The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
I read Walter Benjamin’s piece titled above (apparently oddly translated) and had a gut reaction as a performance artist and dancer. I agree with Benjamin that the unique existence of a body moving in space/time is problematic when it comes to reproduction. Daily practice of one’s art is inherent to many art practices across the board. The writer usually writes every day or at least considers why he or she is doing something else, and not writing. The painter, the sculptor, the singer/songwriter– in various stages of art production, these types of artists are for the most part solitary, and usually don’t rely on others until later stages of the work at which point other people become necessary. Dance, like film as described by Benjamin, is often seen as a group endeavor, with a central figure as the main brain and various individuals carrying out directions. In modern dance and ballet lineage, mechanical reproduction of a piece was sometimes executed in the form of Laban notation (a written form of dance notation), whereas before it was primarily oral and demonstrative with illustrative pictorial diagrams. The mechanism was social. Now more often the mechanism is video– the choreographer might video the dancers to remember the details of what he or she wanted, and for the benefit of the dancers who need to remember the details of how the sequence went. This is different than using video media to present a dance to an audience. In my opinion, the problem in reproducing a dance or any live performance using video lies in the failure of the technology to capture the depth and breadth of the experience the live viewer might have had. The camera is not the eye, and an enormous amount of information is lost in translating experience to the moving screen. The mechanism of reproduction for live performance is still lagging when compared to the plastic arts and 2D or digital art.
The process by which I arrive at a performance is more like the process of a sculptor, writer, and video documentary artist than that of a dancer. As a dancer, I never know what I’m doing, but I go ahead and do it anyway. Often this produces the richest results. And I rarely try to reproduce what I did the day before. Rather, I build sensory awareness in my body and mind through repetition of self-directed embodiment of ideas and impulses, and then apply these skill-sets to a score. A score, using Yvonne Meier’s word for it, is a description of movement through nouns, verbs and adjectives that enable the performer to access a quality of energy, or quantity of movement. My favorite score is simple: Go For It. A score gives the performer a nudge in a vague direction; it’s up to the performer to come up with a fantasy for what the movement might mean, how the movement quality described by the words might be made manifest. A a base level, a score I give myself is a template for what I might consider doing when and where during a performance. Once I have a loose score, I practice the performance of the score, and then when there are people in the room with me I perform the practice of the score. This I learned from dance artists and movement practitioners, Deborah Hay, Daria Fain and in collaborating with Yvonne Meier. Following a movement score leaves a huge amount to my interpretation of time, and gauging the reaction of the viewers, something that film cannot do, as Benjamin points out. Using scores as a way to remember movement and sequence makes it hard to reproduce a given performance, but it allows immense latitude for the individual artist to find a unique and original voice in the crowd.
The traditional definitions of artists and art forms have long been the subject of debate in the art world, but not so much in the “real” world. In the real world of education, popular culture, cars, environment, politics [here I'm not forgetting the epilogue of Benjamin's piece] art usually has a very small relative value to the basic necessities of shelter, food, income, public safety, among others. Ideally, the value of art for the artist is in the doing, rather than the selling, or the Chelsea opening. The appreciative value of art is clear to the curators, collectors and art lovers. I don’t think the value is always so clear to people who have no point of reference, people for whom art is a closed door with a lock on it. When I think about this discrepancy, I immediately think of l’arte pour l’arte.
While artists tend to reference or comment on the real world through their art, the endeavor is easily misunderstood or not understood by many. It can be quite alienating. Everyone has an opinion based on their subjective experience of the work, but without the point of reference of, say, Marcel Duchamp, how much more difficult is it to understand Joseph Bueys? And how much more difficult is it to buy into the dialogue? In the case of Andy Warhol appropriating widely recognized cultural symbols and reproducing them, the real world and the art world clashed. I’m not so sure this led to greater understanding of art in the masses, not that that was Warhol’s intent in the first place. Reproduction of what’s come before is made easier, more streamline, by the mechanisms artists have at their disposal– now there are many Warhols. Now with art becoming increasingly digital, the work of art can be represented on the internet, and copied. I don’t think Benjamin’s article was written with Photoshop or YouTube in mind, though Benjamin does anticipate the reader-becoming-author phenomenon that’s blowing our minds (through Clay Shirky). Maybe this is a good thing. Benjamin would probably see this phenomenon as affirming his idea that art no longer has a claim to “unique”. The hobbyist is king, the artist has to compete with thousands of other voices in the vast internet democracy. Will artists remain at the cutting edge of cultural production (and real-estate gentrification)? What’s the next frontier? I can imagine that the shift in intention for the true-spirited artist will follow the trajectory from seeking global renown to having local influence.