Can 3-D Printers Produce Art?

This past week, I was lucky enough to attend a panel discussion about Innovation in the Arts put on by Bates College and my part-time employer, Zoomdojo, a career services startup. Facilitating a discussion about the art world and its intersection with modern technology hits our sweet spot of promoting independently compelling thought with professional discussion by successful individuals in the humanities.

At the end of the panel’s discussion, we took questions from the audience. One gentleman brought up the topic of 3-D printers and their usage in the production of art. He questioned whether the literal mode of production affects a work of art—is it different if a piece is printed out all at once, or crafted by hand? “Art goes beyond just seeing something,” he said. “Technology is a useful tool—and maybe I’m old fashioned—but doesn’t technology take the creativity out of things?”

He posed this question to Sandra Jackson-Dumont, the Met’s new Director of Education. She has proven her ability to drive exciting and engaging activities as a curator, and brought her frank and passionate manner to our event. Completely in character, she engaged right away, countering that the 3-D printer is perfectly acceptable as a tool in producing art. She was quite clear on the details of this point—the artist’s voice must shine through for a work to be valid. The tool, whether it’s an artist’s hand-held paintbrush or mechanized printer, is a method of expression. If an artist is in fact just mimicking others by reprinting their work, and the only evidence of a creative voice is an imitation of someone else, the viewers will see through this right away. In effect, the spirit of a work is more important than the method of production.

Another of our panelists, Moenen Erbuer, joined in the discussion. Moenen is the cofounder of the app Curiator, which allows users to create a digital art collection that is not meant to replace owning or viewing works in real life, but to supplement these activities while feeding its users’ artistic palates and encouraging exploration. Curiator allows users to hone their aesthetic tastes, keep track of pieces they have seen but do not or cannot own, and explore other users’ digital collections. However, it is dependent on virtual reproductions of pieces to stock these virtual collections. Moenen pointed out that while he personally agreed with Sandra’s assessment of the question, it is intriguing that a work of art found to be a fake instantly loses its value. Again, the issue of the artist’s own voice is essential. In a forgery, the mimicry is of the subject and the voice—but it is still mimicry. He, like artists who sanction reproductions of their work, holds this apart from imitations for the purpose of demonstration and allusion to the original.

The question of imitation and reproduction is not a new one, and has been explored in literature as well as visual art multiple times. The examination closest to my heart, as a student of Spanish literature, is a Jorge Luis Borges story published in 1939. “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote,” (in translation, “Pierre Menard, author of Don Quixote”) tells of Menard’s attempt to recreate, or rather, create an even deeper version of Cervantes’ Don Quijote by reproducing it exactly, line by line, in the present day. Within the context of Borges’s work, this endeavor is successful. Borges’ short story is not a printing of the transcribed Quixote, but a review of it—and the reviewer finds the new text to be a worthwhile piece in and of itself. Central to this effort is Menard’s intent not to copy the Quixote but to create something further. Although I question whether or not this work would actually be considered a success and could resonate with reviewers, the point Borges makes through his fictitious reviewer is that this project is successful because Mendard’s voice and creative efforts shine through the transcribed text. Menard studies the Quixote and does not intend to simply reproduce it. Instead, his copying moves beyond mimicry to add another layer of meaning and art to Cervantes’ writing. Menard is not a forger, as he credits Cervantes with the original creation of Don Quixote, and draws upon his work as part of the existing artistic canon although his final product is literally a reproduction of Cervantes’ efforts.

I recall viewing my fine arts TA’s final thesis project as an undergraduate. Her work amounted to re-creating the Hall of Mirrors in a gallery on campus, via various types of print work. While the project did not come close to perfectly imitating Versailles, the point of the show was to question the grandeur and intricacy of the original locale by transplanting and reflecting it through her own artistic medium, the printing press. The final product was still impressive, but the alteration of materials and time period made the differences between her Versailles and the original quite clear, unlike the project Borges’ Menard undertakes. In addition, their intents were completely at odds: my TA’s project was critical in nature, while Menard used the original Quixote as a building block for a more substantive work, one that he endeavored to grow immensely close to before leapfrogging past. But in both cases, the reproduction of an existing work of art is examined, and in both cases, the literal reproduction is secondary to the pursuit of artistic expression.

So the question of whether a 3-D printer cheapens work is really not what we should be asking at all. It doesn’t matter whether an artist or forger uses a 3-D printer or finger paints to create or copy someone else’s work: what matters is the creation itself. Is something new and valuable coming into existence? Or are we settling for an imitation of existing pieces? A reproduction of a beautiful painting can suit a living room or restaurant without adding to the artistic canon, but in the context of the greater art world, it adds no additional value and pales dramatically. In that critical space, the artist’s voice must be considered, as well as the technical and aesthetic value of the work. The artist’s voice exists independently of the medium—3-D printed object, screen-printed Hall, or typeset text—that they employ. That voice, that creative intent, is what gives a work value beyond its appearance. The media available to an artist will change over time, but the value of the artistic voice remains constant.