Project 2-1: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

This project requires reading Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ and the first chapter of John Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’ before considering the following questions:

On ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ by Walter Benjamin:

How does Benjamin state his case for the removal of art’s elite nature?

“for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.” (Evans and Hall p76)

Benjamin argues that works of art are elevated to the status of revered ritual artefacts. Ownership, which can be seen as a closed ritual, and value are based on the status of a work of art as being unique and exclusive. This leads to art becoming a commodity in capitalist culture and the preserve of the privileged and therefore unobtainable to the majority – the masses. Reproducibility means that this system can be challenged and that art can become a democratizing, potentially revolutionary, force in more fluid socialist politics.

Benjamin believed that reproduction would lead to a profound change in the function of art; instead of it’s purpose being ritual it would become political – the potential for images to be used for political purposes would be opened up. This could have potentially liberating effects on human consciousness – artworks that were previously only available to the rich or elite who had the means and capacity for travel and ownership, a relatively rare experience, would become available to the masses who through reproductions could come to know, love and even own a copy of a valued work of art.

What do you make of Benjamin’s ideas of the ‘aura’ of the work?

‘Aura’ is the term used by Benjamin to describe the intrinsic, unreproducible aspect of a work of art that is eliminated through the act of reproduction: “That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.” (Evans and Hall, p74) It is the special quality of a work of art that makes it unique, authentic and original (in both time and space), although ‘aura’ is not inherent in the work itself but imputed by a culture that holds it in high regard. Benjamin states that the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition and allows the beholder to meet the reproduction in their own situation, and therefore, has the ability to shatter tradition and is linked to mass movements. An original work has a unique existence in the place where it happens to be and even the most perfect reproduction cannot capture this fleeting aura. Aura originates from the ritualistic/cultic value of primitive art which is replaced by exhibition value in the modern sense. Benjamin believed the aura to be in decay because the idea of the original does not apply to the new art forms of photography and film as they are always/already a copy.

Reading ‘Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Benjamin seems both critical and nostalgic for the phenomenon of the aura. It seems he is willing to sacrifice that which is desirable of a work of art’s aura in order for art to become liberated from ritual and association with the ruling elite and become a force for politics. It seems to me that even though artworks are more reproducible and accessible now than Benjamin could ever have imagined, an artworks ‘aura’ is stronger than ever – the act of reproducibility has only strengthened the cult of the original rather than diminished it. Famous artworks become part of the popular consciousness, the example used in many of the texts I read was of the Mona Lisa which is now so famous it becomes more than simply a painting and is elevated to reverential status with visitors to the Louvre queuing for hours to spend the average time of 2 minutes in the paintings presence. If reproduction meant an artworks aura was diminished we would expect the  publics interest to be reducing rather than increasing that the increase in museum/gallery attendance seems to suggest is true.

Studying Benjamin and thinking about the subject of the ‘aura’ has made me question my own relationship to original art work. My personal view is that viewing a work of art in the flesh cannot be replicated through viewing reproductions either physical or digital. This is mainly based upon a memory from when I was 16 and a holiday to Paris. I visited the famous Musee D’Orsay and recall being floored by the effect of seeing the real famous impressionist works of Monet and Van Gogh – famous images that I was aware of not through study but because they had entered the popular consciousness. No reproduction could replicate the scale and beauty of the works, the textures of the oil paints added an extra dimension that the flatness of a print could not. I remember being particularly struck by this self portrait by Van Gogh.

As a sixteen year old I was taken in by the tragic romance of Van Gogh and his tortured genius. This self portrait was not one I knew before visiting but the swirling patterns of oil paint around Van Gogh spoke to me deeply about his possible state of mind as well as causing me to recognise that the experience I was having in front of the original work would be impossible to replicate through any reproduction. On the way out I bought a postcard of the painting from the gift shop and was immediately struck by how lacking it was – without realising it I recognised that it was the paintings aura that was missing.

Does the improvement of methods of reproduction, colour printing, digital imaging and television strengthen or weaken his case?

The capacity for reproduction presented by modern technology is almost limitless and would have been impossible for Benjamin to imagine, however, on the main thrust of his argument that reproduction would make art a political force this has not happened – at least not in the way he has envisioned. Although there are many artists who are motivated by political aims, it could be argued that the majority of us view art as a career and business. Art is available to everyone, think google image search, and if anything the aura and fetishism of original works of arts has only increased because of this.

Artwork has never been more prevalent than it is today while the capacity for us all to express ourselves is something Benjamin could never have envisaged. What we understand as the establishment is significantly different too, new money probably outstrips old. If anything however, the proliferation and accessibility of imagery has only increased the cult of works of art and to own an original remains the preserve of the well off. The truth is that it is impossible to generalise about the impact, effect and use of modern methods of reproduction – as soon as I thought about examples of how an artworks aura have been destroyed through reproduction I could immediately think of opposites to refute my argument. The modern world in which we live is incredibly complex and on the face of it access to works of art has never been more democratic, works can be immediately accessed to view via the internet and the increase in admissions to galleries and museums as well as growth of the art market would seem to suggest there is a growing interest in art. The choice available is bewildering to many of us however and it seems to me we are more reliant than ever on the guidance of a few experts to signify to us which art works are worthy of our attention. It is now a commonly accepted truth that art can now be anything, a notion that reproducibility does not take into account of.

Does the failure of the Soviet experiment alter the validity or otherwise of his case?

Benjamin underestimated, and was maybe even naïve, about how political systems could use photography and film for their own ends, the propaganda of the Soviet Union is a strong example of this.

On ‘Ways of Seeing’ by John Berger:

Do you find his case convincing?

‘Ways of Seeing’ is a polemic and reaction against Kenneth Clark’s ‘Civilization’ television series and book which preceded Berger’s series in 1969 – Clark represented the old establishment and the ruling elite while Berger had a radical, modern approach with political intent. It is written in a style that uses generalization and does little to recognise alternative arguments, I can understand Berger’s approach but for me it is somewhat off putting –  recognising opposing viewpoints could have been used as a way to strengthen rather than diminish his argument although this would undoubtedly have increased the word count. The book and television series were intended as a primer to provoke and promote further thought and study of art, and in this respect it is certainly a success – proved by the fact that some forty years after publication and broadcast they are still being studied.

Personally, I find Berger of interest historically but in the end not completely compelling. Some of this is due to his presentation style, although it is intended as a polemic the piece has the air of preaching to the converted to me. The Marxist style of discourse contained in ‘Ways of Seeing’ seems outdated, clearly Berger’s aims were to influence real change not only in the art world but in society in general. The fact that the market and the economic value of works of art is now stronger than ever shows how wrong he was in the future of art.

Do you think that a work of art removed from its original site grows or diminishes in meaning?

It depends on what is meant by ‘original site’ and how it is removed – literally or by means of reproduction, if the latter then as already discussed the artwork would naturally be different anyway. In antiquity artwork was on the main designed to be in a particular place, for example churches and temples which promoted the idea that they were sacred and spiritual and set them apart from normal life. Likewise when artwork became social it entered the culture of the ruling class and was displayed in palaces and stately homes which made the authority of the artworks inseparable from that of the ruling elite. It could be argued that museums and galleries are the modern day equivalent of churches and temples and are places we go to worship art with the custodians of these places are similar to priests. Likewise visitors to galleries and museums are similar to dutiful worshipers in that they are already converted to the cause. On the face of it displaying art work in public places could be a way to break this elitist barrier down, the only problem being however that these public venues then become the original site for the artwork and thus the argument loses all meaning.

Does familiarity breed contempt?

This question depends on our understanding of who would feel contempt toward the familiar. The elite nature of art criticism would seem to suggest that experts certainly feel this way – that popularity somehow diminishes the importance of an artist and their work. This view can be backed up by the way some art experts look down upon those that are popular or successful, this is something that I came across when researching Jeff Koons in project 1-5 (Art as Commodity.) Another example would be how some recent ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions have been poorly reviewed – surely the increased visitor numbers to museums and galleries and the increased appetite for art from the general public that this would suggest would be seen as a positive rather than being attacked? I am sure Berger would be unsurprised by the critics reaction however, to him this would be an example of how experts use mystification to protect their status as pillars of good taste.

Has Benjamin’s ‘aura’ been removed by the postcard?

I would say yes and no. It is true that a postcard does not retain the aura of an original work of art (see my thoughts about purchasing a Van Gogh postcard above) but the very production and distribution of the work of art as a postcard can go a long way to increase the aura of the original. It is also true however that the aura of the original can be transformed through the act of reproduction, again I think of a work of art like the ‘Mona Lisa’ which has become elevated to the status of icon rather than painting with parodies and appropriation being commonplace. It seems to me impossible for the real work to live up to the myth and disappointment seems to be the main reaction of those that have braved the crowds to spend their (on average) two minutes in its presence.

Thoughts…

Reading ahead of the course notes I was conscious that this is a pivotal project in the course; ‘The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’, ‘Ways of seeing’, Benjamin and Berger are work and writers that I have come across often through my research. I felt determined to give myself sufficient time and consideration of these essays and set about taking extensive notes and being planned about my responses. Despite this I struggled to gain the insight that the questions posed in the course material seemed to be pushing me for. In fact, the more I thought about my responses the less certain (and able) I seemed to be able to articulate myself. At this point I am at a loss as to why this should be but clear that this has led to a severe depletion of the momentum I had been building in the course. The only explanation I have is that I have completely missed the point of the questions posed – I have been searching for definitive answers rather than  using them as a jumping off point. I am far from happy with the responses I have posted here but feel that moving on is the best course of action rather than becoming further entangled.

One of the problems I think with these two essays is that they are informed by a particular historical moment that we are now far removed from – Berger’s notion that artwork can be democratized by individuals having a pin board to display postcards seems somewhat bizarre to me. Interestingly, I find Benjamin’s writing and means of discourse much more compelling than Berger’s which, although intentionally polemic, deals too much in absolutes which has a kind of arrogance I find off putting. For me, recognising alternative viewpoints and then showing why yours is more valid represents strength rather than weakness. I found Peter Fuller’s ‘Seeing through Berger’ an interesting read, although I have not directly referenced it, particularly the escalating argument that moved Fuller from a disciple of Berger to a sworn adversary.

Keywords and concepts for further research:

Marxism, surrealism, modernism, the ‘aura’

Key figures for further research:

Walter Benjamin, John Berger, Brecht, Lukacs, Adorno, Frans Hals, Leonardo Da Vinci

Bibliography:

Benjamin, W. (1999) Illuminations. London: Pimlico.

Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin.

Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing (BBC series) – Episdoese 1: Available at – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pDE4VX_9Kk [accessed April 2015]

Buchanan, I (2010) Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory. New York: Oxford University Press inc.

Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) (1999) Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage.

Fuller, P (1988) Seeing through Berger London: The Claridge Press

Howells, R. Negreiros, J. (2011) Visual Culture 2nd Ed, Cambridge: Polity Press

Macey, D. (2000) The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory London: Penguin books

Pooke, G. and Newall, D. (2008) The Basics: Art History. Oxford: Routledge.

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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