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RE: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

For aura is tied to his presence; there can be no replica of it. The aura which…cannot be separated for the spectators from that of the actor.

I first read Benjamin’s essay some years ago in a very different context and was really interested by the concept of aura and authenticity. I’m going to try propose a re-framing of the discussion around authenticity and aura and their place in contemporary artworks.

First, Benjamin defines aura as that which is lost when reproduction jeopardizes authenticity and substantive duration. Let’s pick this dense nugget apart a bit: Benjamin sees “the work” of art dissolving through reproduction. There is no “it” to point to, no “nucleus.” There is no “thing” to endure or perish in time. Let’s just sidestep Marx because this is where I want to veer off on our own:

This is a really interesting idea. Does reproduction destroy authenticity and what constitutes an authentic artwork? Is it “the object?” Is it the collection of the object and all its reproductions? Is it something else entirely? This question always reminds me of Derrida’s take on Kant’s ergon/parergon which Kant loosely uses to mean the “work” and “the frame” respectively. Derrida deconstructs this binary inside/outside by feeling along the seams between work and frame and pointing out that there are multiple levels of framing (frame/wall, wall/gallery etc), not only real but conceptual. Think about Degas ballerina sculptures for a moment and try to conceptualize if the clothing or tutu, that can be removed or edited by a curator or collector is “a part of” or “apart from” the work. Does this a part of/apart from change if the concept of the artwork changes? This is where the idea becomes really important to our discussion of authenticity. If a work’s “real” boundaries are fluid, rather than fixed, can we also argue that the experiences of those who contemplate a work are part of the “life” of the work itself? If they can be a part of the work, how could you even locate a nucleus? If a work has existed in the public consciousness and evolved far beyond its substance to become something else (see Joy Garnett’s Molotov Man) can an artist even attempt to control their work or must they simply view them as children that have been released into the world? And perhaps, most importantly, what kind of authenticity can we even conceive for digital works that have no “it,” no “there,” there?


9 comments to RE: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

  • William Lindmeier

    This reminds m of an interview I just heard with the author of the book Instant, which is about the Polaroid company. Something unique about Polaroids is that they are a singular object. They can’t be copied like digital images or re-exposed like traditional 35mm film. The light that created the colors in the object literally bounced off the subject at the time of the photo. And yet, there’s no question that Polaroids are mechanically produced. Does that make them less artful?

  • Nancy

    I wonder where Benjamin would be on this issue now.. what would be his revised version of this essay..if any?
    It would be interesting to have a discussion on this with the people who read Lethem’s article.
    The Molotov Man example has so many complicated layers. Is it different from duchamp putting LHOOQ on the Mona Lisa? Or a mustache? I think there is a big difference b/c of the intent of the photograph, the total appropriation of someone else’s image without reference, the appropriation of the intent…

  • Sarah Rothberg

    Nancy: it’s funny, I had the discussion of where Benjamin would have gone with this essay today, having used it as the conceptual framework for a video festival/ literary event I hosted addressing the link between widespread use of portable media-making devices and Occupy.

    A point of interest, for me, comes from this moment in the essay: “All this [he’s referring to writers and readers becoming conflated with the initial spread of mass literacy/ letters to the editor] can easily be applied to the film, where transitions that in literature took centuries have come about in a decade. In cinematic practice, particularly in Russia, this change-over has partially become established reality. Some of the players whom we meet in Russian films are not actors in our sense but people who portray themselves and primarily in their own work process”

    What’s relevant about this to me, is that Benjamin *can’t even imagine* that the analogy he’s making between documentary film and writing would extend completely. He imagines that having regular people merely BEING in a film democratized it. What’s actually happening now is that nearly all media practices have an almost complete conflation between creator/consumer. Movies by professional filmmakers are on YouTube, movies by my kid cousin are on YouTube, movies by my pocket are even on YouTube.

    What’s the effect of this? Well, I’ll simply say I think that Benjamin giving mass media a Marxist reading seems spot on to me.

  • , like Nancy, would like to imagine how Benjamin would revise his essay nowadays. I’m even wondering if we even could speak about such things as aura and authenticity in digital era; when reproduction became an artistic method itself for creating art, like what Lethem mentions in “The Ecstasy of Influence, A Plagiarism”, of music industry and remixing that nowadays is well accepted method for creating music and no one would say a remix stole the authenticity of the original one. Also when considering the Digital art and new mediums, there is not even an original phenomenon that an aura can be attributed to it.

    In my opinion in this digital age we cannot stick to the idea of originality and authenticity anymore, we are facing with tons of sounds and images in our everyday life that it is actually impossible to trace a creative idea to all its roots and overall I think of all these as the positive signs of freedom that information revolution has brought us and of course this new situation needs a new understanding and sets of regulations like revised copy right laws.

  • Liz Khoo

    You can’t talk about Marxism and Capitalism without mentioning money, right? I haven’t read Benjamin’s essay but the idea of the value of the object being singular and contained in a physical vessel is relevant to discussions about authenticity. I’ve heard of works of video art being purchased, but I don’t know if that means there are no other copies of the work that can be released. Is that good for the artist? An artist should be able to make a living from his/her work but if it’s purchased by a private collector, you won’t reach the masses the way you would via YouTube. Then again, if you were the collector and just paid $500,000 for this art, would you feel any ownership if the piece were then distributed online?

    Everyone has seen the Mona Lisa, yet there is always a crowd of people 20 deep to see the real thing at the Louvre and you can’t even get a good look at it (I imagine!). I’d say most of us here are in favor of open source–it’s what allows ITP to be ITP–and heavily document what we do. If someone were to copy your work exactly, and give you credit for it, would they still want to come see your original in person?

  • Nancy

    & maybe they just take a pix of themselves in front of the Mona Lisa as proof they were there.. a check box on their Life’s TO DO list?

  • Nancy

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

  • dm1346

    What about the “photographs” of Doug Rickard, who selects and frames images culled from Google Earth/StreetView and produces them as digital prints? This work, at least superficially, lays down in the tradition of Warhol, but also seems to sit well within this discussion, as it has moved to the questions of the “original” and the copy, the appropriation of images, strategies, and questions of creative origination.

    The subjects are landscapes and people of the world, as they have been captured momentarily by GoogleEarth/StreetView. “GoogleEarth”/StreetView” which rolls off the keys of my typewriter so casually, is a new all-seeing monolith, even if there are some hourly wage-earning humans operating the photomobiles. Through Benjamin’s lens, I think it’s possible to say that Rickard’s photos are regressive, even thought they comment on the “aura” that has been erased.

    These photos are special even as they are ordinary, because they are taken by automated means, and the shots appear to be random. As such the images may be banal, but what we see in Rickard’s work becomes exceptional because he has intervened in selecting this not that, he has printed them out and called them art photography instead of stuff I thought was cool and strange that I posted on my wall. He has taken images that are for the most part mundane but have the luster of StreetView’s technological mystery and has printed them. Who else will do this, again? Maybe you will, to some different artistic end.

    In Rickard’s work, I see a rolling back, a turning around of a utopian ideal of participatory art in which the “cult” status of formal art works is destroyed. It would seem that Rickard’s art is truly participatory–we see ourselves there, and we could also do it ourselves. But it is not really. Technology has moved beyond the movie camera. We cannot feel we are participating if we duplicate the product of technology. We do not have access to the GoogleEarth/StreetMaps technology.

    However, I think Rickard’s StreetView work embodies a yearning for the aura, for the old way of seeing a master work, and also the impossibility of its return. Here, the cult status of Google, of technology and of the curated image, the curated content, re-takes the imagination and stuns with its both its familiarity and strangeness. “That is not my beautiful house. That is not my beautiful wife…” David Byrne

  • Joseph Lim

    Ok, so much belated:

    Nancy RE: Molotov Man. It was certainly a provocation but I don’t believe that it to be hollow. It captures the most important parts of how (maybe not Benjamin, but I myself) might frame a new concept of aura related to authenticity.

    Just a warning that this is going to be a whirlwind of ideas that I am struggling to frame:

    We keep discussing control in class–control of our own lives and of our work in the world. I think this is important for us as we struggle to live with (and make work relevant to) contemporary subjectivity. We are starting to identify that we have digital selves that live apart yet are a part of us. We keep shouting, feverishly, that our web history, our digital “trail,” doesn’t define us with the intent to… what? Convince the world? I think on some level we are reacting to a deep-seated anxiety about the dissociation of our ‘selves’ and our public facing image.

    We’ve become posthuman, perhaps. Maybe not so much so in the sense that we’ve become “one with the machine” but a vast majority of us certainly have digital selves and in many ways we lack the tools to fully censor and curate them in the traditional sense. We’ve got digital doppelgangers and we never really know when they’re going to let something slip, and to whom. Perhaps some of us would be happier if the translation were better, if we weren’t worried that the incomplete digital self doesn’t quite communicate ‘the whole truth and nothing but the truth.’ Perhaps some of us would be happier just obliterating that record, or alternatively fully controlling its unedited dissemination to a select group.

    Whatever the case, we’re losing control over our identities in some respect. Oh, this has always been true, I will accede with no qualms. Nowhere have we seen it more clearly than in the cult of the celebrity. Some people identify what we are experiencing as the loss of privacy, hinting that this is just a simple and logical extension of what has been happening in the public sphere for years but I think it goes further than this. We’re crowdsourced, distributed, and virtual. Your 5,000 twitter followers judge you instantly on 140 characters and that (good, bad, indifferent) gets “uploaded” to the collective consciousness to be touched upon for the next time, perhaps for all time. Building reputation (and destroying it) in some sense has become frighteningly easy.

    Why is this relevant to artworks? Well, for me, I see the parallels. Most of the artists I know have a deep and personal connection with their work (we’ve certainly heard this before in Applications from the class and our speakers). Losing control of it, somehow, generates an unbelievable anxiety for many.

    Think about it for a moment: You create a piece with which you are deeply connected and you put it out into the world. Someone takes it, twists it, and suddenly you find it relaying a message you only vaguely understand to be “not what you ever wanted.” Now what?

    Artworks are like snowballs rolling down the hill, growing slowly, hitting some obstacles now and then, losing some mass, velocity, but continuing nonetheless. Uncontrollable. I guess what I am trying to get at is that maybe we can look at it from the angle that the Aura of authenticity has grown. It has expanded. It touches all parts of the artwork and its derivatives. Its one thing, one manifold work, a collection, a solar system of ideas. Like us, it doesn’t stand alone unchanging, but represents a wide ranging flux.

    I’m going to throw out another provocation, this time one that I really haven’t thought through, though it has been ratting around in my head since the LISA conference: perhaps we need to come up with a model for working as digital artists and creative coders that makes the entire idea of “reproduction” moot?

    I don’t know what the answer is or if I’ve even managed to frame a question.