Work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction

We live in a world today where the reproduction of art is a constant fact. Some art forms, as film and photography, even exist solely in the realm of reproduction; the original is indistinguishable from the reproduction. With reproductions it is possible to put an original artwork in a totally different environment. Some new media examples are: Fabchannel (a Dutch online service for on demand concert registrations – down at the moment, but a striking example) and (a Dutch online service for seeing missed television broadcasts).Reproductions have inherent effects due to their nature. Walter Benjamin, a German-Jewish Marxist, literary critic, essayist and philosopher discusses the (political) effects of technical reproductions of artworks on the aura of the artwork in his famous essay, ‘The work of Art in the Mechanical Age of Reproduction’ (1935). This essay has proven to be influential in the fields of film studies, media theory and cultural studies. How?

According to Benjamin a shift has taken place from the cult value to the exhibition value due to the technical reproduction of art. Art has been taken out from it’s ritual and religious context and brought to a broader and more critical public. Massively distributed reproductions have been incorporated into the personal context of the observers instead of retaining a distance by their aura.

Benjamin objects against the thought that art is unique and unrepeatable, l’art pour l’art, or otherwise said that art has no higher purpose than itself. He explains that the technical reproduction undermines the idea of the aura and l’art pour l’art. Instead, indistinguishable reproductions replace an art object and convey a less weighty testimony than that conveyed by the unique original which existed before any copy was made. With the technical reproduction the aura moves into the political domain. Since the aura is very linked to time and space and thus significant in rituals, with the aura destroyed the link to rituals become obsolete and therefore moves into the domain of political struggles. The technological reproduction leads to new forms of observation by both the artist and the public.

As stated, in the reproduction process the aura of the original artwork is lost according to Benjamin. The term aura is described by the dictionary of the Oxford University as:“the distinctive atmosphere or quality that seems to surround and be generated by a person, thing, or place : the ceremony retains an aura of mystery.” However, in Benjamin’s essay the term aura has a slightly different meaning. According to Benjamin the aura is what makes an artwork irreplaceable, unrepeatable and unique. Besides it is placed in the here and now. This concerns the place and time in which the artwork was made and it determines the authenticity of the artwork. Shifts in ownership and physical changes are part of the aura.

With the reproduction of an artwork the aura and it’s authority and authenticity is lost seen that the reproduction is made under other circumstances. Due to these facts it stands further away from the original artwork. It also lacks the ‘here and now’ that the original artwork possesses. But according to Benjamin this isn’t necessarily a negative thing. With the technical reproduction, art can be reproduced identically and endlessly. It can even exist solely in the realm of the reproduction. This will make it possible to create a radically other experience of the artwork because you can take the artwork out of it’s original ‘framework’ and place it in a different ‘framework’. The cult value the ritual / religious value that an object has for a group of persons, decreases, but the exhibition value is increased. It becomes part of the mass culture; it’s becomes more accessible. By increasing the exhibition value the aura is lost but it opens an opportunity to politicize art.

fabchannel-grootBenjamin thoughts have become largely reality. An example of an reproduction of its original is the website Fabchannel (it’s down now but this example is striking) which allows you to experience a concert at home. You don’t have to be there to ‘experience’ it. But the level in which you experience the show differs from it’s original. However, it allows you to see the show on another critical level. You get to see the work of art from another angle than others would see it. This allows you to see the things differently from the others.

But hey what are your thoughts on this matter? Which other examples do you know? And in which way do you think the thoughts of Benjamin are still relevant or not?


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