The Works of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Introduction

Through his essay, Walter Benjamin discusses his thoughts on media and culture in general. These thoughts become a reference in understanding the relation between politics, technology and aesthetics in modern capitalism society. During his time of writing, he explores all forms of mass communication made possible by the development of mechanical reproduction technologies that allow the reproduction and spreading of works of art to wide audiences. As such, he asserts that the work of art is changing in its form and means of delivery. Most significantly, in his essay he defines the privileged status of the work of art in the Western tradition: its uniqueness, authenticity, and authority (Jennings 2008: p. 14) which he concerns on the change in the notion of art affected by its technical reproducibility. Benjamin accounts for ‘authenticity’ and ‘aura’ which distinguish the work of art and its replica as the result of reproduction process.

Therefore, the purpose of this essay is to evaluate his arguments on authenticity and aura in relation to the current modern technologies such as the internet and digital communications in order to fully understand the changes, turmoil and trends in modern society today. Authenticity and aura become profound issues as the privileges and boundaries of the work of art become vague due to vast conveniences offered by modern technologies. This continuous reproduction affects our modes of perception and causes a decay of not only the aura but also of our understanding of space and time with the help of this technology.

This essay will begin with an overview of the aforementioned modern technologies including all of its possibilities. It then continues to evaluate the mode of participation in the work of art affected by these technologies. Next, it will proceed with an evaluation on authenticity and aura and explain why these two concepts are substantially important alongside the rapid invention of tools and mediums to reproduce and represent the work of art today.

Modern technologies

At present, human civilization is in the period of an information age. The term information age can also be referred to as digital age and internet age. This period is marked by the invention of advance new technologies that go through rapid development in a short time. Information or digital technologies can alter and accelerate some of the ways in which people communicate with each other. It involves a transfer and acquisition of information that changes the order of role in society. Networking, communication and information exchange become important in relations and connectivity among people using what we call as “New Media”. They have several essential features: their interconnectedness; their accessibility to individual users as senders and/or receivers; their interactivity; their multiplicity of use and open-ended character; their ubiquity and ‘delocatedness’ (McQuail 2005: p.38). Two distinctive pre-eminences of “New Media” are time and place. McQuail indicates that with technologies a given volume of information can be transmitted in short time and also stores information for use again sometime in the future (McQuail 2005: p.7). Next, he added that communication is produced in a given location and reflects features of that context. It serves to define a place for its inhabitants and to establish an identity. It connects places, reducing the distance that separates individuals, countries and cultures which has delocalizing effect and establish a new global ‘place’ (McQuail 2005: p.8). To name several of these new media or digital technologies are devices such as the smartphone and the tablet pc. These technologies are developed as a response to the invention of the internet which in turn opens many possibilities for the future.

Internet development cannot be detached from the invention and development of the computer in the 20th century. The first user-friendly computers were developed in 1970s and made available to the public in 1984. In the 1990s, as the internet was emerging, computers started to play an even greater role. With the sophistication of the modern computer, our ways to think, live, interact, communicate and so on, are affected in a wide spectrum that change the way we perceive everything. By using the computer, we can do things which we were never able to do a few decades ago. We can create a digital painting or digital work of art directly using a computer’s programme, manipulate it, copy it, montage it, share it and receive other files instantly. As Andrew Benjamin indicates, everything has the potential to be converted into information in the form of data to be stored, manipulated and (re)programmable (Benjamin 2005: p.223). Particularly, with the Internet which instants everything, these processes and activities become easier and more common in our daily life. It is the instant-on and always-on technologies which are becoming rapidly popular because of its connectivity and integration with everything else.

As a result, the Internet fostered McLuhan’s idea: the concept of the global village. The Internet gives unlimited access to information and worldwide audiences with contents from around the world, redefining the idea of community through reduced barriers between nations and improved communications. It raises the notion of ‘social and cultural space’ virtually on the internet. James Lull argues that the internet could, in some ways, be seen as a ‘carrier’ of culture, in so far as it serves both as a medium of transmission and a medium whose users selectively attend to texts others have made available (Lull 2001: p.213) which the mankind’s culture and social interaction will be exposed thoroughly across their local area. Thus, he also refers to Jones (Jones 1997a) that the internet, it may be said, creates a ‘virtual culture’ (Lull 2001: p.213). Virtual or online culture is the digital manifestation of offline culture in our daily lives represents as digital data. He also refers to Gackenbach, Guthrie and Karpen: the internet is the collection of information and interactions which flow over it; the users and their usage which generate the information, and their experiences of it (Lull 2001: p.219).

Participation of viewers in the work of art

For centuries a small number of writers were confronted by many thousands of readers. This changed toward the end of the last century. With the increasing extension of the press, which kept placing new political, religious, scientific, professional, and local organs before the readers, an increasing number of readers became writers…Thus, the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character. The difference becomes merely functional (Benjamin 1992: p.233).

The one thing that makes new media truly exciting lies in its the opportunity to participate in every aspect possible. It enables interaction, sharing and participation among people regarding content and information at the same time from multiple and different locations. This is what Walter Benjamin sees and predicts in his essay even when the technologies at his time was not as advanced as the present day. Mechanical reproduction enables the involvement of the masses in culture and politics; it allows for mass culture and mass politics. His argument is supported by David Gauntlett with reference to nowadays technologies as he mentions that “If internet technologies continue to help people express themselves, share ideas, communicate with others and in doing so, help one another…no one wants to just accept and see the ‘things’ produce in internet but they want to participate and involve in the production” (Gauntlett 2000: p.216). The web offers people an opportunity to produce creative, expressive media products or art works, and displays them to a global audience and for this reason the greatly increased mass of participants has produced a change in the mode of participation (Benjamin 1992: p.241) in the way producing, sharing, criticize and enjoying the work of art. The abilities provided by websites in the internet and digital communication devices enable people to become their own artist, painter, writer, and so on who are displayed and exposed to wider audiences and regions. Not only are people passive viewers, but it also provides the possibility for people to actively respond, interact and involve in the critics of the work of art itself produced by other artists such as leaving comments and ratings on the web. Indeed, by its virtual existence in cyberspace, the artwork opens new dimensions of interactive temporality, which blur the boundaries between reception and creativity of its participants or viewers.

Nowadays, art and media begin to merge causing the distance between the artist and society to lessen. Particularly, contemporary visual artists have embraced the new technological developments such as the web, creating websites as a natural extension to their artistic output. They see the urge to follow in and maximize the abilities of these technologies as Gauntlett argues that we may be able to produce a painting, or a poem, or an amateur ‘magazine’, but without the web, most of us would not have the opportunity or resources to find an audience for our work (Gauntlett 2000: p.12). However, web is an open forum where there are no quality controls, no art establishment guidelines to adhere to, and no institutional acceptance is required. The art represented on websites will not be subject to aesthetic judgements only; rather its focus is on the artist’s self-promotion in creating a self-referential art particular to this new medium. Certain artists create art works that are self-referential while others do not. Not only is the visitor invited to become acquainted with the works of art, but also with the artist, often on a personal level. Privacy does not seem to be an issue for many artists choosing to promote themselves through the web (Gauntlett 2000: p.62).

Privacy may not be a matter for artists who promote themselves using this new medium then not with the rest of people that participate merely as viewers or people without any intention to be known. Anonymity and identity (anonymous creator) in ‘cyberspace’ is something that should be considered cautiously. Since participants cannot see each other, and are not obliged to reveal their real name or physical location, there is considerable scope for people to reveal secrets, discuss problems, or even enact whole ‘identities’ which they would never do in the real world (Gauntlett 2000: p.14). As a result of this anonymity, the reproduction and imitation of objects in the new media become important to perceive carefully because there is no clear conceptual distinction between the original and its reproduction in ‘cyberspace’. This brings us to the issue of authenticity and originality of the work of art in the development of the modern technologies which is identified by Walter Benjamin.

Authenticity and the development oftechnologies

In order to understand about the term of authenticity, firstly we refer to Moholy-Nagy in his essay “Production-Reproduction,” which suggests a new relationship between technology, media, and the development of the human sensory by making a distinction between “reproduction” and “production”. According to him, reproduction is the mimetic replication of an extant external reality: this “reiteration of the relationship that already exists” can have little effect on the development of new perceptual capacities, since such practice merely reproduces relationship already accessible to the senses (Jennings 2008: p. 11). Production, however names those types of art practices that employ technology to actively create new relationship (Jennings 2008: p. 11). For Moholy-Nagy, what is involved in reproduction process is merely the replication of physical conditions which it cannot reproduce or imitate the intrinsic perception or intangible senses although they still have the sense of relationship between the first object and the second replication object.

Subsequently, Walter Benjamin in his essay indicates that in principle a work of art has always been reproducible. He added that manmade artefacts could always be imitated by man and as such raises a question on authenticity issue. With the help and means of technology, especially in light of modern achievements today, it is unarguable that almost every kind work of art has the potential to be reproduced again for whatever the purposes may be. The reproduction from the first work of art has many different purposes and tendencies. It is perceivable from an economic value, social purposes, historical and preservation, and so on to produce other copies of the object in question. Benjamin points this out in his statement that mechanical reproduction of art; however, represents something new (Benjamin 1992: p.220). For him, every result from the reproduction is always considered as a new item.

Regarding this statement, I would argue based on Moholy-Nagy’s description that even though the new representation or imitation from the first object is considered physically a new item but it deniably has a bound; a visible and invisible connection that cannot be separated from its first imitated object. In fact, the reproduction of the work of art can manifest in different ways and new results where the activities of reproduction can be a process of making the same exact thing in shape, size, or even the imitation of physical defect. As well, those activities can be a process of making a completely new work of art but still as a replication which is comparable in its different size, material, and medium of the first object. Two objects, even though they are similar in every detail and specification and coming from the same process of production, definitely they are two different objects with their own entities. The first object acts as the reproduction model for the next objects has its characteristics and conditions. Similarly, the next replicas as the reproduction result of the first object possess their own characteristics and conditions. By looking at a glance, we can tell the resemblance between them that tied them together; we know that they are reproduced with the same idea and the same conceptual basis. However, the divergence occurs when they by means of history and time suffered in physical condition as well as the various changes in its ownership (Benjamin 1992: p.214). Given this condition, those objects noticeably become different as the result of events that is experienced by each of them.

Thus, these arguments define the term of authenticity here as Benjamin accounts for that:

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 (Benjamin 1992: p.214)

Benjamin emphasizes that the presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity (Benjamin 1992: p.214), providing the understanding that the most important in the concept of authenticity is the physical entity of the first object which is present in the substance of reality and form to be seen, touched and experienced. The originality is determined by the embodiment of the idea and concept into a creation that materialize in a physical embodiment of the object. This first embodiment of the idea then becomes what we know as the ‘original’ object with all of its characteristic and condition. This is explained by Benjamin in his statement that one may assume that what mattered was their existence, not their being on view (Benjamin 1992: pp.226-227). The work of art can be viewed with many different technological means such as photography images that capture the object and represent it to the audience through the computers, internet or other devices but what Benjamin suggests here is the physical realm that justifies the concept of authenticity of one object rather than the presence of it through other means.

For this reason, when it comes to the discussion of the issues on the reproduction and authenticity relating to the development of digital technologies and the internet, admittedly the presence of the original object becomes something vague. It is because the issue of authenticity, originality and truth in the Internet are something that must be treated carefully as the reproduction has become part of our modern life that the replica or copy of the work of art can exist and perceive without its original. In the internet and digital technologies, those issues become major concerns because of the nature of the internet and digital technologies that make it easy to spread and copy the information, images, and the work of art freely without control. There is no legal authority that controls the content on the internet and any kind of information that is being spread digitally. The control which has existed so far would likely be a social control from the users of the internet and technologies.

To illustrate the effects of the development of the digital technologies and the internet to the issue of authenticity, therefore, photography is a good example. The development of film photography into digital photography brings problematic on the truth value of photographic image since the work of art no longer exists purely in its presence in time and space, its meaning are made more transmittable as well. With digital results, images produced from digital cameras or digital devices can now be stored in digital file formats which allow the file to be reproduced easily with different purposes and changes in meaning to be perceived. In this case, the development of digital media and devices emerge a new way to produce work of art called digital design art or digital photography. Digital photography enables viewers to manipulate the work of art and thus control the context of viewing. Images can be created, re-created or retouched and combined with other images as James Lull states that:

If an image or part of an image that looks like a photograph can now be created by non-photographic means, the notion that a photograph is a direct record of visual reality is no longer a defining principle of the medium as a whole. Critics of potentially deceptive digital imaging are usually concerned about its consequences for the viewer who has not detected the presence of digital manipulation and may, indeed, be more generally unaware of the ubiquity of digitally manipulated imagery (Lull 2001 p.184).

As the development of editing software such as Photoshop, Paint, CorelDraw, Photoscape and so on allow images to be manipulated and retouched using techniques such as close-ups, crop, montage, and colour’s inversion. The software allows the artistry process to be done without any paper, paint or pencil, instead it uses a digital canvas and allows for adjustments to the image size, resolution, re focusing and fixing proportion. Thus, the artist can directly create an image or photo from scratch using photo editing software or re-creating a new image by composing several different images. Susan Sontag claims that in a world ruled by photographic images, all borders (‘framing”) seem arbitrary which anything can be separated, can be made discontinuous, from anything else (Sontag 1978: p.22). Because of the abilities provided by these software, it evokes the issue on originality of the image as the image or photo now can be reproduced instantly by anyone who knows how to use the software. Additionally, Lull cited Ritchin (1990) that because of the manipulation and reproduction ability of the digital imaging viewers will eventually lose all faith in the photographic medium, and photography will no longer be accorded its privileged place among media with a stake in appearing faithful to fact (Lull 2001: p.184). He also indicates that there is a doubt that the photograph was simply the product of digital manipulation, a case of superimposing one image on top of another. With the help of computer and the internet, these reproduction images even more easily to be reproduce and share on the webs or through emails. Most significantly, this tendency is push forward by the fast development of mobile digital devices and communication.

Viewers’ doubt is one point that Benjamin indicates his statement that the degradation of quality and appreciation (it refers to his understanding of ‘aura’) of the viewers by the ease of reproduction and sharing the work of arts and images by the means of technologies nowadays. As 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 (Benjamin 1992: p.215). As what has been discussed above that the occurring situation and process on the internet and digital communication interactions currently justify his indication which every result from one reproduction to another one that spreading from one viewer to another viewer always raises the question of the originality and the validity of its contents which will be decreased by the time. As the receivers of these reproduction’s results in the form of digital information, viewers will always stay doubtless with their acceptance and reliant on its truth and originality. The reason behind this is because authenticity is not reproducible as Benjamin defines. In the same way the physical presence of the first original work of art is absent replaced by the replica which no legal authority on these media that can authorize the authenticity and the truth value of it. Authenticity is no longer a relevant criterion for evaluating artistic production. In photography, for example, it is of no use to ask for the only and original image or file since digitally the work of art can be endlessly reproduced without degradation with the same level of production quality. Therefore, as Benjamin suggests, the intensive penetration of certain (mechanical) processes of reproduction was instrumental in differentiating and grading authenticity. To develop such differentiations was an important function of the trade in works of art (Benjamin 1992: p.245).

Understanding concept of ‘Aura’ in the development of modern technologies

Another important notion from Benjamin in his essay is what he called ‘Aura’ where he made the distinction between auratic and nonauratic art forms tradition (Jennings 2008: p. 14). For him, aura is a “unique phenomenon of a distance however close it may be” represents nothing but the formulation of the cult value of the work of art in categories of space and time perception (Benjamin 1992: p.245). Benjamin characterizes auratic experiences as what we undergo when we feel an object of perception – be it a person, a photograph, or a work of art – with the ability to look back at us (Benjamin 2005: p.165). As well aura is being perceived as a distinctive quality, atmosphere, sensation or feeling that seems to surround and be generated by a person, and thing or place which will be differing depends on certain factors. As Benjamin explained that a work of art may be said to have an aura if it claims a unique status based less on quality, use value, or worth per se than on its figurative distance from the beholder. In other words, the aura of the work of art is as a result of their non-reproducibility character providing an unreachable sensation but still can be felt and perceived. It is supported by Jennings as he suggests the distance is not primarily a space between painting and spectator or between text and reader but the creation of a psychological inapproachability – an authority – claimed for the work on the basis of its position within a tradition (Jennings 2008: p. 14). This feeling of inapproachability is the factor creating an atmosphere in the mind of the viewers as they for the first time encounter with the aura of the work of art through its ritual and cult tradition.

Moreover to explain his notion on aura, Benjamin outlines that initially the aura from work of art is never entirely separated from its cult in ritual function as the original function and existence from work of art is based on its tradition. In other words, the unique value of the ‘authentic’ work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original use value (Benjamin 1992: p.217). Somehow, Benjamin’s explanations are not relatively relevant with all the invention of new technologies and social changes because it can be said that technology changes the functions of art. Realizing this, therefore, Benjamin added in his further explanation on the aura and ritual tradition that for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual (Benjamin 1992: p.226). The withering away of the aura, the dissociation of the work from the fabric of tradition, is an inevitable outcome of mechanical reproduction (Benjamin 2005: p.167). Despite in the first place work of art was functioned in a service of ritual and produced exclusively, but along with the development of technologies, culture and social changes, works of art is not only received and valued based on the cult value but extend to the exhibition value of it (Benjamin 1992: p.223). The aura in present days is not the same like it used to be where the structure of experience from the artist and viewers might be changing, under the pressure of modern technologies.

The shift between original “cult value” and modern “exhibition value” has thus transformed the overall quality of the art produced. Regardless its exhibition new role, then in order to suit with it, the work of art must be reproduced with different methods of technical reproduction to transform and extent its values (Benjamin 1992: p.227). Certainly, with the modern development of technologies this tendency is facilitated, simplified and extended. In one such case takes example in photography which exhibition value begins to displace its cult value. Initially, the picture has cult values as the remembrance of loved ones, absent or dead, but as man withdraws from the photographic image, the exhibition value for the first time shows its superiority to the ritual value (Benjamin 1992: pp.227-228). Photographs used to be printed, arranged and stored in an album to be seen and appreciated but now they are stored differently. With the means and abilities of the Internet and digital communication devices nowadays, people can produce, share and exhibit their photos anytime and anywhere with ease. Photographers can send their image’s files through the internet and be reprinted elsewhere ready to exhibit or they just simply upload them to the web as part of their website’s portfolio to be viewed widely. The role of the images now extends beyond the cult and ritual tradition. It is simply a work of art from the artist which has become an everyday common mechanism.

As a result, art and culture designed purely for the Internet will continue to grow, and be supported by digital communication devices. Therefore, for this reason, aura cannot be detached from the discussion on authenticity as the work of art becomes widely spread and more numerous. As Benjamin notes, the value of aura from the work of art is closely related to the authenticity. Because of its authenticity, the work of art has an aura that is emanated due to its uniqueness. The aura for Benjamin represents the originality and authenticity of a work of art that has not been reproduced. Conversely, as soon as the work of art is multiplied then the replica will not have the aura as the first object because it has no uniqueness and embodied foregoing factors. Benjamin claims that aura is withering by mechanical reproduction process and detaching the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. He says that mechanical reproduction destroys the uniqueness, authenticity, and aura of the work of art. In Benjamin’s description, he indicates the separation between the object or the work of art and the viewers which is affected by time in history, place and human perception at a certain time which will determine the aura’s strength. For this reason, reproducibility shatters the aura of the work of art and enables a reception of a very different kind in a very different spectatorial space…through “simultaneous collective reception” of its object (Jennings 2008: p.15). Benjamin says human perception has changed along with the changing times in history and the changes in medium of contemporary perception which brings degradation of quality and appreciation to the work of art. It also changes with the continual existence of humanity. Thus, once the capacity to perceive ‘auratically’ diminishes then, obviously, an aura will no longer be revealed. This degradation was inferred by Walter Benjamin as the decay of aura.

Furthermore, Benjamin pointed out that the decay of the aura is also affected by desire of contemporary masses to bring things’ closer spatially and humanly (Benjamin 1992: pp.216-217) which these desire accommodated by the ability of the Internet connecting people across borders and time since technological and social change have allowed for the work of art to be seen in different viewing conditions. Nowadays, society’s demands are different from the last decades or centuries ago where they wanted everything to be instant, simplified and easy to obtain. People increasingly want to know more and the scope is not limited by region and time again. In this case, considering the capabilities offered by the Internet, the decay of aura cannot be avoided. The work of art is repeatedly reproduced and shared everywhere and its value and significance is perceived as ordinary without any uniqueness and distinctions. The distinctive quality and perception that seems to surround and is generated by the work of art at the first time of its production fades away. People do not feel the sensation of connection with the replication they receive through the medium of the Internet and digital communication devices anymore.

However, I would like to distinguish between the work of art which only has its existence virtually and the one with its physical existence in real space and time but also represents virtually for exhibition. This differentiation will determine the different meaning of their aura and the way to understanding the decay of aura. To illustrate, the aura of “The Last Supper” mural in monastery’s wall in Milan with the reproduction image of it through photo in the web would be different from the aura of an image created completely by editing software. The mural’s presence as photograph in the website will have a distinctive aura that surrounds it even though the aura will be withered by the time of its replications over and over again by the viewers. Moreover, the aura and the strength of it is not the same as the original sensation felt when we are directly present at the monastery. The possibility to visit and sense the reality presence of the mural which we see in the photo, thus, evokes a feeling of connection with the real mural. This connection is not present in the image or photograph created by editing software as there is no physical link in the ‘real’ world which is embodied physically. People will perceive a digitally produced image merely as information on the web. The aura in the images such as “The Last Supper” mural which experienced the decay caused by its reproduction has a potential to be revived and experienced again in a different way. This character cannot be found in the images produced fully by editing software.

Conclusion

In summary, Walter Benjamin’s essay when it is related to the Internet and digital communications technologies nowadays gives the idea in terms of being interactive, open to multiple and unexpected modifications, anonymity and virtual existence. The digital work of art is not only open to the possibility of different interpretations and reproduction in varying context but also being spread among audiences widely and its existence lasts longer. It is becoming more and more involved with and dependent upon technology, thus, contemporary work of art often comes close to completely identifying themselves with digital and technological manipulation. People can reproduce art much more quickly and precisely and also make many more copies. It makes application of copyright regulation difficult to implement especially on the digital data and information. People need to be sceptical and check the authenticity and validity of any information they receive on the web to avoid of misleading and misperception. Equally important, as evaluated above that aura is an important factor for the work of art regarding its issue on authenticity and the feeling and connection between it and its viewers. Aura cannot be separated from the original work of art which it connects and ties its presence to space, time and its viewers. The aura of the first object cannot be reproduced and embodied in its reproduction process. Its aura can be degraded by the continuous replication over time by the mechanical reproduction especially by modern technologies. It is hard to experience the aura in the modern world today, especially the work of art presented through the Internet and digital communications.

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Marshall McLuhan is well known as a philosopher and theorist in media theory. He introduces the terms of global village and predicted the development of the World Wide Web and internet thirty years before it was invented.

Làszló Moholy-Nagy was a Hungarian writer, painter, photographer and professor in the Bauhaus School.

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