Simon Carr: Restorations defile art's great masters

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The Independent Online

There's an annoying question I sometimes ask at parties: "What's the difference between a perfect reproduction of the 'Rokeby Venus' and the 'Rokeby Venus'?" People dislike reliving their university interviews in social situations, which may be why I've never had an answer.

Connoisseurs sit in front of a painting, working themselves up by the this-and-that: the brushwork, the composition, the earning power of Piero della Francesco and, oh, the power of art to move us! But let's amuse ourselves imagining the painting is revealed to be a fake. Not even "school-of". Impeccable as the reproduction is, it was made by a professional forger living in the An-Chang valley for £138. What does that do to the emotional exaltation?

You think it might still be valid? They're like dervishes, you may say; the aesthetes have been whirling themselves towards a deliberate end: ecstasy. Or in lay terms: dizziness. Whatever the source of their transcendental experience they have still transcended.

You are more cynical than I am. You are saying there is no difference between fakes and originals: it all gets constructed by passionate art-worshippers according to the rules of this exclusive system they've invented. You're saying that the art-object is something on which they have all agreed to agree and around which they compete to say the most adulatory thing. The priests of Baal were like that, and they never came to much in the world.

Let's say for the sake of argument that perfect, digital reproductions are possible. Every brush-stroke identical to the original; every colour correct to a fifty-millionth part. The co-ordinates expressing these optical effects are precise, invariable and eternal.

But here's one fundamental difference at least. Classical art isn't eternal; its life is long but it decays. It fades. It cracks and chips and loses its lustre. No matter how well cared for, the greatest paintings move bit by bit towards the darkness, in very much the same sort of way that we do. That tragedy is a fundamental part of its nature - and we share it.

A whole industry in the art world exists to contradict this. The restorers who touch up the old masters, they lay new paint on old canvases in a way that quite obviously destroys their originality; the paintings turn into some mutation of the original, neither fake nor reproduction but something worse than both.

When I went into one of the National's Quattrocento rooms. I was looking at the floor, so as not to see anything except the paintings we'd come to look at. However, my peripheral vision was working and, as I walked into the room, the peripheral colours reminded me of something. Something very unexpected. What was it? Oh yes, it was the sort of lively chromatic experience you get hanging off the Hyde Park railings on the weekends. It's not obvious from any individual painting, but when you're not-looking at a room full of restorations, the effect is pronounced. These 500-year-old paintings have been coloured in by people, accomplished as they are, closer to the talent level of thirty-quid Sunday afternoon amateurs than the master who created them.

This is a fiercely argued question, as we know, and not unimportant. Here's my solution: Shouldn't we make a digital reproduction as perfect as we can, and display it next to the decomposing original? This has a a truth about it and a tragedy that I find appealing (especially as I don't much like art).

Don't take a bow, Boris!

I blame Boris. The most brilliant comic writer in Britain, the best editor of The Spectator in a generation, but with a self-destructive streak so wide it took him into politics. I've just finished Andrew Gimson's brilliant book on the subject. Boris has played a crucial role in the recent history of the Conservative Party.

Their big problem is they haven't had their Kinnock. History will show that "Kinnock" was Portillo's job. But when Boris arrived in Parliament, Portillo insulted him with advice. So Boris (I'm assuming this) failed to vote Portillo in the leadership election, allowing Iain Duncan Smith in BY ONE VOTE to the final play-off.

Portillo would have beaten Ken (IDS did, after all). The modernising process would have begun and Cameron wouldn't have had to waste a year with all this mealy-mouthing. Boris!

* My solution to the veil resolves nothing but is perfectly straightforward: Muslims can wear what they want if I can laugh at them if I like.

But when I listen to fundamentalists (not that I do, much) I sense there isn't a quid pro quo on offer. You have to listen to things like: "Islam is not a young religion. Islam is the oldest religion," with a straight face.

No, there's no arguing with fundamentals from the outside. We need entryism on a large scale. I fear the Islamic reformation will only really take on western values when Julie Burchill converts. Al-Juleera Buzaq'l!

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