Barbarians believe that by storing billions of digital images in the same format we managed to summarise the history of art and

Two Romanian thieves from a gang that stole and burned seven works by masters including Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Claude Monet and Paul Gauguin from a Rotterdam museum the autumn of 2012 have been condemned, on Thursday 27 February, by a tribunal in Bucharest, to almost 7 years in jail each.

The paintings had been stolen from Rotterdam’s Kunsthal gallery. They were: Picasso’s Tête d’Arlequin, Matisse’s La Liseuse en Blanc et Jaune, Monet’s Waterloo Bridge, London and Charing Cross Bridge, London, Gauguin’s Femme devant une fenêtre ouverte, Meijer De Haan’s Autoportrait and Lucian Freud’s Woman with Eyes Closed. The value of all seven paintings is estimated at tens of millions of euros. They are irrecuperable. Romanian experts believe that at least three, if not all seven paintings have been burned by the mother of one of the culprits.

The weirs incident led to an even weirder debate, in Romania and abroad, about the value and the meaning of an art object. Under the pretext of expressing some intelligent paradoxes, some commentators went as far as to insist that there was not actually much to lament there. Besides the suggestion that one should understand the power of a motherly instinct (some paintings were burned by the mother of one of the thieves, in order to destroy the evidence), readers were told that today, in the digital age, with so many reproductions available in books and on the internet, one should not cry after some second-rate canvases. We still have their image.

The extreme was reached by those who even claimed that the burning of the paintings was actually beneficial to them, as they were minor works, from a little-known museum, and that now, after having been cremated, they became planetarily famous. They would have, otherwise, remained unknown and unappreciated.

We can call these people the “new barbarians ” of the digital age. From here to making them the moral authors of the cremation there is only one step, because they created this climate of indifference to the real, to the palpable, deceived as they are by the illusory facility of the virtual.

This attitude manifests itself in relation to all the arts today. These people, like those who watch movies with sound dubbed in their own language, instead of watching them with subtitles and the original soundtrack, do not for instance understand that a movie is not just a sequence of scenes that tell a story, but an aesthetic construction in which voices, soundtrack, sound mixing, are as much a part of the artistic whole as the car race on screen.

The same goes for the eternal dispute between supporters of the book on paper and defenders of the book on the screen. Some books and poems of Mayakovsky or Apollinaire, for instance, are not made to be read otherwise than on a page of thick paper, printed with ink, with disjunct syllables dotted across the visual space, complete with a stamped watermark. Many books are a complete work of art, starting from the cover, as was the case with vinyl records, with their artistic sleeves and booklets that were completing the music, something totally lost today when everyone just listen to atrociously compressed MP3 music.

The same with paintings : the history of art is not just a succession of similarly framed images in a standard visual format, but always the physical support was part of the whole conceived by the artist. A painting by Bruegel sprawled in thick layers of natural colours over a wooden panel is not equivalent to a Picasso watercolor brushed on paper, as the new barbarians seem to think. In their arrogant ignorance, they do not realise that a ten square meters panel by Rubens and a small drawing by Toulouse-Lautrec scribbled on a napkin from the brothel can be made to have the same size on the screen of an iPad tablet. But the grain, but the physical hue, the texture, the feeling of the cloth, the wooden frame, everything that completes the picture will be lost forever for the viewer.

Barbarians believe that by storing billions of digital images in the same format we managed to summarise the history of art and that the rest can burn, freeing the space that they occupied uselessly. Until the day when a giant solar storm of unseen proportions will obliterate electric grids and anything digital on Earth, making disappear, as if by a galactic click, the whole of our virtual archives.

What we will have left then will be only what was printed, at one point or another… that is, again, anything that would have survived on paper, canvas, tissue, or wood.

Romanian version here:

După Carcaliu: tablouri arse, digitalizarea artei și „noii barbari”