Is a photo of a Magritte painting better than the original?

A major Magritte show ran at the Art Institute of Chicago. It was fascinating to see all of his greatest hits in one place, nicely curated and hung.

Unlike the Louvre, photography was forbidden, which got me thinking about ideas, photos and originals.

In front of the Mona Lisa are hundreds of people, all taking a picture, sometimes with their cameras held overhead to get a better view. Why? What's the point of taking a picture of the most famous, most photographed painting in the world? You're certainly not going to take a better picture than you can find online with a few clicks.

It feels obvious that people aren't capturing the painting, they're capturing the moment, their proximity with a celebrity. "I was there, here look." Can you imagine going to the Louvre and walking right by the Mona Lisa? (I did this once, and I confess it wasn't easy). I mean, she's famous.

Magritte was an artist who worked in ideas, not in craft. A photo of his painting is totally sufficient to get the point he was trying to make. The paintings themselves almost feel like ghosts, like non-digital represenations of the purity of his original idea, the one we saw a thousand times before we ever walked into the museum.

By forbidding photography, the museum does nothing at all to protect copyrights, but instead creates a different sort of intimacy. Is this a famous painting? Can I prove I was here? 

The most useful impacts of a show in real life, I think, are the juxtapositions created by intelligent curation and display. Missing for me was any connection at all to the other people in the room, the buzz of celebrity, the tribal aspect of, "oh, hey, you're here too?"

For those of us who work in ideas (which is most of us, now) the real question the Magritte show asks is, "if your ideas spread far and wide, do we need to see the original?"

When the idea is famous enough, what is the original, anyway?