"The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction".

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According to Walter Benjamin in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” art lost its “aura” when photography made images almost infinitely reproducible. But what exactly is this aura? Well, its many things but mostly it is art’s connection to ritual. More so, how art lost its authenticity and thus connection to ritual.

Before photography, a painting could only exist in one place at one time. Much of its meaning resided in this fact, that it had singular meanings associated with its place. With photography, reproduction, en masse, allowed the image to go everywhere. The cultural elite no longer controlled art. It was available to the masses.

Place-specificity, or as I like to call it locality, of an art object disappeared. The notion of authenticity, now that almost perfect multiple copies could be made, was broken down. Authenticity, within photography, is almost non-existent. A photograph, apart from its negative, has no original, unless of course you assume the “reality” it represents. This reality-represented notion is merely a function of the myth of photographic truth. Because of a lack of authenticity, the artist tends to disappear, and without a stable concept of an artist how can an object be art. A key point that Benjamin brings up is the argument over whether or not photography was art. To him, what is important was what was neglected “The primary question — whether the very invention of photography had not transformed the entire nature of art — was not raised.” Anyways, back to my point, authenticity did not necessarily disappear, it merely changed. In actuality, it became more important. Because of the effect of mechanical reproduction there was a retrenchment on the importance of authenticity. How else, could one explain, paying ten dollars for a poster of a Van Gogh and ten million for its original? In an attempt to regain the aura that was lost, the authenticity of the original is exaggerated in our culture. Cultural value becomes monetary value.

The myth of photographic truth is important to consider here. It is not so much that a photograph cannot be doctored, because, of course it can, (through multiple exposure et cetera) but rather that there is a notion that a photograph 'speaks' the truth. I would argue that this has less to do with the technology per say, but rather the Modernist belief in science and rationality. The blind faith in the objectivity of science is transposed onto the camera as a tool and sign of Modernism. This objectivity transcend to ideas of realism and this version of realism is indebted to the notion of perspective. Perspective is so strongly grounded in realism that it becomes difficult to view it as a specific cultural invention. But in fact it occurred at a specific time in history roughly around the mid fifteenth century in European art. There was a melding of art and science. Art becomes concentrated on a single subjective viewpoint. This change to the single subject was both a reflection of the Renaissance’s emphasis on empiricism/science and, also, the new world view of the subject at the centre of the universe and not the Church’s view of God at the centre.

This emphasis on science extended to the invention of photography. Photography is strongly connected to the aforementioned perspective and is rooted in technology. Technology is connected with the notions of both empiricism and science and therefore becomes the logical extension of perspective. The painter’s subjective position was removed and replaced with a direct connection to science. The photographer may choose the picture but its mediation is created through science and not the painters’ appropriation of scientific codes. Thus, the camera is the logical extension of a long project of the Enlightenment and subsequent Modernism.

The contemporary connection to realism and science has shifted. The move to digital technologies has affected the linear progressivity of the history of perspective. Analog technologies suggest a direct mechanical link between the real and the represented, the real is represented via a continuum. Digital technologies break up this link, there is an encoding and dec
Pablo Picasso, Bust of a Woman, 1909
Pablo Picasso, Bust of a Woman, 1909
oding process that breaks down the image into binary code . At the root of digital imaging is a process of manipulation. In our current situation there is an acceptance (or rather cynicism) of the fact that images are or can be manipulated. The technology of digital imaging has uprooted the faith in the photographic truth. Whereas in the past, technology tended to ground realism through its relation to science, here technology functions in the opposite way.

This change in the acceptance of perspective as realism is not just a result of digital technologies. It is rather a result of a whole cultural shift. This shift began in the avant-garde movements of Cubism, dadaism and surrealism of High Modernism, that questioned perspective (We can see this multiple perspective in Picasso's work, see right). But it is also linked to Postmodernism where the objectivity of science and reason of modernism is questioned and where the ability to represent the ‘real’ is rejected.

Important to Benjamin's argument is that mechanical reproduction changed the way we look at art. It removed the locality of high art and gave it multiple meanings. What then has happened in our current situation? We have gone beyond mechanical reproduction and moved into digital reproduction. Now, along with art no longer having locality it also has no materiality. In the past, a mechanical reproduction always existed in space. Granted, multiple spaces but it always had a concrete existence. It could be picked up and touched. A digital reproduction can be printed (recouping its physicality), but its essence lies in its code, not its ontology. Film is still assumed to have an ontological connection with the world it represents. This connection, on the level of discourse at least, consists of a relationship through light affecting emulsion in a direct chemical/physical link. Digital reproduction, on the other hand, has no physical existence, it is rather binary code. One could argue, that film projection did the same, but since there is little tradition of film being used to reproduce paintings, it did not have the same cultural ramifications as digital reproduction. Art objects no longer have materiality. They no longer even have any notions of size; one can zoom in to their heart's content. Their only existence is the amount of pixels, which thanks to technology has exploded into the millions.

The reason I draw on Benjamin is that Feenberg briefly notes the libertarian undertones in Benjamin's work (2002:34) and I think that by an extension of his work the consideration of art in the age of digital reproduction becomes important to cybersubjectivity. I have not quite flushed out how exactly digital reproduction has changed subjectivity, but I certainly think it has changed our connection to art and realism.

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