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What is Authenticity…and Does it Matter?

In an age when digitization can make near perfect copies of things, why should an original be so much more highly valued than a copy? If a copy is so accurate that it requires machines and chemical tests to determine its status, should we care which object is the original and which is the copy? Aside from status and price, does it matter?

In my work with scholarly collecting institutions like the Morgan Library & Museum, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and the Ransom Center at the University of Texas, this question is hugely relevant. At one time, scholars needed access to an actual First Folio of Shakespeare or a medieval manuscript, and this required his or her presence with the object. Today, when that object can be digitized at an unbelievably accurate level of detail, is it really worth the time, effort, and money for a scholar to travel across the globe to inspect it? If not, what then is the purpose of a Library whose mission in large part was to collect and maintain objects for scholars? How important is investing and preserving originals and maintaining facilities for scholars if copies can be sent over the Internet?

Similar questions are being asked in other sectors. Recently, performances of Wagner’s Ring Cycle were cancelled because the massive orchestral forces were to be replaced with the digital sounds of sampled instruments. Musicians, presumably fearing for their livelihoods, objected and threatened those who were to perform. Yet there is an irony here. People flock to performances of the Metropolitan Opera that are electronically reproduced in movie theatres. Other than the fact that musicians were paid in the latter instance, what is the substantive difference for the viewer?

A recent test of great violins revealed another example of how difficult it is to pinpoint the authenticity of sound. Some great Italian instruments like those of Stradivarius are famous for the incredible beauty of their sound, but audience members in experiments could not distinguish their sound from those of modern instruments. Now a more recent experiment suggests that even many professional violinists cannot differentiate between the old and the new. In one test, more than half of a group of accomplished violinists chose newer instruments over the older, more prized ones, even when playing both. Yet the modern instrument might sell for $50,000, while the old Italian instrument might go for as much as $3 million or more.

My own view is that originals matter because they establish the standard to which later versions aspire. This is true whether the original is an object like a piece of art or a manuscript, or whether it is a performance by a symphony orchestra. If something is good enough to copy, the original deserves to be treasured. On the other hand, our age has afforded us the luxury and ability to universally and inexpensively share that high standard of the original. If the arts and humanities matter, then this is a fact to be celebrated and exploited because it greatly expands those who can come in contact with something great. Rather than cheapening the original, the copy or modern version allows more people to understand just why the original is so great.

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