Saturday, October 2, 2010

A Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction

In Walter Benjamin's seminal essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," he examines the ever-changing role of art within the epicenter of a culture predicated on technology and mass-consumption.  Only recently have we the ability to disseminate texts through myriad channels with infinite copies.  Benjamin's work has since become pivotal in Marxist theory to eloquently point out the inherent class system associated with privileging artwork to the few.  But still, the two edged sword of mass consumption thereby eliminates the singularity, the "aura", its special-ness.  As he writes:
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.
But as we ourselves hurdle through space and time we must look to new ways of reading this.  I used to argue with Benjamin's notion of "the aura."  What was the point of the singular object fixated within time and space if so few could experience it?  Can the Mona Lisa not be seen as beautiful on a postcard rather than under bullet proof glass halfway around the world in the Louvre? How does that intangible quality measure up to the art I'm more familiar with: films, music albums, created within a medium that by definition requires copies.

Then the aura what we feel when we come across that rare first edition of The Great Gatsby under a pile of junk in an antique shop?  What about a limited print run of "Meet the Beatles" with the blank back?  Or, a never before seen copy of Lang's Metropolis with scenes believed to be lost to history forever?  Is this where the aura hides in artwork that was destined for reproducibility?  In the rarities, mistakes, misprints, and gaffs that survive?  Is history required in order to radiate aura?  These are questions I still wrestle with.

But not only is understanding the effects "A Work of Art..." a labyrinthine exercise in masochism, it's also never locked into permanence.  Because much like Benjamin's argument for the aura as existing in a singular object's time/space so too are the words he wrote.

What would Benjamin have to say when the majority of music today is encoded digitally in loss-less files and distributed online?  Radiohead's "In Rainbows" came into fruition as a solely ephemeral work (that has since been distributed in tangible CD/Vinyl formats) purchased, downloaded, and absorbed without anything but an Ipod touching your hands.  The loss of video-rental stores giving way to Netflix Instant-Streaming and cable-services On Demand functionality.  E-Readers.  I personally am not looking forward to the shift to fully digital age.  I prize my DVD collection.  I take for granted the ink residue on my fingertips after flipping through the morning paper.

Are we ready to analyze what this step away from the tangible symbolizes?  What it means on a cultural level?  I'm typing these words directly into cyberspace.  They will never be printed (unless you CTRL+P) but will buzz around in the ephemeral sea of 1's and 0s.  Where's the aura in that?