This company is using 3-D printing to democratize fine art

How General Public is trying to recreate masterpieces with the help of cutting-edge technology

A detail of a painting.
(Image credit: vural/iStock)

We all hope to fill our homes with great art. But realistically, great art is expensive, and few of us have the cash to splurge on a Rothko or Monet. At best, we might be able to afford a print of a famed work to grace our walls. But thanks to 3-D printing, fine art may soon become more accessible to the masses.

Earlier this year, actress Portia de Rossi, who is perhaps best known for her role as Lindsay Bluth in Arrested Development, launched a new company called General Public with the goal of democratizing art ownership. The idea is simple, as de Rossi explains: Art's value shouldn't hinge on scarcity. Anyone and everyone should be able to experience art in their homes without breaking the bank, but shouldn't have to settle for a cheap knockoff print that doesn't fully capture the original work's grandeur. General Public hopes to make this possible with a new kind of 3-D printing technology that can recreate, in incredible detail, an original painting — from the artist's unique color palette, to the paint's texture as it dried on the canvas, down to the particular motion of the very last brushstroke. General Public calls its reproductions "Synographs."

The act of copying great works is nothing new. For decades, replicated works were — and still are ­— most commonly found in the form of a good old-fashioned print. Prints are created using an indirect transfer process, where the original artwork comes into contact with a sheet of paper, which is then run through a printing press to create many "impressions." Through prints, one can sell cheap, easily replicable copies of "blue chip" artworks, like Picassos, Dalis, and Monets. But prints are poor substitutes for the visceral in-person experience of visiting a gallery or museum and seeing the real thing.

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"By replicating the work many times over, it substitutes a mass existence for a unique existence," German-Jewish cultural critic Walter Benjamin wrote in 1936. De Rossi says she created General Public to bridge the gap between "the decorative and the fine-art market." "The Synograph provides folks with an alternative to collecting paintings and the flat posterlike print. This proprietary technology and our professional curation is how we bridge the gap," she says.

Compared to an actual original work of art, Synographs are steal at around $1,000. But there are a lot of questions surrounding this company. The Synograph technology itself was developed in collaboration with Fujifilm, but General Public is pretty tight-lipped about how it works. We know the creation process involves scanning an original artwork and digitizing it into a 3-D model, but it's not clear what materials the Synographs use. Most 3-D printing utilizes plastic or biodegradable polylactic acid. If the same can be said for Synographs, that would explain why the company claims they can be cleaned with a damp cloth — an unfathomable sacrilege with a real painting — or, bizarrely, "a piece of bread."

It's also not clear how much General Public's mission aims to empower artists themselves. It has an open call on its website for artists to send in their work — the startup will pay for shipping — and a panel of in-house experts will examine and approve the work during a 60-day consignment period. The company currently has four style collections: Studiomarks (contemporary art), Colorfield (abstract expressionism), Found Art (sourced from shops and antique stores), and General Public Domain (masterworks reworked by contemporary artists). According to Artnet's Tim Schneider, General Public only gives artists a 5 percent royalty fee. Schneider points out that, based on the average Synograph price, a 5 percent commission would only benefit the artist if they were consistently selling hundreds of Synographs, if not thousands.

Replicating art by way of 3-D printing is not entirely unheard of. In 2013, Fujifilm Belgium worked with the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam to produce a capsule collection of Van Gogh paintings using 3-D printing to recreate the painter's characteristic thick, textured layers. These were originally priced at around $34,000. Companies like Verus Art and the Russia-based Prixel have been quietly 3-D printing paintings for a hot minute, while partnering with museums to reproduce masterworks by Vermeer, Gauguin, Monet, Matisse, and Van Gogh. De Rossi's company may be the first attempt at making these recreations affordable.

In many ways, General Public is following a storied tradition of using technology to capture the elusive "aura" of an artwork absent in previous attempts at artistic mass reproduction. But the company isn't interested in placing Synographs on equal footing with original masterworks. And sure, if you invest in a Synograph, you'll always know it's not the real thing, but at least you'll be one step closer to owning a slice of greatness.

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Alexis Ong

Alexis Ong is a freelance writer whose work has appeared at Broadly, In the Mesh, and Dazed Digital. She's into internet archaeology, games, sci-fi, and her monstrous cat.