Take a painting. Or a tapestry. Or a sculpture, an intricate glass chalice or a wood carving.
Any of these may be fabulously, uniquely beautiful, iconoclastic, inspiring and thought-provoking. A lot of their desirable quality must surely come from the way they command our physical senses. The look, yes of course the look, but the feel, and even the smell must also count? Otherwise, a photograph of the object would be just as satisfactory as the object itself, wouldn’t it? Is there also something about the possession of (or, at least, engagement with) a real, solid object? Otherwise, again, the photo would suffice. And it just doesn’t, does it?
This makes such wonderful objects vulnerable. If they are destroyed or even just damaged, then that’s that. Boof! They’re gone. They cannot simply be replicated, even by the artist themselves, should the original be lost. Their rarity value, therefore, is inbuilt and absolute.
Take a string of words, a rhythm or a melody.
These too can be beautiful, iconoclastic, inspiring and thought-provoking. They may be embedded in a sensually-engaging object (a beautiful book, a show-stopping performance), but it is the arrangement of the beats, notes or words that is the essence of the work. So the rarity thing does not apply here. These arrangements can be easily, perfectly replicated in their thousands, with no diminishment of their inherent value.
In the same way, they cannot be destroyed. If a book or a sheet of music is deliberately burnt, another copy yet holds the idea safe. Even if all physical copies are gone, it still doesn’t destroy the idea. The idea is, I suppose, susceptible to being forgotten but even that doesn’t really destroy it. It just makes it impossible to find.
So, on the one hand, there are unique, solid objects – rare, precious and perishable. On the other, there are strings of ideas – easily and cheaply reproduced and disseminated but, effectively, immortal.
Which would you rather?
*with apologies to Jean-Paul Sartre. This is all his fault.