Exercise: the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction

Introduction

This exercise asks for an opinion on Walter Benjamin’s essay and the perspective of Siegfried Kracauer (in 1927), cited in the OCA course materials, who ‘remarked that objects would become known for how they appeared to the camera, not how they actually were’.

Walter Benjamin’s essay

Walter Benjamin’s influential essay was originally published in 1936 and analysis the effect on art of ‘mechanical reproduction’ (photography and film) . With this history of visual culture, the essay came around 4 decades after the quality of film reproduction had reach a high standard and became a medium of expression in its own right. Open Culture offers an insight into the earliest films at around 1900 – beyond Eadweard Muybridge’s 1878 Horse in motion, which was more scientific in nature . The essay also significantly pre-dates the age of digital reproduction and the internet, with the worldwide web first open to the public in 1991 .

Benjamin’s essay plots the history of the reproduction of art, observing that art has always been reproducible with a degree of effort and varying success at fidelity to the original. This kind of reproduction would include the creation of forgeries that sought to pass has having the same value as the original object. Lithography was invented in 1796, which allowed artists to reproduce art at a speed that would keep pace with printing. However, the invention of of photography (1839) represented a revolution in reproduction. The work of the hand was replaced by the work of the eye and a machine, offering the opportunity for far more speed and precision in the reproduction than had previously been possible. However, still infinitely slower and less reproducible than the digital images and networks of today.

Benjamin makes some interesting ontological observations about photography (and film) as compared with traditional art works.

  • He notes that a reproduction does not have a unique location in time and space, whereas an original object can only be in one place at one time. The original object, therefore has it’s own unique historical fingerprint and cultural presence. Benjamin argues that ‘the presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity’.
  • Unlike manually created reproductions (or forgeries), Benjamin argues mechanical reproductions are outside the ‘whole sphere of authenticity’. For two reasons: the reproduction is more independent from the original (it can show different angles, only certain elements, levels of detail, tonality, and colours for example). And, ‘technical reproduction can it the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach to the original itself’.
  • Benjamin comments that mechanical reproduction always ‘deprecates the quality of the presence of the original’, where it is a work of art or a photography of a landscape. This is echoed in John Tagg’s much later observation that a photograph represents ‘a new and separate reality’ . Questions of authenticity of an art object reproduced in a photograph are wiped away (‘the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning … its substance … the history it has experienced’). Benjamin refers to this as eliminated aspect as ‘aura … which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction’. There is no longer a ‘unique existence’ and the reproduced object can be taken to any location: ‘a tremendous shattering of tradition’.

Having examined ontological questions, Benjamin examines the implications for communication (‘sense perception’). There are elements of his discussion that I feel are later echoed in Guy Debord’s 1967 Society of the Spectacle . ‘The masses … overcoming the uniqueness of reality by accepting its reproduction … destroying its aura’. Benjamin suggests that the perception of a ‘universal equality of things’ has meant that even unique objects are no longer perceived as such. Tellingly he states, ‘the adjustment of reality to the masses and of the masses to reality is a process of unlimited scopes, as much for thinking as for perception’. A ‘society of the spectacle’.

The age of digital reproduction

Douglas Davis’ The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction (An Evolving Thesis: 1991-1995) recontextualises Benjamin’s essay at the outset of the internet age. It however, predates mobile technology, including the now ubiquitous camera phone (the iPhone was first released in 2007). Both Benjamin’s and Davis’s thoughts are summarised, fittingly, in a YouTube video produced by Then and Now .

Davis’s essay concludes with, ‘here is where the aura resides – not in the thing itself but in the originality of the moment when we see, hear, read, repeat, revise.’ While authenticity or aura was deprecated in the age of mechanical reproduction, Davis suggests that it has shifted beyond the thing itself to the point of consumption of the reproduction.

Opinion

The digital age is young but has torn apart the world known by Benjamin and Kracauer. We are now in a world where there is uncertainty about if there was an actuality that shaped an image or if it is purely of the digital world. It seems as the implications of situation are unfolding right now. James Bridle’s radio series, New Ways of Seeing questions how we are to make sense of the world in the information age.

There is truth in Benjamin and Kracauer’s arguments, but we have also moved beyond their time and face new and recent uncertainties, the outcome of which cannot be predicted.

Reference