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The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

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?

103 comments to The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

  • sjg447

    Great summary, Karl. These are things I often wonder about, particularly as someone trained in “design” rather than “fine arts”. Both are very loaded terms, but for many people, I think the issue comes down to where, why and how the money comes. Speaking for myself, I’m drawn to the methodologies and mechanics of design, not its profitability, and honestly think the whole debate is a narcissism-of-minor-differences thing. One money-related issue does interest me, though—the idea of patronage, and not just because I never want to work in commercial design again. When I think abstractly of, for example, Pope Julius II commissioning Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, I can’t help but see parallels with, say, Coke paying Second Story to create exhibits for the Coca Cola museum in Atlanta. Both cases involve a powerful player with both a message and money working with skilled individuals able to realize the vision of the patron. In a lot of ways, the Renaissance patronage formula hasn’t changed much, it has just shifted toward commercial interests rather than private/religious collectors. The idea of artist-as-artisan versus the relatively new idea of artist-as-otherworldly-creative-individual is a whole other issue.

  • John Capogna

    I think often about how the music industry has been impacted by the distribution of material over the internet. For many artists, it has meant disaster. Their music isn’t free, and it shouldn’t be passed around freely.

    For others, it means re-evaluating what can be given to the consumers of art. Low record sales? Can’t really do anything about it? Put on an excellent show. If you build it, they will come. Blow people’s minds with innovative performance, something that can’t be mass-produced or freely distributed no matter how hard we try (I can’t wait to be proven wrong on this one, in a future-planet where “experiences” will be “downloaded” into your brain somehow).

    Surviving musicians are making money by getting people to “come to them” as Karl noted. Come to us, they say, and we will give you your money’s worth.

  • I think the whole situation with marketing in the digital era would ultimately change because it is still based on pre-digital system of marketing and law; the digital era is step toward the freedom of information, of information being accessible to all not only some companies; the open source information at last against all aggressive attitude of big companies and regulated governmental laws like copy rights will change the way that the market works today and laws to protect it. This a link to video of Eben Moglen, a Columbia law professor who has very interesting ideas on the future of information and copy righs:

  • hm1109

    Without money we cannot buy things to do art, we cannot occupy the space to display, and neither we can inform the event.
    But if we make the system of new art in the digital era we can find new ways. We should think about different ways to survive. Instead of the art which is made by money, we can make the counter part which is open to public. To collapse trends and emotions of the society can be possible both in serious and funny ways. In my opinion, thus the interactive design method and system is the poweful way of art to communicate with people. By these unfinished open digital contents, as if like ‘Windows vs Rinux’ people can be involved to new digital art.

  • Allison Burtch

    Sorry I’m epicly failing at html in these posts. Nancy can you delete that previous one? Thanks.

    Gilles Deleuze once wrote that “Everything is rational in capitalism, except capital or capitalism itself.” But I won’t get into that. You can read the lecture here.

    Back to how this relates to art and tech and production. I’m interested by what you said about the reproduction of art:

    Art Basel is happening this weekend. And #ABMB is an enormous spectacle that may or may not have anything to do with art. Perhaps what’s most striking right now about the production of “art” is the reproduction of the production. If the art isn’t Instagramed did it ever exist? How many likes or retweets does it take to validate a piece and make it purchasable? Culturally, is the association to “art” is more important than the art itself? My friend on twitter is the ratio of instagrams of art to instagrams of partying that show up in his feed. So far it is “272: the number of party and lounging pics from Miami. 153: the number of images of art.”

    Perhaps that’s why I’m bored with art that is decorative. Art that hangs on walls. Art that is capital. Performative, interactive, non-purchasable things interest me. Though Banksy has certainly profited from his street art he’s still been able to critique society in an enormously public way.

  • Nancy

    You should all read all the comments on Benjamin’s essay…a very interesting and multi-faceted collection of discussions.

  • Jay

    A Tool to Deceive and Slaughter

    I propose to add to your list:

    Closeness as Commodity.

    Certainly a cousin to your #1 bullet – Patronage. But different, because now we have remote patronage (Kickstarter? Bandcamp?)

    And examples of this abound. A chance to dine with the POTUS in exchange for a 5$ campaign donation, or first word on ticket availability for outed fans on facebook.

    For some time now people have paid for the privilege of compelling, creative company. So I do not mean to present this as a new phenomena. However, the models for this, like many old models, are seeing significant shifts, no?

    Hm. And for the sake of conversation, let’s call the entire Bitcoin algorithm & market a spectacular work of Art, and ask where it fits into all this?

  • Karl Ward

    Jay, you’re right to make a sub-bullet about “closeness as a commodity,” and it brings up another thought. One of the fads in live rock performance lately is allowing the whole crowd to come onstage. I’ve always seen it as a gimmick, but there really is something there. You will never be able to dance with Bruce Springsteen on stage like Courteney Cox did, but if you want to you can go see Dan Deacon and become an integral part of the show. So like John said, artists that create a unique experience are going to be rewarded, and “closeness as a commodity” is definitely a part of that.

    But also, another trend (or fad, not sure) in music is involvement of the audience in the creation of music. There are plenty of attempts to do this on some level or another, especially now that crowdfunding and crowdsourcing are en vogue. My favorite example is Beck’s latest record, which is being released as paper sheet music with no recordings at all, the idea being that the songs are meant to be performed by the audience rather than some singular artist. For Beck, it means he can sell physical product (paper, books) rather than intangible digital sounds. For the audience, it means they can take part in a mass performance. It’s a neat idea, and it deserves its own bullet point.

    I guess that also leads to another bullet point for how to compensate artists–forego the digital product entirely. Make beautiful objects that are limited in number because they exist in the physical world rather than the digital world. I’m reminded of Tristan Perich’s 1-Bit Symphony, a self-contained music device that is built into a CD jewel box and only plays a single composition on its built-in speaker.

  • Allison Burtch

    I really like that Caleb Larsen piece and Beck’s idea of releasing sheet music. Sufjan Steens, another prolific musician recently released 5 more Christmas cds and put his originals in the public domain. There is certainly something to be said for creating art that is neither spectacle nor commodity.