"In principle a work of art has always been reproducible... The work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the 'authentic' print makes no sense" (Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" reprinted in Illuminations, Schocken Books, 1968, p. 218 and p. 224).
Andy Warhol, through his art, emphasizes the reproducability and repeatability of each work of art and obviously not only his own. He commented on exactly this:
"De Chirico repeated the same images over and over again. I like the idea a lot, so I thought it would be great to do it. I believe he viewed repetition as a way of expressing himself. This is probably what we have in common. The difference? What he repeated regularly, year after year, I repeat the same day in the same painting. All my images are the same, but very different at the same time" (Andy Warhol quoted in Victor Bockris, The Life and Death of Andy Warhol, Bantam Books, 1989, p. 326).
And not only are all works repeated, but they are repeatable, and therefore always already repetitions of themselves. If they weren't already repetitions they couldn't be taken as aesthetic objects in the first place. Warhol is showing us the impossibility of an irreproducible work of art. What would a work of art that can't be reproduced look like? How could it be called by this name: "art"? And by citing his own works and those of other artists over and over, by reproducing these works, and often on the same canvas!, Warhol questioned the presence of any originality in the work of art. This reproduction of images reveals that all images are reproductions in a system of infinite citability. Warhol's art recites the simulacrul nature of art in the postmodern sense: museum art, famous art, pop art, commodified art, and that place at which art has culminated in our capitalistic now: graphic design. Warhol's art isn't a mimetic imitation of an image-awaiting-reproduction, but the very act by which representation and originality is overturned. Art, like everything else, isn't a representation of anything. Reproduction never stops because it never got started.
The infinite repetition of the image in Warhol's works endlessly defers the arrival of the original at the scene of art. It is this endlessness, the never-ceasing repetition of the image, that we are forever waiting with. What is the image a representation of anyway? What would the original look like? How would we distinguish it from a copy? What makes it the original? Isn't it citable, reproducible in exactitude, and therefore already duplicated even before it arrives in the gallery? Do we see the painting first or the downsized image on the exhibition's invitations? Do we see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre or in the art history text or in the advertisement for milk on the television? Which Mona Lisa is more real? Which is the original? This endless repetition of the image, even before the image arrives at its so-called 'artistic' context, constantly calls into question the assumption that only one of the copies of the work is 'the art' or 'the real painting'. (Warhol was not the only one to copy Da Vinci's Mona Lisa or The Last Supper. There are also the countless forgeries that circulate through the moneyed world of art collectors. There are also the countless reproductions that are authorized by the owners of the works. There is the poster of Gertrude Stein that hangs in my living room. Is it Gertrude Stein? Is it not the real her? It is titled Gertrude Stein. (Picasso admitted that this painting did not bear a resemblance, and he insisted that she would come to resemble the portrait he had painted of her.))
Warhol stands in contrast to a long aesthetic tradition. Art has always prided itself on the originality of its works, just as philosophy praised the logos as the origin. Aestheticians, the artists, and their patrons, posited the original status of great works of art, thereby granting themselves a series of privileges to power in the process. Their paintings are supposedly immediate and irreproducible objects representing a sublime meaning, an aesthetic genius, or some other mark of exclusivity. Warhol, in reproducing everything, produced a vulgar work of art, thereby revealing the vulgarity of all art, the vulgarity of Van Gogh's Pair of Shoes. Before Warhol stumbled along, of course, artists and theorists were already calling into question the original as the paradigm aesthetic unit. In cubism, there is a multiplication of the scenes of viewing the object represented in the work. The mandolin is seen from potentially all angles at once, perforating the painting with a difference that undermines its own identity. In the works of Pollock or Rothko there is finally an explicit denial of representation as a form of expression, perforating the painting with the immense possibility of infinite difference. Yet we still have in all of these artists the notion of the original. Pollock's paintings still present themselves as self-standing objects hanging on some particular wall somewhere. The same might be said of Warhol's works, yet here we have the mark of repetition so boldly stamped all over the work that one can't but help notice the extent to which a Warhol painting is not identical even with itself -- it isn't in any classical sense an original work of art. There is in his art the presence of the absence of the original, which runs much deeper than the absence of the original that is already so common in the art world, and was already common to avant-garde artists like Picasso or Pollock. The infinite reproduction of Warhol's chosen images, be it the Mona Lisa or a can of Campbell's soup, imprints on all of his works the absence of an original. By repeating his works, and by doing it himself, and to such a great extent, each repetition bears an explicit mark of the absence of originality. All Warhols are Warhols-in-a-series. Does it make sense to speak of any particular serialized object as being more original than any of the others in its series?
I am not offering criticism of Warhol; I am tracing his texts. The concept or category 'original' breaks before his images.