Part 4, Project 1 (Photography – art or science?) – Research point

‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1936) by Walter Benjamin

Notes & points of interest

  • ‘The result was that one could expect it not only to exploit the proletariat with increasing intensity, but ultimately to create conditions which would make it possible to abolish capitalism itself.’ (Preface)
  • Methods of mechanical reproduction: woodcut, printing, engraving, etching, lithography, photography
  • ‘Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.’ (II)
  • ‘The situations into which the product of mechanical reproduction can be brought may not touch the actual work of art, yet the quality of its presence is always depreciated.’ (II)
  • ‘…that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art’ (II)
  • ‘To pry an object from its shell, to destroy its aura, is the mark of a perception whose “sense of the universal equality of things” has increased to such a degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of reproduction.’ (III)
  • ‘The directives which the captions give to those looking at pictures in illustrated magazines soon become even more explicit and more imperative in the film where the meaning of each single picture appears to be prescribed by the sequence of all preceding ones.’ (VI)
  • ‘The primary question – whether the very invention of photography had not transformed the entire nature of art – was not raised.’ (VII)
  • ‘…there is indeed no greater contrast than that of the stage play to a work of art that is completely subject to or, like the film, founded in, mechanical reproduction.’ (IX)
  • ‘The feeling of strangeness that overcomes the actor before the camera…is basically of the same kind as the estrangement felt before one’s own image in the mirror.’ (X)
  • ‘The painter maintains in his work a natural distance from reality, the cameraman penetrates deeply into its web…That of the painter is a total one, that of the cameraman consists of multiple fragments which are assembled under a new law.’ (XI)
  • ‘One of the foremost tasks of art has always been the creation of a demand which could be fully satisfied only later.’ (XIV)
  • ‘In the decline of middle-class society, contemplation became a school for asocial behavior; it was countered by distraction as a variant of social conduct.’ (XIV)

Reflection

Interesting to read about how reproductions will are lacking when it comes to the concepts of uniqueness and authenticity. The existence or importance of the original work is what fuels the need for reproductions. I’m curious as to how this applies to photography. I agree with the fact that reproductions are watered-down versions of the original artwork. This despite the fact that they’re incredibly useful, particularly for their commercial purpose and ability to reach a wide global audience.

I wonder if there is a difference between an original photograph and its reproductions.

Benjamin refers to a thing’s uniqueness as it’s ‘aura’. When we look at nature directly, or an original work of art for that matter, we can sense its aura, the way it exists, looks and feels in that particular time and place. Reproductions don’t hold the same ‘aura’. In the matter of context and tradition, an ancient classical statue didn’t mean the same thing for the Greeks than it does to a modern audience observing it in a museum space. But still, if the audience is looking at the original statue, it can still witness the original ‘aura’.

This reminds me of my recent visit to the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, in which I spotted a sculpture of a nude female figure as I entered one of the rooms. As I looked at it, I wasn’t really impressed by it even though it was very well-crafted and I normally feel fascinated by figurative sculpture. I walked around it wondering why this was, as there in front of me was The Greek Slave. Upon inspection of the label, I realised this was a 3D printed replica of the original marble sculpture by Hiram Powers. I had unconsciously noticed the puzzle-like wedges that held it together, its synthetic plastic-like material, and its overall lack of uniqueness.

From photography, naturally arises film. A stage actor is different from a film actor, states Benjamin, in that the latter loses their aura because they perform for a camera and not for an audience. In a sense, film and photography are but a mechanical reproduction of reality. But, I could add, so are other media. A landscape painting or a portrait drawing is but an artist’s representation of reality. Does any sort of representation of reality have less ‘aura’ than reality itself? Is a thing’s aura diminished as it is increasingly subjected to processing and editing and replication? Can a loss of ‘aura’ be related to a ‘lying’ of sorts, artificiality? Can traditional art be considered to be more honest than mechanical reproductions? Is honesty really that important in our contemporary context?

Painting vs. film; concentration vs. distraction; to be absorbed vs. to absorb.

I was surprised to see how an essay written more than 50 years ago still holds true today, perhaps even truer. But our media has changed so much in the less couple of decades that the line between original and reproduction is increasingly blurred. Few people see, for example, my own art in reality and instead see digital versions or photographs uploaded online. I’ve even thrown away some of my drawings after scanning or taking photographs of them; what does it mean for a reproduction if the original does not exist anymore? Likewise, the majority of art that I see is online rather than face to face. While I do agree that this feels like a watered-down version of experiencing art, it also has brought many advantages; a more democratic sharing, a wider audience, easier and often free exposure, commercial opportunities, accessibility, etc. Yet the times that I’ve had the opportunity to travel and visit an art museum, I can value how much more fulfilling an experience that is.


Bibliography

Benjamin, W. (1936) The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. At: https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm (Accessed on 18 July 2017)
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