The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproducibility


The effect of technological reproducibility on traditional art forms has changed the interaction of audiences with artwork. Historically, artworks were only accessible to an elite few and were defined by their mystery and cult value. However, the invention of the camera shattered these traditions by providing accessibility to the masses, while simultaneously calling into question issues around authenticity and significance. Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,’ published in 1936, investigates the impact of mass production and distribution on the value – the aura – of an artwork. He defines the aura as the intangible presence of an artwork, bound up in its authenticity, imaginative labour, and uniqueness. While Benjamin’s view is that mechanical reproduction lends artworks to new interpretations, it can also be argued that the aura is integral to the object, and its authenticity can never be replicated. This essay will explore the ways in which reproduction alters the context, the effect this has on the relationship between artwork and audience, and the ways in which digital replication functions in contemporary society.

Benjamin posits that technological reproducibility allows a broader spectrum of interpretations by stripping artworks of their traditional context and meaning. The invention of the camera in the 19th century widened the scope of how audiences perceived the world. Photography and film allow images to be everywhere and nowhere simultaneously, reflecting both the momentum of the Industrial Revolution and the restlessness of the 21st century. “Democratic dissemination” (Iversen 2007) propels artworks into ever-changing environments, and while this may devalue the original’s authenticity, reproductions accommodate broader interaction with audiences. Works of art were once sequestered and shrouded in mystery and cult value (Benjamin 2008, p. 25), yet now reach millions concurrently. Rejection of cultural heritage in favour of technological advancements “emancipate the work of art from its parasitic subservience to ritual” (Benjamin 2008, p. 24), allowing audiences to interpret them in a contemporary context, disconnected from their history. This hyper-accessibility opens them to new readings and analysis, informed by a plethora of subjective experiences, free from their cultural and ritualistic frames of reference. While profit has replaced the traditional religiosity encompassing an object (Berger 1972, p. 23), contextual displacement brings with it the opportunities for new insights.

Furthermore, mass recontextualization simultaneously contributes to a transformation in the relationship between the artwork and audience. Benjamin determines that “the unique phenomenon of a distance” (cited in Manovich 1996) plays a key role in an object’s aura, yet this is dismantled by the replicating nature of photography and film. In traditional European paintings, the eye of the audience was considered representative of the eye of God; perspective focussed all elements on this central subject. The advent of the camera redefined this conventional relationship, granting viewers the ability to see and experience beyond their immediate field of view (Berger 1972, pp. 17-18). This role reversal precipitated a decline in the established artistic pilgrimage, with artworks now brought to the audience, thus shifting the balance of power and closing the physical distance between the two. Consequently, reproductions are capable of interacting with previously inaccessible audiences, subsuming themselves with new meaning, and ultimately re-establishing the relationship between object and onlooker. This proximity and accessibility allow for an equitable dissemination of information, granting audiences from disparate backgrounds the opportunity for interpretation. The Internet redefines this relationship yet again, with instant, free, and unlimited access to artists and their work.

Despite an infinite art catalogue available online, the unique element of an artwork that sets it apart from all its reproductions is its aura. The aura establishes an environment surrounding an object, one that is not just seen but experienced. It creates a visceral, multi- sensory space in which the power of an artwork is truly felt. This quality is one that audiences will continue to seek. Despite the ease and availability of the Internet, contemporary audiences nevertheless still travel on artistic pilgrimages to be subsumed by the aura of artworks in the flesh. The 57th Biennale di Venezia attracted over 615,000 visitors during the six-month exhibition (La Biennale di Venezia 2017), over 890,000 guests attended Documenta 14 (Russeth 2017), and the 48th Art Basel registered 95,000 attendees over its three days (Art Basel 2017). While it is digital reproductions that publicise exhibitions and events, “there is no facsimile of the aura” (Benjamin 2008, p. 31). It is undeniable that experiencing an artwork’s aura in person is a unique and differentiated experience.

South African artist Candice Breitz proves through her poignant video work that aura is integral to experiencing an artwork and fully understanding its message. ‘Love Story’ (2016), exhibited at the 57th Biennale di Venezia, confronts audiences with the biased nature of mainstream media. In a dark room, the audience is met by a large-scale projection of Hollywood actors Julieanne Moore and Alec Baldwin. The familiarity of their faces and voices jar with the harrowing stories of displacement and persecution that they tell, adding to the unsettling atmosphere. Through the disorienting curtains, the next room contains six hanging television screens. The disturbing stories told by Moore and Baldwin are returned to their original storytellers – refugees, who mainstream media regard as voiceless. Mamy Maloba Langa, one of the refugees, states, “The media are only interested in famous people,” as Baldwin’s voice echoes, “Alec, you’re famous! People will listen to you.” In contemporary society, attention is a currency, one in which certain stories are granted visibility while others are disregarded. Moving from one room to the other, the audience is accosted by Western society’s ignorance towards the invisible; the power – the aura – of ‘Love Story’ lies in this deeply confronting, perturbing message. “The desire to live and love without encumbrance is profoundly and emotionally insistent throughout ... the interviews” (Brietz, cited in Whitley 2017, p. 81), a sensation that can only truly be experienced in the unsettling environment Brietz establishes. The immersive nature and physical intimacy of the work is inimitable to digital reproduction; the work must be experienced in the flesh in order for its cogency to be felt.

Walter Benjamin explores the impact of technological reproducibility on artworks in a way that has transcended time, connecting with artists and theorists of different eras. He discusses the potential for technology to bring objects and audiences closer together; however, arguably he does not instil enough significance in the power and presence of an original work of art. Although replication does grant audiences the accessibility and proximity to interpret artworks previously beyond their reach, it will never be able to capture the aura of the original. The multi-sensory experience surrounding an artwork is irreplaceable, and while availability is crucial to its success, its aura carries its strength and impact.



Sources

1. Arken n.d, Candice Breitz – Love Story, press photos, viewed 7 March 2019, https://uk.arken.dk/press/candice-breitz-love-story/.

2. Art Basel 2017, Art Basel in Basel 2017 Show Report, press release, 18 June, Art Basel, Basel, viewed 5 March 2019, https://d2u3kfwd92fzu7.cloudfront.net/asset/pressreleases/Art_Basel_in_Basel_l_Show_Report_l_2017_l_E.pdf.

3. Benjamin, W. 2008, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility’, in The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, eds M. W. Jennings, B. Doherty & T. Y. Levin, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, pp. 19-55.

4. Berger, J. 1972, Ways of Seeing, British Broadcasting Corporation, London.

5. Costello, D. 2005, ‘Aura, Face, Photography: Re-Reading Benjamin Today’, in Walter Benjamin and Art, ed A. E. Benjamin, Continuum, London, New York, pp. 164-184.

6.  Iversen, M. 2007, ‘Resistance to Replication, Tate Papers, no. 8, viewed 1 March 2019, https://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/08/resistance-to-replication.

7.  Kaufman, R. 2005, ‘Aura, Still’, in Walter Benjamin and Art, ed A. E. Benjamin, Continuum, London, New York, pp. 121-147.

8. La Biennale di Venezia 2017, Biennale Arte 2017, Over 615,000 Visitors, press release, 26 November, La Biennale di Venezia, Venice, viewed 5 March 2019, https://www.labiennale.org/en/news/biennale-arte-2017-over-615000-visitors.

9. Manovich, L. 1996, Cinema and Telecommunication / Distance and Aura, essay, viewed 27 February 2019, http://manovich.net/content/04-projects/015-cinema-and-telecommunication-distance-and-aura/12_article_1996.pdf.

10. Russeth, A. 2017, Documenta 14 Reports Record Attendance, article, 19 September, ArtNews, New York, viewed 5 March 2019, http://www.artnews.com/2017/09/19/documenta-14-reports-record-attendance/.

11. Whitley, Z. 2017, ‘Oh! Oh! Love: Candice Breitz’s Monologues for Troubled Times’, in The South African Pavilion: Candice Breitz & Mohau Modisakeng, eds L. MacGarry & B. Law-Viljoen, La Biennale di Venezia, Venice, pp. 71-81.

12. Whyte, M. 2018, With Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore, seeing double and thinking twice, art review, 5 December, The Boston Globe, Boston, viewed 7 March 2019, https://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/art/2018/12/05/with-alec-baldwin-and-julianne-moore-seeing-double-and-thinking-twice/lH2vL8zRgZUOjCVRf2YUhO/story.html.


I respectfully acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land on which I work, learn and live – the Gadigal people of the Eora nation – and pay my respects to Elders past and present.

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