The simulacrum subverts the common notion of what constitutes a copy vs. An authentic artifact (Camille 31). In the common, classical ordering of priorities, the 'real' is what comes first, followed by the copy. The copy affirms the real, and the worth of the real, rather than negates it. A good example of this can be seen in art forgery. The worth of the real is affirmed by the fact that the copy (whether illegally or legally made) is considered inferior to that of the real, and the copy attempts to slavishly imitate the real. The greatest compliment that can be paid to a copy is that it can be mistaken for the real thing. A picture post card of the Mona Lisa is not synonymous with the famous painting itself.
The simulacrum, however, is a false idea, image, or rendition that comes before the real. A good example of a simulacrum that can be found in popular culture is the idealized form of life that exists in catalogues such as J. Crew or L.L. Bean. The simulacrum images of preppy perfection never really existed, nor will they ever, but real people are encouraged to emulate these simulacrums in an effort to embody such a false ideal. The aesthetic of deconstructing culture and the images that we mistake for what is 'real' has grown particularly popular since the 1960s, as the postmodern point-of-view became more mainstream.
However, the simulacrum is more than a false image -- it is a perversion of reality that can be mistaken for reality. This notion is as old as Plato (Camille 32). But while Plato was profoundly distrustful of simulacrum because he believed in the existence of a 'real' ideal in the world of the forms, the recent embrace of the notion of simulacrum by postmodernists reflects the idea that there is no stable and coherent 'real.' There is no privileging of the simulacrum over other expressions. When comparing Andy Warhol's repetitious images of Campbell soup cans, the question of what is real and what is simulacrum -- the commercial manufactured image of Campbell's or that of the artist -- is difficult to answer.
Jean Baudrillard has compared this predominance of the simulacrum to Borges' fairytale of a map so detailed it covers up the actual territory it is supposed to represent (Baudrillard 2-3). However, other postmodernists would argue that the simulacrum is a map that attempts to graph a world that never actually existed, but people come to use the map to attempt to 'find their way' in reality. Stereotypes are cognitive forms of simulacrums: they are unreal ideas that come to take on a reality because people give them credence and these notions seem more real than the thing itself. People might encounter members of historically-discriminated against groups who do not conform to stereotypes but have negative reactions to them anyway because of their preexisting, culturally-constructed notions.
Fashion provides perhaps one of the richest modern sources of simulacrum, and shows how stereotypes and artifacts meet. Women gaze at photo-shopped images of women who are not 'real' and long to make their real bodies into false creations to fit fashion. Of course, not all forms of simulacrums are so potentially dangerous. Another good example from recent history of design of simulacrum in action is that of rhinestone-encrusted jeans or 'bedazzled' jeans. These jeans were made to exemplify a kind of false aesthetic of beauty and wealth for little girls and adolescents in the 1980s. However, over time the bejeweled and bedazzled aesthetic of the fake wealth encrusted on ordinary clothing became transposed into the form of real, jeweled jeans, caps, and other casual items, to show the wearer's real wealth. "If bling is your thing, then consider the bejeweled premium denim jeans offered by Roberto Cavalli" proclaimed one style magazine ("Top 10 most expensive jeans," Denim Blog, 2008). What was once a relatively fake and tawdry way to simulate wealth in the forms of fake rhinestones has now become a vehicle for 'the real' wealthy to demonstrate their worth, and someone with lesser social status looks 'cheap' with the original bedazzled look.
The absurdity of fake wealth in the form of diamond-encrusted denim seems to be a long way from Plato's original conceptions of the real, simulacrum, and ideal and is an example of how some postmodernists see simulacrum more as a playful concept, rather than something worthy of serious analysis. However, some interpreters of mass culture such as Baudrillard share Plato's melancholy regarding the attrition of the real. First modern culture reflects, appropriates, and then substitutes and annihilates the real, according to Baudrillard (Camille 39). The extent to which the simulacrum is dangerous depends in great degree to the extent which people believe something that is 'real' exists apart from representations. The modernist notion that 'the real' always coexists somewhere is maintained by Baudrillard, although he believes the simulacrum it generates ultimately has the power to destroy the real.
Baudrillard believes this notion of the simulacrum's dangers can be seen when politicians espouse rhetoric filled with the images of American perfection which do not correspond with reality yet influence expectations of the electorate. People believe that is how life 'should' be, despite the overwhelming weight of their real, lived experience that it is not. In his belief that 'the real' has been abandoned in modern culture, Baudrillard shares a critical similarity with Plato. Plato criticized artists that created deliberately disproportionate statues that were meant to seem 'more real' to spectators on the ground. Had the proportions seemed symmetrical, they statutes would have appeared grotesque. Similarly, Baudrillard cites images of politicians blown up several sizes too large on massive screens at conventions and other arenas -- this false image of hugeness and awe is conveyed to the persona of the president. The president, once part of the checks and balances of the American political system has been turned into a figurehead and quasi-king by the power of television. Moreover, Baudrillard believes that once the simulacrum has taken over, the real is always tainted. We can never go back to seeing our politicians life-sized. We can never see our ideals untainted by the simulacrum, larger-than-life visions of television and 'art.' Baudrillard, in contrast to the playful aesthetic of the postmodern, where the falseness of reality is something humorous, sees darkness in the loss of the original referent, which he believes does 'really' exist.
One reason that the existence of simulacrum has caused such cultural anxiety is the increased significance of mass modern culture, and the degree to which film, fantasy, and other vehicles influence our lives. According to Walter Benjamin, when evaluating a work of art, the intended purpose of the work must also come under scrutiny, what is often called the work's 'cult' value vs. its exhibition value. Cult value refers to the work's functional purpose, to serve as a modern implement in a ritual (Benjamin 797). An object's 'cult value' presumably has some functional purpose in 'the real' although it may have symbolic importance as well.
The most obvious examples of art with 'cult value' is a Stone Age painting with a picture of a buffalo on the side which is designed to bring about good fortune through its use or an Egyptian pyramid designed to be a tomb for the dead used as a vehicle to house souls for passage into the next world. Gradually, the importance of cult value has been giving way to exhibition value, in terms of how cultural objects are regarded. For example, at first photography had a 'cult' aspect of function: to preserve images of history, the family, and the images of important people. Gradually, photographs have come to take on an intrinsic value in their own right. They became valued not as objects but as constructed, artistic intelligence on the part of the photographer.
Another example of an object that straddles ritual and exhibition value is that of a ring used to propose marriage to someone. It is an object of beauty, but it also conveys certain messages in its ritual applications. The cost and size of a ring is often seen as tantamount to the love the man feels for the woman he gives it to, and when used in the marriage ceremony it comes to signify the passage of one state of being (being unmarried) to being married. One of the signature aspects of an object of 'cult value' is that it is meant to be hidden and concealed, like the statue of a goddess, a private photograph, or a personal piece of jewelry, while its dimension of exhibition value can only be realized if it is revealed in a social context. Thus, the engagement ring takes on exhibition value when it is paraded before a woman's friends, or a photograph transcends the realm of the personal when it is 'shared' repeatedly online and becomes a meme on the Internet (Benjamin 797).