The Issue of Accepting Prints as Works of Art
Printmaking is one of the rare artistic practices that is involved with updating specific terminology and developing guidelines so that artists will be able to use standardized procedures to identify their works. But why the necessity for a Code of ethics for Original Printmaking? The norms for authenticating prints that are currently practiced appeared gradually throughout history, and were sometimes initiated by artists who found various identification solutions to counteract forgers or indicate their techniques and the logic of their creative process. But it was more often publishers who imposed such norms so that prints would be recognized as works of art and would interest new collectors. Some applications have stimulated lively debate, and today, modifications that must be applied in answer to the evolution of the practice still provoke discussion among interested parties of differing opinions. It is important to understand that some artists will always be slightly in advance of the rules, and that their works will constantly pose the necessity for revising the code of ethics so that it can be applied to the most innovative work. In creative fields, freedom reigns and modes of experimentation are in no way circumscribed, which is why the most avant-garde works regularly break down the codes of identification and the borders between genres. A static code of ethics would ultimately not correspond to the practice of the art.
On the other hand, the code of ethics was developed to ensure the value of original prints on the art market; collectors’ demands for rareness and authenticity motivate artists to use standardized identification that can be easily deciphered. More specifically, since prints exist as several identical or similar copies, specific rules for numbering are required to indicate edition size and guarantee limits.
Other situations also call for clear definitions. This is notably the case in legal contexts where the protection of the artist’s copyright and the rights of buyers are at stake. In fact, the code of ethics was together on this basis – from definitions intended to distinguish original prints from interpretive prints and reproductions.
To collate the current version of the code of ethics, we modified and added to definitions and identification norms from earlier versions. We sought to respect fundamental principles and preserve content which still proves relevant today in terms of application. This revision was motivated by the particular identification problems now facing artists who work more in a spirit of experimentation than with the idea of finalizing a conventional edition of identical proofs. We had to reexamine the relationship of original printmaking with the techniques and technologies of reproduction. The advent of the photocopier and the computer called into question the limits and fundamental nature of the discipline. Finally, ethical behavior is not based solely on market values, and it was impossible to write a current code of ethics without considering diverse positions that reflect the investigative function of the work of art.
Our research led us to examine the vast literature on the subject, and we realized that the sensitive questions we were dealing with aroused lively debate, demonstrating a broad interest in printmaking as a contemporary art form, and giving it a credible ethical basis. We also examined the historic origins of the designations and handwritten inscriptions that have progressively made up the code’s content. We were pleased to discover that artists in the past responded to the new techniques available to them with the same sense of aesthetic investigation and freedom as today. This is why we propose to begin with a survey of historical situations where issues of designation and differentiation are prominent and have had an impact on developing the code of ethics for original printmaking.
From Reproduction to Interpretive Printmaking
With the invention of the printing press, different fields of activity began to use the same technical means and distribution possibilities. It was mainly with the development of the reproduction of paintings, executed with great concern for fidelity by highly skilled engravers, that the links between printing and art formed at the margins of popular printing. Hand-printing, prized for its capacity to produce collectible objects, and the only way to distribute unique works of art, was threatened with extinction with the advent of photogravure techniques that gave rise to another type of art reproduction: the photomechanical reproduction
Photogravure enjoyed considerable popular success due to its fidelity to the original and its accessible price. Handmade reproduction subsisted as a means of distributing works by well known artists, but it had to take on a new designation to be distinguished from industrial printing, and was rebaptized interpretive printing. Henceforth, this category would be recognized for particular qualities arising from the contribution of an intermediary artist, who transposed the existing work into another medium via the material and expressive features of the manual processes of printmaking.
Hence, we can say that over the course of printing history, a dual evolution has been set up — that of commercial reproduction for broad distribution, which benefited from industrial technical innovations, and that of interpretive printmaking, the value of which arose from skilled techniques the industry had dispensed with.
Artistic printmaking took a parallel trajectory, distinguished by its use of technical investigation for aesthetic potential. Printmakers have always familiarized themselves with the printing techniques that were available to them, and have creatively carried on aesthetic experimentation free of commercial intent. As this distinction became more entrenched, printmaking gradually achieved a status as artistic discipline, and prints acquired value on the art market. However, we shall see the difficulty of finding clearly differentiated criteria to distinguish creative printmaking from the reinterpretation of a work of art, since direct handling by the artist vs. technical assistance are sometimes difficult to differentiate. Another problem arises between original print and photomechanical reproduction. The technical means characteristic of the latter are also used to creative ends by innovative artists, which complicates the exercise of defining and differentiating.
From Artist’s Print to Original Print
The first prints we can categorize as original were created by artists freely using printmaking techniques to make a new work. Often more impulsive in nature and more lyrically gestural in execution, these prints were somewhat under-appreciated because amateurs of skillfully engraved reproductions considered them slapdash. Such prints were occasionally acquired for important collections, like that of Michel de Marolles in the 17th century, a collection that served as a foundation for the subsequent print collection Of the Bibliothèque nationals de Paris, but these prints were not valued for being original.
Prints by artists not intended as reproductions of paintings were not truly recognized as a distinct category until the second half of the 19th century and, even then, specific interventions by the artist were necessary to convince the public of their value as collectibles. Several factors contributed to the emergence of original printmaking as an autonomous artistic practice, including the aesthetic renewal brought about by Impressionist artists and the profound originality of their prints, along with their sense of experimentation and their innovative concept of art. In Michel Melot’s authoritative book, L’Estampe impressioniste, it is particularly interesting to discover the major milestones of this phenomenal resurgence of printmaking, which can be called modern, as opposed to the academic printmaking practiced by interpretive engravers.
But how may we summarize the emergence of original printmaking that existed primarily because artists created a distinctive body of work connected to aesthetic thinking that was the basis for recognizing the work of art? First, we can emphasize the fact that the Impressionists developed their printmaking practice outside the academic framework and were inspired by the creative explorations of such predecessors as Rembrandt. Their practice also benefited from specific conditions, like free access to presses that had until then been tightly controlled by public powers. The fact that artists could work hands-on led to freeing the practice of commercial constraints and the repetitive demands of printing.
Unexplored paths could be taken and, during this period, the practice of printmaking was seen to evolve both visually and materially. But more than achieving unprecedented technical effects or greater expressive potentials, the processes of printmaking provoked, to some extent, a new notion of art’s relationship with reality. What better technique than printmaking to strengthen the Impressionist notion of the transitory nature of reality and ephemeral modes of perception?
Developing the image in successive states corresponded to the artists’ desire to reapproach a subject and transform it. The fleeting state of things was embodied in the sequential process of printmaking, as the print recorded every modulation in thinking.
Impressionist artists were well aware of the artistic value of printmaking and sought to include it in exhibitions next to painting and drawing. They did not hesitate to show several experiments on the same subject or several states of the same print simultaneously. The genre acquired distinction through works that enjoyed the Impressionists’ growing reputation; a discourse advocating that original prints be recognized as a distinct category of art gradually developed.
Printmaking and the Criteria of Originality
Certain criteria are required to recognize a work of art as such. In the case of original printmaking, it was first necessary to have prints categorically recognized as an art genre before they could be valued as individual works of art.
Printmaking’s originality first had to be established by developing an argument that prints be recognized as art in order to distinguish them from industrial images. Hence, putting prints side by side with other works that were commonly accepted as art was one strategy that promoted the acceptance of printmaking. What constituted authenticity also had to be clearly established. Thus, there was an insistence on the autographic quality of execution and on technical refinements being executed by the artist who participated directly in the process. Burry published a few texts to promote original printmaking and, in the guise of doing so, in fact eulogized the aesthetic quality of Impressionist prints, validating their spontaneous drawing, dramatic lighting and sense of atmosphere. Later, in 1875, Burty promoted la belle épreuve – prints carefully pulled on old paper, where wide margins around the image afforded it an aura of distinction. Of course, arguments were also made on the aesthetic level, and etching became associated with modernity, a concept of which Beaudelaire so famously defended.
Guarantee of Rareness: The Inception of the Limited Edition
It was, however, around the notion of uniqueness that great imagination had to be exercised to turn prints produced by techniques favoring multiple copies into rare objects since they weren’t unique, like paintings. Through their practice, Impressionist artists helped associate the print with singularity, usually printing variants and working with processes involving fine granulation which are difficult to execute uniformly. The first states of their prints were usually unique; these prints were not printed as editions until the artist’s work was recognized. Hence, proofs were usually unique, as the artist carried out his creative interventions through the same printing process that was nevertheless invented to produce identical copies.
Since rareness was a key criterion to attract collectors’ interest, norms for the limited edition were made systematic at this time, and were guaranteed by irreversibly damaging the plate afterwards. We must specify, however, that artists who accepted the principle of the limited first edition were more resistant to destroying prints, yet publishers – following Burry, who launched this new requirement to satisfy clientele – imposed the practice to guarantee limited numbers. The appeal of rareness incited such extravagant requests as three-print editions, but most of the time editions were around 350. Yet this was still far from the almost-unlimited editions that were current practice, where proofs pulled when the plate was worn were merely pate shadows of the first test.
Publishers who commissioned these limited art editions for sale thereby promoted the emergence of a new category of collector who was attracted by works that were not unique, hence cheaper, but that nevertheless held all the virtues of original art, as the singularity of proofs substitutes for uniqueness.
But how could the singularity of proofs and the restricted number to editions be guaranteed? For a while, proofs were signed and dedicated to the buyer, but finally a system was adopted with numbering written on every print, assigning each one its own number and indicating the total number of copies. By around 1887 came the practice of a written inscription with signature, date and numbering, as well as certain annotations indicating state number, variants and sometimes the name of the printer.
From Original Printmaking to its Code of Ethics
Publishers contributed to the marketing of Impressionist prints and thereby initiated a valorization of original prints as a distinct category of art object. They progressively systematized the limited edition and its corresponding annotations to suit collectors who wanted to ensure the authenticity and rareness of their acquisition. Understandably, there was a need to record these codes and practices in a guide so that artists, who had no choice but to assume responsibility for editioning and selling their works, could identify proofs according to conventions that were consistent and easily recognizable by the public. A code of ethics with precise information on the designations of various categories of proofs and ways of identifying them proves to be a precious tool for collectors, artists and publishers alike.
Over the course of its various editions, however, the code of ethics has undergone certain modifications, and it is appropriate to examine the choices that sometimes emerge and the risks related to one stance or another. Some issues have been the object of debate, and the evolution of the practice has also necessitate readjustments so that information is kept up to date. It is interesting to see, throughout the evolution of the code of ethics, that the contours of a discipline are defined in a creative practice that is itself in evolution, faced with new techniques, procedural standards and aesthetic thinking that positions the characteristics of printmaking or, on the contrary, affirms its links with other disciplines.
It is appropriate to clarify the emergent question that determined the development of this version of the Code of Ethics for Original Printmaking, and we shall approach them by showing how the views of artists and publishers have been integrated, since artists are concerned with broadening aesthetic experience and publishers with the market.
Issues Surrounding the Definition of Original Printmaking
Differentiating a category of objects from other similar objects poses the problem of clarifying and defining their distinctive natures. In the case of original printmaking, these problems surround the definition of originality. In her introduction to earlier editions of the code of ethics, Claudette Hould traced the various modulations of this difficult definition with a simple description. Originality is more a quality responding to criteria that let us evaluate whether a work is the product of an authentic creative process generating something new that conforms to the aesthetic aspirations of the artist. To recognize such originality, it is necessary to establish a print’s relative independence from an original precursor — the essential idea of the image by the creating artist, the preponderance of the artist’s decisions in the process of execution — and, uniqueness aside, to specify the conditions under which this quality may be accepted.
The text of the proposed legislation submitted to the cultural and social affairs commission of the French Chamber in 1976 by Claude Gérard Marcus is one of the most complete in that it locates original printmaking in relation to related categories, such as reproduction and interpretive printmaking. It reads as follows:
Any facsimile, moulding or reproduction of a work of art by photographic or other mechanical processes which creates the illusion of authenticity must be labelled reproduction or bear another sufficiently clear and explicit sign or mark to avoid confusion.
After the present law is enacted, such objects from previous versions must visibly and indelibly bear the label reproduction.
Only prints pulled in black or colour from one or several plates, entirely conceived and executed by hand by the same artist are considered original, regardless of the technique employed. The handwritten signature of the artist on these prints implies his or her responsibility.
Engravings, lithographs, serigraphs, etc. by an artist or printer-craftsman based on the work of a creative artist are considered interpretive prints. In this case, the name of the printer must figure legibly in the composition with the label “X …. lithographer, engraver, etc.”
In all cases where original or interpretive prints are part of limited editions, each print must carry an order number as well as that of the total edition on all supports used. Artist’s and collaborator’s proofs must also bear special numbering. The label reprint must be indicated on each proof
It is interesting to see that efforts to establish precise definitions have mainly been made in legal spheres, either to ensure the protection of art buyers — the Marcus proposal’s specific aim — to protect copyright or define what objects may enjoy the financial, customs or other privileges granted by the government. On legal grounds, inclusions and exclusions must be precisely delimitable. This is why little room is left for ambiguity. In this way, the unity of conception and execution connected with manual processes guaranteed the authenticity of the original print beyond a doubt. The legal definition also legitimated the limited edition as a substitute for the uniqueness linked to other kinds of art, and imposed numbering and identification for all editioned prints as a guarantee. Even so, the Marcus proposal was open to reprinting in so far as it was mentioned, which means that, legally, the destruction of plates is not required to guarantee limitedness, and the inscriptions and signature of the artist are held in faith as proof of honesty.
The advantage of this definition is that it corresponds with the demands for authenticity and uniqueness that are the basis of the art market, and with this definition, the recognition of original prints as a distinct category of artwork was set in law.
One difficulty arises from the fact that a substantial number of prints are considered works of art by museums even though they don’t fulfill these criteria. Remember that authentic, creative prints have been produced by mechanical or photomechanical means.
Some works are not part of limited editions and can even be confused with common advertising. Finally, it is not always easy to eliminate technical assistance in the production of an original work of art, regardless of the technique. To what extent can a print be realized with the help of an assistant without losing its status as original?
For this version of the code of ethics, the objective has been to acknowledge the artist’s creative investigation and ensure that his or her field of experimentation was open. The artist’s intervention was hence a decisive factor, which avoided the exclusion of present or future techniques. Of course, a consequence of this is that the demarcation between original printmaking, reproduction and interpretive printmaking is more blurred. The distinction can no longer be characterized by technical factura, and visible to the naked eye. This is why the ethic is now more a question of honesty with regard to identification, and why a technical form outlining modes of execution, identity of participants and the ensemble of prints and proofs in an edition is the only registration document affording the buyer a precise idea of the originality of the print he or she wishes to acquire.
Original Printmaking and the Art Market
Does recognizing original printmaking as a category of art give value to the individual works that fulfill the criteria for originality?
Though prints are now included in the collections of major institutions that devote exhibitions and publications to them, perhaps we must admit there exists a certain distance between originality, in the sense of authenticity and rareness, and the recognition of prints as significant pieces in the historical evolution of art. A print might be perfectly original in the strictest sense of these traditional criteria… and be perfectly insignificant aesthetically.
There are, in fact, several criteria which a work art must fulfill in order to acquire value on the art market. The reputation of the artist and the aesthetic quality of his or her work have great influence in attracting potential buyers. As far as works of art created independently of market demand are concerned, value depends in fact on appreciation usually involving random criteria, whether personal or formulated by connoisseurs who play a role in confirming new art forms or discovering little known works.
Buyers can develop a knowledge of a particular corpus of prints, appreciating the technical and aesthetic qualities; this is how they become enlightened collectors and apprehend the value of the works they acquire. On the art market, value is usually forged over time, and this can only be done with the assistance of interventions that promote the recognition of objects made by artists as works of art, the appreciation of particular aesthetic and technical qualities, and the attribution of significance in the evolution of art. Of course, a work must still be authentic and, if possible, rare.
We must recognize that a great deal of emphasis has been placed on authenticity and uniqueness as the famous criteria for originality, sometimes to the point of fetishizing the artist’s signature and numbering, now found on simple reproductions. What does a signature at the bottom of a reproduction authenticate, in fact? The original quality of work reproduced? Its similitude? The artist’s approval of the quality of the derivatives? Unfortunately, such inscriptions have thus lost their power to authenticate originality.
The demand for handmade production by artists has also had perverse effects, and has sometimes led to obscuring the intervention by interpreting artists, so that certain interpretive prints may be considered original on the market. If excluding photomechanical, technological or industrial processes still persisted in the definition of original printmaking, we would be preventing creative artists from evolving expressive languages and modes of conceptualization and even hampering the evolution of printing techniques, and the print world would be depleted of an imposing body of works of art that are highly innovative.
The unique copy or highly limited edition print has been no less fetishized, to guarantee rareness. The public no longer demands rareness as rigorously, and an artist’s international reputation is sufficient to justify an edition in answer to high demand. We must not forget that one of printmaking’s justifications was the accessibility to authentic art it offered to people of modest means.
Today, the popularity of unsigned, unnumbered commercial reproductions on common paper confirms the distribution of printed matter, and the fact that a vast public usually has contact with art through reproductions or interpretive prints. Rarely do people realize they can own authentic works of art by acquiring original prints.
Ethics and Aesthetics
How can the application of a code of ethics be conceived today? As we have seen, the code of ethics was conceived in the spirit of providing precise definitions to prevent the incorrect use of certain terms and ambiguous identification practices. The information provided to artists permits standardized nomenclatures and identification codes while enlightening the print buyer on the criteria that distinguish original prints, and the meaning of the inscriptions and numbers that appear on them. The certificate of authenticity for original prints should specify the originating artist, the collaborators, where applicable, and the techniques used, as well as the printer and location of printing. This information allows factors that may have an impact on the value of the print, but not on its originality, to be evaluated. One can thereby distinguish between a print conceived over the course of the manual processes executed and printed entirely by the artist from one the artist entrusts to technicians, and which they must reproduce according to specifications and print mechanically, the latter being considered as deriving from an original concept and involving printing as pure media. Both works may be original, but their value depends on the artist’s reputation and the public’s level of receptivity to mechanical and photomechanical processes.
Publishers have also built an ethics of editioning based on the fact that all copies must be equal in quality. This demand leads them to entrust edition-printing to experienced printers who can provide such uniformity. This practice has long dominated the code of ethics by providing numbering and identification rules adapted to the kind of edition conceived mainly for sale. The realities of creative printmaking – assumed entirely by the artist and experimental in nature – have perhaps been sidelined. The state proofs and variants created by the artist during printing were not given their proper value, as they were considered imperfect and unfinished compared to prints selected for publishing. The code of ethics was meant to reveal the conceptual wealth and aesthetic traits of printed art. To do this, new status had to be accorded to the experimental nature of proofs, and adequate identification guidelines had to be provided. Into ethics conceived for the market demands, we have integrated ethics corresponding to the exploratory nature of the creative process and the basic freedom of the artist, who can rework a matrix to pull a new state, reprint and verify a new inking possibility, reintegrate a previous image into a new project, etc.
Finally, ethics as the application of processes that generate and ensure rareness has largely been called into question by artists opposed to using works of art for speculative ends. Thus, they have created perfectly original prints but occasionally printed almost unlimited numbers of them and refused to put the signs of authenticity and rareness: signature and numbering. These works then circulate freely and publicly, and reach people who are more concerned with image content or the conceptual nature of the work than by its investment value. Though this new ethical position may counteract efforts to validate prints as collectible objects, it nevertheless influences reflections on the role of art and artists.
From “Code of Ethics For Original Printmaking”