I read Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproductionin the hope that it might provide an exit strategy from the digital content stalemate, the Mexican standoff between (let’s count them!):
- content creators
- companies that own content
- consumers who pay for digital content
- consumers who do not pay for digital content
- advertisers that profit from consumers who do not pay for digital content
- other companies that profit from consumers who do not pay for digital content
Here’s a good recent example of the standoff. Generally, the guns come out over who will (or who can) profit from artistic content, now that artistic content can be reproduced infinitely at negligible cost within negligible time.
Benjamin argues that art originally had “cult value,” meaning it was rare, difficult to produce, and difficult to exhibit. If you wanted to see the art then you had to come to it, wherever it was, and it was usually guarded from thieves and the elements. Cult value translates fairly easily to monetary value via microeconomics. But mechanical reproduction destroyed the primacy of cult value for most new works of art, creating a new kind of value that Benjamin calls “exhibition value.” This value derives not by the work’s uniqueness or rarity, but rather by its wide dissemination into the view/possession/minds of many people. Copies of the artwork are made as a matter of course, so much that “to ask for [an] authentic photograph makes no sense.” This sounds a lot like the current situation with digital content, doesn’t it?
But then Benjamin goes off the rails (for me) into Marxist revelry. He extrapolates that exhibition value will lead to politicization of art–that as we approach a classless society, successful art will be that which shows us our actual world in transcendent detail, creating a virtuous circle that enhances the struggle for a classless society. I can think of a few examples of art that does exactly that, but the vast majority of art does not. Unfortunately, eight decades after Benjamin’s essay we are no closer to a classless society, and the arts (as well as the techniques of art) have been increasingly subjected to the yoke of other pursuits. As Kevin Cunningham recently remarked, art for its own sake is increasingly rare. It seems that our society’s default way to attach monetary value to an artwork’s “exhibition value” is to use that artwork in the service of some other non-artistic (and profitable) enterprise. In other words, the monetary value of digital content will be increasingly determined by how much it helps people sell other things, and the Mexican standoff continues. Or does it? The only alternatives tried so far are:
- patronage of the arts: I like you, or I like the art you make, here’s some money
- digital rights management: let’s create artificial scarcity, in essence returning to the “cult value” of art
- the honor system: you say it’s worth this much, so here’s some money
- tax/tariff/royalty: anytime the art is performed/displayed, the government mandates you pay a nominal fee to the content owner
Are there any other options? Are any of these actually good, workable options?