> The quoted text is the original text by Walter Benjamin
While appropriation has been one of culture’s most essential mechanisms throughout human history, the 19th, 20th and 21st century have brought forth new technologies that have liquified this process to the extent that they challenged some of art and cultures most essential values and their role in society itself. It can be argued that these changes have positive as well as negative effects on creativity, the creative sector and the creative industry, but the importance and severeness of these changes remains undeniable.
The German critical theorist Walter Benjamin was among the first to examine and to further predict these developments in 1936. In his canonic essay The Work of Art in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction, he argues that photography and the resulting sound film would liberate art from it’s traditional, ritualistic function through the provision of accessibility for the masses. At the time of his writings photography and film, which had slowly been developed throughout the preceding century, had only just begun to exercise their impact on society and culture. Arguably, similar cultural changes are imminent today: we are in the middle of the beginnings of the digital revolution. The internet is to the 21st century what photography was to the 20th century. And while the origins of the internet go back to the 1960s, in 2016 technology has become established enough to give us an idea of the drastic changes that art and culture itself are yet to undergo. This is the Reproducible Work of Art in the Digital Age.
According to Benjamin, the terminology commonly used to discuss art—words like creation, genius, eternal value or secrecy—were rooted in a time of different power structures and technical possibilities. In order to allow art to transcend this context, it would be necessary to introduce a new vocabulary; a vocabulary that is devoid of fascist connotations and traditions and applicable to art under capitalism.
Today we are witnessing similar shifts in the cultural development, brought on by digital media. The framework for creativity has changed immensely, be it copyright, publishing or even the reception of what could be considered a creative work, while open source projects defy the myth of the genius creator all over the internet. Grand narratives are being deconstructed, social media has reduced the collective attention span to a few days at most and artists, netizens, whistle blowers, governments and corporations are re-negotiating the definition of and claim to transparency.
Benjamin claims that works of art had always been reproducible, and people had copied other peoples works throughout the ages for a variety of reasons. The possibility of mechanical reproduction however, which had slowly been implemented throughout history, had not only led to an increase in availability, but as a consequence had fundamentally changed the role that the arts had taken up in society. While the ancient Greek, for example, only knew two techniques of reproduction, founding and stamping, the invention of Lithography at the end of the 18th century led to the possibility of Graphic Art being mass produced in a short period of time—which ultimately resulted in the illustrated magazine. With the advent of photography however, the first real revolutionary technique of reproduction had arrived.
Of course, with the rise of digital technologies, copying and reproduction have become more available than ever, to the point where the idea of an original itself has been challenged. Already in the late 60s and 70s conceptual artists were experimenting with art as an idea, art that could be endlessly reproduced an re-executed. Through digital technology this has slowly evolved into norms, standards and protocols in the form of blogs and re-blogs but also in the idea of a website itself.
One of the key terms Benjamin introduces to the artistic discourse is that of the ‘aura’ of a work of art. Even the most exact reproduction of a work would miss something: The here and now, the uniqueness, the realness that any artwork intrinsically contains through it’s individual history and situation. This realness, Benjamin claims, is irreproducible and is what constitutes the aura of the work. But while a copy of a work were always just a fake, the mechanical reproduction would actually challenge the meaning of the original: Mechanical representation could, for example, surpass the original in quality, detail, duration etc. More importantly though it could take a work out of it’s context and make it available to any audience at any point of time. In this way the reproduction devalues the original’s here and now, it’s aura, and shifts the focus towards the content of the work.
Nowadays, photographs and movies of artworks are the norm. They are essential to the development of the artistic discourse throughout the 20th century and arguably even those least interested in it have seen a picture of the Mona Lisa at some point of their life. Benjamin was correct when quoting Paul Valéry stating that like gas, water and electricity we would soon have images and sounds in our house at a gesture. But in this understanding the function of reproduction, it remains a mere representation of a spatially and temporarily specific artistic moment. Even though Benjamin already theorised on how techniques like photography could challenge the idea of an original, recent developments go much further. Online galleries and works can not only be reproduced infinitely, they can exist at an infinite amount of places at the same time. The here and now, the aura of a work of art is currently not only being challenged further—it has been liquified to the point of apparent irrelevance.
Benjamin states that the changes in the perception of art are directly linked to cultural and societal changes. The aura would translate to a phenomenon of distance, it’s deconstruction societal and originating from two circumstances: the urge for closeness, and the desire to own, even through reproduction. According to him, uniqueness and duration are as closely linked as temporality and reproducibility. The urge to deduct the essence of a thing from it’s shell, the destruction of it’s aura would be rooted in a new understanding in society, one of sameness. The societal changes in hierarchy and freedom of the individual would be expressed in the growing urge to reproduce and experience art.
With people becoming more and more connected, it is then no wonder that today art has almost become a consumer good. It flashes over our newsfeeds, and is gone again in a second. Only 20 years after the beginnings of net art, reconstructing it’s history is a tedious and often impossible task. Websites have been deleted, or changed, and even entire platforms vanish back into the digital abyss only a few years after their conception. At the same time you can add an online gallery to the widgets on your macbook, that automatically updates every so-often. Tumblr-blogs and Facebook groups, Instagram or Snapchat, those who don’t intentionally archive their experiences have litte chance of encountering the majority of these images ever again. We are continuously moving further in one direction of Benjamins proposed binary of uniqueness and duration on the one side and reproducibility and temporality on the other.
The uniqueness of a work, the aura, is, according to Benjamin the key factor in it’s enclosure in tradition. Several works of art would have been admired and integrated into ritual throughout the ages, living through several epochs and being invested with new meanings every time and being deeply routed in ritual. When photography and socialism were conceived of, art reacted to the approaching changed by denying the social and political implications through l’art pour l’art, a theology of art of sorts. But one century later, mechanical reproduction would for the first time in history liberate art from it’s ritualistic function. Art would increasingly be designed to be reproduced, a photograph for example would have no one authentic original. Without the aspect of authenticity, it’s social function would change: instead of being based on ritual is would be based on politics.
In 1991 the video artist Douglas Davis wrote an essay in response to Walter Benjamin called The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction. Davis’ utopic views on digital technologies is that the original seizes to exist when information is stored digitally, eternally, which would result in a new kind of liberation of the arts. With the dawn of the internet and the accelerating developments in technology, it has become evident that these views were utopic indeed and that, while the proposed reproducibility has become reality, we have traded it for temporality. Floppy discs, are obsolete, CDs and DVDs are vanishing, and all of them have in common that they will physically deteriorate over a relatively short period of time, while the stone tablets of ancient civilisations remain legible. And even apart from the physical condition our data navigates in, digital decay in the form of compression and damaged storage media is all around us. Images are being shared, saved, re-uploaded and saved again, losing an extra bit of information every time. Hito Steyerl proposed to look at the low quality of shared images as a signifier of the liberation of information in her essay In Defence of the Poor Image. In the context of Walter Benjamin’s essay I propose to look at the artefacts resulting from the over-compression of these Poor Images not as destroyed images but as a visualisation of a quite literally dissolving aura of The Reproducible Work of Art in the Digital Age.
> When Marx undertook his critique of the capitalistic mode of production, this mode was in its infancy. Marx directed his efforts in such a way as to give them prognostic value. He went back to the basic conditions underlying capitalistic production and through his presentation showed what could be expected of capitalism in the future. 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.
> The transformation of the superstructure, which takes place far more slowly than that of the substructure, has taken more than half a century to manifest in all areas of culture the change in the conditions of production. Only today can it be indicated what form this has taken. Certain prognostic requirements should be met by these statements. However, theses about the art of the proletariat after its assumption of power or about the art of a classless society would have less bearing on these demands than theses about the developmental tendencies of art under present conditions of production. Their dialectic is no less noticeable in the superstructure than in the economy. It would therefore be wrong to underestimate the value of such theses as a weapon. They brush aside a number of outmoded concepts, such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery – concepts whose uncontrolled (and at present almost uncontrollable) application would lead to a processing of data in the Fascist sense. The concepts which are introduced into the theory of art in what follows differ from the more familiar terms in that they are completely useless for the purposes of Fascism. They are, on the other hand, useful for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art.
Benjamin references Karl Marx in the first sentence of his essay. His observations on the way art changed were of a deeply political nature, his interest not in the formal aspects of the transformation art underwent through the effects of mechanical reproduction but the societal causes and effects of this transformation. Benjamin describes art in the pre-photographic area as parasitically existing in tradition, ritual and cult and proposes the necessity for the introduction of a new vocabulary into the artistic discourse in order to separate it from it’s historical implications.
In 2015, Rotterdam-based Piet Zwart Institue graduate Lídia Pereira founded the Immaterial Labor Union, an independent zine attempting to renegotiate the terms of service between the user and corporate social networking companies: Every like, share, reblog does not only amount to social currency in the context of the network but to real-world profits for the companies that run these platforms. Pereira demands reimbursement and recognition of social media activity as micro-labour.
In her work she appropriates the language of early socialist and communist propaganda, visually as well as in writing, in an attempt to not only draw attention to these issues but to unite the masses of oblivious micro-workers all over the world. Similar to Benjamin, she sees the need to introduce a new vocabulary to the discourse, in order to shift the perception away from the user as the beneficent towards the user as the provider of service.
> In principle a work of art has always been reproducible. Man-made artifacts could always be imitated by men. Replicas were made by pupils in practice of their craft, by masters for diffusing their works, and, finally, by third parties in the pursuit of gain. Mechanical reproduction of a work of art, however, represents something new. Historically, it advanced intermittently and in leaps at long intervals, but with accelerated intensity. The Greeks knew only two procedures of technically reproducing works of art: founding and stamping. Bronzes, terra cottas, and coins were the only art works which they could produce in quantity. All others were unique and could not be mechanically reproduced. With the woodcut graphic art became mechanically reproducible for the first time, long before script became reproducible by print. The enormous changes which printing, the mechanical reproduction of writing, has brought about in literature are a familiar story. However, within the phenomenon which we are here examining from the perspective of world history, print is merely a special, though particularly important, case. During the Middle Ages engraving and etching were added to the woodcut; at the beginning of the nineteenth century lithography made its appearance. With lithography the technique of reproduction reached an essentially new stage. This much more direct process was distinguished by the tracing of the design on a stone rather than its incision on a block of wood or its etching on a copperplate and permitted graphic art for the first time to put its products on the market, not only in large numbers as hitherto, but also in daily changing forms. Lithography enabled graphic art to illustrate everyday life, and it began to keep pace with printing. But only a few decades after its invention, lithography was surpassed by photography. For the first time in the process of pictorial reproduction, photography freed the hand of the most important artistic functions which henceforth devolved only upon the eye looking into a lens. Since the eye perceives more swiftly than the hand can draw, the process of pictorial reproduction was accelerated so enormously that it could keep pace with speech. A film operator shooting a scene in the studio captures the images at the speed of an actor’s speech. Just as lithography virtually implied the illustrated newspaper, so did photography foreshadow the sound film. The technical reproduction of sound was tackled at the end of the last century. These convergent endeavors made predictable a situation which Paul Valery pointed up in this sentence:
> “Just as water, gas, and electricity are brought into our houses from far off to satisfy our needs in response to a minimal effort, so we shall be supplied with visual or auditory images, which will appear and disappear at a simple movement of the hand, hardly more than a sign.”
> Around 1900 technical reproduction had reached a standard that not only permitted it to reproduce all transmitted works of art and thus to cause the most profound change in their impact upon the public; it also had captured a place of its own among the artistic processes. For the study of this standard nothing is more revealing than the nature of the repercussions that these two different manifestations – the reproduction of works of art and the art of the film – have had on art in its traditional form.
Evidently, Benjamin proved a fair amount of foresight when quoting Paul Valéry stating that soon we would have images and sound in our houses at a gesture, like water, gas and electricity. We are surrounded by screens, and our TVs, game consoles, smart phones, tablets and laptops respond to our every move, seemingly making the entire word available to us at a simple swipe, shake or click.
This also greatly affects the way in which we consume art, be it on social media, blogs or even embedded in our devices’ operating systems. In 2010 Italian digital artist Chiarra Passa developed the Widget Art Gallery, an applet that runs on all iDevices and can be understood as an artistic intervention into the user’s digital routine. The WAG is a small digital gallery that lives on the devices of all those that have installed it, exhibiting one work at a time and being updated every month or so.
> 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. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence. This includes the changes which it may have suffered in physical condition over the years as well as the various changes in its ownership. The traces of the first can be revealed only by chemical or physical analyses which it is impossible to perform on a reproduction; changes of ownership are subject to a tradition which must be traced from the situation of the original.
> The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity. Chemical analyses of the patina of a bronze can help to establish this, as does the proof that a given manuscript of the Middle Ages stems from an archive of the fifteenth century. The whole sphere of authenticity is outside technical – and, of course, not only technical – reproducibility. Confronted with its manual reproduction, which was usually branded as a forgery, the original preserved all its authority; not so vis-à-vis technical reproduction. The reason is twofold. First, process reproduction is more independent of the original than manual reproduction. For example, in photography, process reproduction can bring out those aspects of the original that are unattainable to the naked eye yet accessible to the lens, which is adjustable and chooses its angle at will. And photographic reproduction, with the aid of certain processes, such as enlargement or slow motion, can capture images which escape natural vision. Secondly, technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself. Above all, it enables the original to meet the beholder halfway, be it in the form of a photograph or a phonograph record. The cathedral leaves its locale to be received in the studio of a lover of art; the choral production, performed in an auditorium or in the open air, resounds in the drawing room.
> 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. This holds not only for the art work but also, for instance, for a landscape which passes in review before the spectator in a movie. In the case of the art object, a most sensitive nucleus – namely, its authenticity – is interfered with whereas no natural object is vulnerable on that score. The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced. Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter. And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object.
> One might subsume the eliminated element in the term “aura” and go on to say: that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art. One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced. These two processes lead to a tremendous shattering of tradition which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind. Both processes are intimately connected with the contemporary mass movements. Their most powerful agent is the film. Its social significance, particularly in its most positive form, is inconceivable without its destructive, cathartic aspect, that is, the liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage. This phenomenon is most palpable in the great historical films. It extends to ever new positions. In 1927 Abel Gance exclaimed enthusiastically:
> “Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Beethoven will make films… all legends, all mythologies and all myths, all founders of religion, and the very religions… await their exposed resurrection, and the heroes crowd each other at the gate.”
> Presumably without intending it, he issued an invitation to a far-reaching liquidation.
The aura of a work of art is one of the key terms that Benjamin introduces to the artistic discourse. According to his definition, the aura is constituted by a work of art’s realness, it’s specific existence in time and space, it’s intrinsic history. No reproduction could ever replicate this aspect of a work, but it’s very possibility would be enough to challenge it’s authority: Benjamin claims that works of art would gain their authority through their realness or aura. A mechanical reproduction could surpass the original in detail and quality through technology, but even more importantly, could take it out of the context it is placed in and make it available to the masses, thus devaluing the aspect of the aura shifting the focus towards the actual content of the work.
In 1991 the video artist Douglas Davis proposes a new, utopian view on the realness of art, once again inspired through new channels of communication and possibilities of reproduction. He claims that in the digital age, the distinction between the original and the copy or reproduction had seized to exist. A bit would stay a bit, however often it would be copied, which would lead to a new kind of liberation of the arts and information, parallel to Benjamin’s claims half a century earlier, but dismissing the aspect of the aura, the realness and originality completely. Davis contrasts this to analogue reproduction which would always lead to an unpredictable loss of quality.
> During long periods of history, the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity’s entire mode of existence. The manner in which human sense perception is organized, the medium in which it is accomplished, is determined not only by nature but by historical circumstances as well. The fifth century, with its great shifts of population, saw the birth of the late Roman art industry and the Vienna Genesis, and there developed not only an art different from that of antiquity but also a new kind of perception. The scholars of the Viennese school, Riegl and Wickhoff, who resisted the weight of classical tradition under which these later art forms had been buried, were the first to draw conclusions from them concerning the organization of perception at the time. However far-reaching their insight, these scholars limited themselves to showing the significant, formal hallmark which characterized perception in late Roman times. They did not attempt – and, perhaps, saw no way – to show the social transformations expressed by these changes of perception. The conditions for an analogous insight are more favorable in the present. And if changes in the medium of contemporary perception can be comprehended as decay of the aura, it is possible to show its social causes.
> The concept of aura which was proposed above with reference to historical objects may usefully be illustrated with reference to the aura of natural ones. We define the aura of the latter as the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be. If, while resting on a summer afternoon, you follow with your eyes a mountain range on the horizon or a branch which casts its shadow over you, you experience the aura of those mountains, of that branch. This image makes it easy to comprehend the social bases of the contemporary decay of the aura. It rests on two circumstances, both of which are related to the increasing significance of the masses in contemporary life. Namely, the desire of contemporary masses to bring things “closer” spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction. Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction. Unmistakably, reproduction as offered by picture magazines and newsreels differs from the image seen by the unarmed eye. Uniqueness and permanence are as closely linked in the latter as are transitoriness and reproducibility in the former. 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. Thus is manifested in the field of perception what in the theoretical sphere is noticeable in the increasing importance of statistics. The adjustment of reality to the masses and of the masses to reality is a process of unlimited scope, as much for thinking as for perception.
As previously mentioned, Benjamin’s approach to art was politically motivated and he related the changes in the perception of art to the political movements of the time. To him, the phenomenon of the deconstruction of the aura was related to a growing sense of sameness in the people of his time. The aura for him was the implication of distance through the context in which art was traditionally used. The growing urge in people to bridge that distance as well as their desire to own art, even through reproduction, were signifiers of the politically revolutionary movements of the 20th century to him. The desire to get to the core of a thing, to it’s content, laid in a growing sense of sameness among them. He proposed a movement away from duration and uniqueness towards temporality and reproducibility in their approach to art.
It is certainly true that art and it’s countless reproductions have become a lot more accessible to the public in terms of infrastructure—most people in the western world would have encountered a photograph of the Mona Lisa or an equally famous painting at some point in their lives, regardless of their interest in art.
But there is also another side to it: While museums are of course open to the general public, the contemporary art world has also developed an elitist side, intentionally separating and distancing itself from popular culture and seemingly the general crowd.
In 1999 the New York based network institute Rhizome published a new online exhibition without public access. Only subscribers would receive the username and password necessary to enter the website. Artist duo Eva and Franco Mattes, operating under the pseudonym http://www.0100101110101101.org
, and generally counted among the pioneers of the Net Art movement, visited the exhibition, copied the source code of the website and published an almost exact copy on their own servers, turning a private work into a public one. This resulted in a series of similar performance, towards the end resulting in them publishing exact copies of the targeted work.
This becomes very interesting in light of Benjamin’s definitions of realness, reproduction and it’s implication of availability, because a copy of a website is not just a reproduction—it is the same website. At the same time Eva and Franco Mattes demonstrate an even more pronounced sense of sameness or connectivity and urge to own, get close to or make available.
> The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition. This tradition itself is thoroughly alive and extremely changeable. An ancient statue of Venus, for example, stood in a different traditional context with the Greeks, who made it an object of veneration, than with the clerics of the Middle Ages, who viewed it as an ominous idol. Both of them, however, were equally confronted with its uniqueness, that is, its aura. Originally the contextual integration of art in tradition found its expression in the cult. We know that the earliest art works originated in the service of a ritual – first the magical, then the religious kind. It is significant that the existence of the work of art with reference to its aura is never entirely separated from its ritual function. In other words, the unique value of the “authentic” work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original use value. This ritualistic basis, however remote, is still recognizable as secularized ritual even in the most profane forms of the cult of beauty. The secular cult of beauty, developed during the Renaissance and prevailing for three centuries, clearly showed that ritualistic basis in its decline and the first deep crisis which befell it. With the advent of the first truly revolutionary means of reproduction, photography, simultaneously with the rise of socialism, art sensed the approaching crisis which has become evident a century later. At the time, art reacted with the doctrine of l’art pour l’art, that is, with a theology of art. This gave rise to what might be called a negative theology in the form of the idea of “pure” art, which not only denied any social function of art but also any categorizing by subject matter. (In poetry, Mallarme was the first to take this position.)
> An analysis of art in the age of mechanical reproduction must do justice to these relationships, for they lead us to an all-important insight: for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the “authentic” print makes no sense. But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics.
According to Benjamin, the uniqueness of a work is the key to it’s enclosure in ritual, specifically cult and then later in human history religion. Art works initially amounted to magical tools, then later to religious artefacts. The existence of a work of art, he states, can never completely surpass these ritualistic roots, or in other words, the entire concept of the aura has ritualistic connotations. When photography and socialism were conceived of, and on the rise throughout the Europe of the 19th century, this forced art to react with the l’art pour l’art movement, a theology of the arts of some sorts that denies any other social or political function of the arts.
When these changes were starting to become more pronounced, and photography was emancipating the work of art from it’s historical context, it shifted the work’s nature entirely, from a reproduced work of art towards a work designed for reproduction. Benjamin argues that a photograph for example would not have one original as you could make any number of prints from a negative. Without the aspect of authenticity being relevant anymore, the entire purpose and function in art would shift—from ritual towards politics.
This, of course, calls to mind again Douglas Davis’ statement concerning the dissolving idea of an original through digitial reproduction. Davis’ argument however is flawed: not only is digital decay physically dictated—CDs, DVDs, hard drives and floppy disks have a very limited life span after which they physically degenerate—he also failed to take into account the effects of compression. The enormous amounts of data we produce nowadays make compression a necessity, sacrificing a bit of information for additional storage space every time something is saved. In the network society that means that each upload of an image signifies the increase in availability, the liberation of information, but also limits it’s duration. It’s Benjamin’s binary of the durable and unique on the one and the temporal and reproducible on the other side, taken to a new extreme.
At the same it remains questionable if the reproducible image ever completely rid itself of it’s ritualistic origins or whether reproduction itself might have evolved into some sort of cult of sharing, re-blogging and screen-capping.
Pete Ashton is one of many artists that explored the phenomenon of loss of information through sharing it in his work. In his work Sitting In Stagram from 2015 he uploads images to instagram, downloads them again and uploads the newly achieved image back to Instagram until all that is left is white noise. The title is a reference to Alvin Lucier, a sound artist who undertook a similar project with sound in the early 1980s. Several other people like Patrick Liddell, or Clair L. Evans have worked on similar projects in the last few years, all referencing the same phenomena. What remains clear though, is that Davis’ essay was not the answer to the contemporary questions about reproduction.
> Works of art are received and valued on different planes. Two polar types stand out; with one, the accent is on the cult value; with the other, on the exhibition value of the work. Artistic production begins with ceremonial objects destined to serve in a cult. One may assume that what mattered was their existence, not their being on view. The elk portrayed by the man of the Stone Age on the walls of his cave was an instrument of magic. He did expose it to his fellow men, but in the main it was meant for the spirits. Today the cult value would seem to demand that the work of art remain hidden. Certain statues of gods are accessible only to the priest in the cella; certain Madonnas remain covered nearly all year round; certain sculptures on medieval cathedrals are invisible to the spectator on ground level. With the emancipation of the various art practices from ritual go increasing opportunities for the exhibition of their products. It is easier to exhibit a portrait bust that can be sent here and there than to exhibit the statue of a divinity that has its fixed place in the interior of a temple. The same holds for the painting as against the mosaic or fresco that preceded it. And even though the public presentability of a mass originally may have been just as great as that of a symphony, the latter originated at the moment when its public presentability promised to surpass that of the mass.
> With the different methods of technical reproduction of a work of art, its fitness for exhibition increased to such an extent that the quantitative shift between its two poles turned into a qualitative transformation of its nature. This is comparable to the situation of the work of art in prehistoric times when, by the absolute emphasis on its cult value, it was, first and foremost, an instrument of magic. Only later did it come to be recognized as a work of art. In the same way today, by the absolute emphasis on its exhibition value the work of art becomes a creation with entirely new functions, among which the one we are conscious of, the artistic function, later may be recognized as incidental. This much is certain: today photography and the film are the most serviceable exemplifications of this new function.
According to Benjamin, there are different ways of perceiving a art, and these ways evolve side by side with the socio-political aesthetics of the world that surrounds them. He proposes another binary in order to understand or categorise the condition of the work of art: it’s cult value and exhibition value. Through the advancing emancipation of the work of art from the ritual, the possibility for exhibition increases: the more advanced the means of reproduction, the easier it’s distribution, or fitness for exhibition, to the point where the nature of the work of art would change in itself. As an example he describes the transition of the work of art from a magical, spiritual object in ancient societies, with the emphasis on cult value, to a work of artistic value, with the emphasis on the exhibition value. The changes he anticipates, he says, might even be radical enough to render this artistic value meaningless in the future, and to give space for something new.
Even though it remains questionable how much the work of art ultimately rid itself from it’s cult value, Benjamin’s prognosis about it’s exhibition value dominating it’s existence turned out to be true. Since Duchamp, artists have debated what it is that makes out an object fit for exhibition. One work that recently caused a lot of controversy is New Portraits by Richard Prince. Prince took images off of other people’s Instagram account—most of them creative 20-something year olds in often sexual poses—included the application’s frame and sold the enlarged prints for up to $100,00 after an exhibition in the Gagosian Gallery in New York. Outraged journalists, artists, and often the subjects themselves fuelled a public debate about copyright, authorship and compensation. Were these images his to exhibit? Prince, an artist whose artistic medium could be described as appropriation, and who has a long history of being accused of stealing, did not concern himself with these questions: In his artistic practise, he only copies what he is already surrounded with in this over-aestheticized world. Works like his, whether one appreciates them or not, disregard the question of authorship in a networked society, or even it’s artistic value. His work remains a comment on the way our society deals with these ideals, this vocabulary from a different time and say: everything can be exhibited and autonomous creation is a myth. Established artists like Prince truly render artistic value meaningless.
> In photography, exhibition value begins to displace cult value all along the line. But cult value does not give way without resistance. It retires into an ultimate retrenchment: the human countenance. It is no accident that the portrait was the focal point of early photography. The cult of remembrance of loved ones, absent or dead, offers a last refuge for the cult value of the picture. For the last time the aura emanates from the early photographs in the fleeting expression of a human face. This is what constitutes their melancholy, incomparable beauty. But as man withdraws from the photographic image, the exhibition value for the first time shows its superiority to the ritual value. To have pinpointed this new stage constitutes the incomparable significance of Atget, who, around 1900, took photographs of deserted Paris streets. It has quite justly been said of him that he photographed them like scenes of crime. The scene of a crime, too, is deserted; it is photographed for the purpose of establishing evidence. With Atget, photographs become standard evidence for historical occurrences, and acquire a hidden political significance. They demand a specific kind of approach; free-floating contemplation is not appropriate to them. They stir the viewer; he feels challenged by them in a new way. At the same time picture magazines begin to put up signposts for him, right ones or wrong ones, no matter. For the first time, captions have become obligatory. And it is clear that they have an altogether different character than the title of a painting. 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.
Specifically in photography, Benjamin argues, the exhibition value surpasses the cult value for the first time distinctively. Even though photography initially still clung on to the cult of remembrance in the form of portrait photography, soon new possibilities opened up: Portraits of deceased relatives emanate their melancholic aura through the depictions of their faces. But with Eugène Atget, a Parisian photographer who photographed the deserted streets of Paris around 1900, the photograph would finally liberate itself from it’s history and reveal the implications of it’s exhibition value. Atget’s photos, would seem like evidence, indexical signs for historical occurrences. These kind of images, the photograph as an indexical sign, demand a new kind of attention from the viewer, and they demand to be contextualised, captioned—which differs from a title—rightly or wrongly.
The new rules of looking at photography fulfil their own paradigm. From within this analytical approach to imagery it is impossible to look at an image without contextualisation: as we approach images as proof, our immediate impulse is to place and categorise them. In lack of a caption we absorb the photograph’s surroundings, combine it with our knowledge about it’s creation and situation and hypothesise on the rest. According to Benjamin, this is an intrinsic aspect of film: every frame as an individual photograph is contextualised by it’s all of it’s preceding ones.
In the 1990s, before search engines existed and companies like Facebook would custom taylor people’s newsfeed, users online had to rely on generic aggregators like Yahoo.com, mailing lists and what I would like to call the internet of links. The internet of links, void of personalised collections, relies on connections and references people make to each other. Each link implies a new world, hinted at within the fabric of the website one is navigating. The internet of links implies an attitude of serendipity, following indexical signs, way posts, captions almost: A link is made to look promising enough to divert from ones current path and follow a new one. In this way, similar to Benjamin’s observations about a movie, each website contextualises the next one, with the exception of interactivity. It is now the user who reads this contextualisation and makes a decision based on this information as to where to continue.
In order to gain new insights into the web, one needed some luck and the right sources of information, or captions, like mailing lists. Netttime.org, founded in 1995 was one of the first mailing lists concerened with art on the World Wide Web. It serves as an example for a new approach to context when concerning artworks—one that we actively shape.
> The nineteenth-century dispute as to the artistic value of painting versus photography today seems devious and confused. This does not diminish its importance, however; if anything, it underlines it. The dispute was in fact the symptom of a historical transformation the universal impact of which was not realized by either of the rivals. When the age of mechanical reproduction separated art from its basis in cult, the semblance of its autonomy disappeared forever. The resulting change in the function of art transcended the perspective of the century; for a long time it even escaped that of the twentieth century, which experienced the development of the film. Earlier much futile thought had been devoted to the question of whether photography is an art. The primary question – whether the very invention of photography had not transformed the entire nature of art – was not raised. Soon the film theoreticians asked the same ill-considered question with regard to the film. But the difficulties which photography caused traditional aesthetics were mere child’s play as compared to those raised by the film. Whence the insensitive and forced character of early theories of the film. Abel Gance, for instance, compares the film with hieroglyphs: “Here, by a remarkable regression, we have come back to the level of expression of the Egyptians … Pictorial language has not yet matured because our eyes have not yet adjusted to it. There is as yet insufficient respect for, insufficient cult of, what it expresses.” Or, in the words of Séverin-Mars: “What art has been granted a dream more poetical and more real at the same time! Approached in this fashion the film might represent an incomparable means of expression. Only the most high-minded persons, in the most perfect and mysterious moments of their lives, should be allowed to enter its ambience.” Alexandre Arnoux concludes his fantasy about the silent film with the question: “Do not all the bold descriptions we have given amount to the definition of prayer?” It is instructive to note how their desire to class the film among the “arts” forces these theoreticians to read ritual elements into it – with a striking lack of discretion. Yet when these speculations were published, films like L’Opinion publique and The Gold Rush had already appeared. This, however, did not keep Abel Gance from adducing hieroglyphs for purposes of comparison, nor Séverin-Mars from speaking of the film as one might speak of paintings by Fra Angelico. Characteristically, even today ultrareactionary authors give the film a similar contextual significance – if not an outright sacred one, then at least a supernatural one. Commenting on Max Reinhardt’s film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Werfel states that undoubtedly it was the sterile copying of the exterior world with its streets, interiors, railroad stations, restaurants, motorcars, and beaches which until now had obstructed the elevation of the film to the realm of art. “The film has not yet realized its true meaning, its real possibilities … these consist in its unique faculty to express by natural means and with incomparable persuasiveness all that is fairylike, marvelous, supernatural.”
Benjamin states that the entire discourse about these new media was misguided. Those discussing the importance of photography and film in an artistic context failed to see the effects that both had on art and by extension society as a whole. Through reproduction the context in which art had lived became apparent—but instead discussions were concerned with the question of whether photography or film could be art. Since photography and especially film challenged traditional aesthetics so radically, film critics, eager to include both into the realm of the arts reverted back to ritualistic terminology in their arguments. According to their prayer-like praises, films were adopting ancient Egyptian hieroglyphical language, should be reserved for only the most high minded among us.
Their statement, seemingly caught in their own frame of reference and unable to exceed it, call to mind the way art critics today talk about so-caleed post-internet-art. Unable to shake off the imposition of the modern art gallery, they discuss the aesthetics they encounter in exhibitions, disregarding their origins. These aesthetics, born out of a new kind of communication are the signifiers of a cultural revolution we are undergoing—and artists are concerning themselves with it, knowingly or unknowingly. We have surpassed the question of whether this is art but the question of where it is goof art remains, while the question of what is happening to art is being ignored.
Benjamin proved a great deal of understanding of the world around him when he wrote his essay in 1936. Though several points he made can be argued, the complete disappearance of cult versus a shift in the meaning of cult for example, several of his prognosis and categorisations remain relevant 80 years later. Currently, we are at a similar point of time in our cultural history, the meaning of the things around us are rapidly changing. When looking at the images that surround us, and trying to learn how to read them, we might do good to have a closer look at the cultural mechanisms Benjamin described—it might help us to understand ourselves a little bit better.