but there are critics who question just how good the reproductions could ever be. From what I have seen, there is a clear and visible difference between the real painting and the reproductions due to tone, texture, colour and light. Even with paint it is hard for the best forgers to come up with something that no one can tell is a fake. But that is not the only question for me. There is also the issue of originality and authenticity.

Originality and authenticity are important when it comes to what we treasure in art. Not every work of art, mind, not the more practical or useful items, not some architecture and design – but great work will always be seen as a one off. There there are historical and cultural instances where this is not the case – originality and authenticity is specific to a certain time and place rather than applicable across the whole of human history – but with the Renaissance, the idea of the artist genius emerged and it’s never really gone away in the West. I would bet good money that no-one would pay to see a printed van Gogh no matter how similar it was if the real van Gogh work was available, because they would like to see the one that he did, with his fingerprints and brushstrokes. This is in part, I think, because we identify the original work with the origination of the idea of it, and that cannot be found elsewhere.

Couple this point with the demands of an art market, and there are reasons for why we will never accept a printed reproduction no matter how good it could be in the future. The 3D printed van Goghs that went for tens of thousands of pounds did not cost that much to make, after all. The market in art inflated them and that is reliant on the idea of the unique work and the genius of the artist, not the technology or materials.

If this was all going to change with technological developments, it would have done so already with mass production. Major changes in production in the last century did not eradicate the idea that the original work of art is unique. Take photography, this is instantly replicable and yet for a recognised photographic work you pay a great deal for limited editions and even more for the real thing. Photography still requires the idea of the first printed photo which will always be the most valued.

Ultimately, 3D printing will never be as good as real painting in our galleries and museums. Let’s keep things in perspective. No printer can master the Old Masters.