Benjamin’s recipe for authenticity

Has all that is Solid Melted into Air: Experience, Value and Passion in Modernity and After

In a recent lecturer I attended, Dr. David Sweeney discussed the representation of modernity as a break from traditional pasts, where individuals seek new experiences that shape society and a new world.

In reviewing the lecture, I came across an essay by Jonathon Davis, “Questioning ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’: A Stroll around the Louvre after Reading Benjamin’. In it Davis asks, how do we read the Benjamin essay?

  1. Perhaps as an episode in the complete Benjamin writings. A point in Benjamin’s ‘intellectual history or as part of an intellectual biography’.
  2. Some choose to examine the essay as a chapter in the history of Marxist theory.
  3. Or by placing the essay in the larger history of Art theory, it can be viewed as an installment in the history of philosophy.

I would like to take a look at the Benjamin essay ‘The Work Of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1936), in order to assess the relevance of his claim that ‘aura’ is significant within the context of contemporary art, and in particular, computer generated art.

Benjamin claims that art becomes separated from ritual practice and pre-modern religion when it becomes possible to reproduce a work of art on a mass scale with the printing press, the photograph, the phonograph and film. Benjamin states that in the pre-modern age and early modernity, the work of art retains an aura. Claiming that: ‘The one-of-a-kind value of the ‘genuine’ work of art has its underpinnings in the ritual in which it had its original, initial utility value’. This originality is retained in late modernity, alluding to the ‘original genius’ and to authenticity.

I agree that mechanical reproduction has revolutionised art, but has it affected its authenticity?  John Lechte (2008) reports that, ‘By being reproducible, the work of art’s aura has withered away, sense perception changes along with humanity’s entire mode of existence. The technique of reproduction brings art objects closer to a mass audience’. Lechte is talking about the democratisation of art. Indeed, henceforth art is often designed for reproduction. I would argue that Lechte could go further. It is the process of re/production which is truly revolutionary: A continuous documentation and analysis of life begins, where prior to re/production only very rare events are documented: the rare and authentic become common and ordinary.

This power is later lambasted by Benjamin himself as he further discusses art as politics: ‘(The film) makes the cult value recede into the background not only by putting the public in the position of critic, but also by the fact that at the movies, this position requires no attention. The public is an examiner, but an absent minded one’.

In considering computer art within the context of Benjamin’s theory, my opinion, like Benjamin’s own, moves to and fro between positions. Although computer production is a revolutionary technology, I have to consider the repercussions it has on authenticity.

Digital art is not reliant upon the re/production of anything material. This makes it different from any of the mechanical reproduction technologies Benjamin discusses. In fact, I would argue that Benjamin’s notion of destroyed ‘ritualisticness’ in art does not apply to digital art. The computer is unaffected by older impressions of authenticity because there is no distinct original that can be separated from any of its identical copies. In fact some digital art can be copied infinitely, each one being a perfect clone with the ‘original’ only discernable by its embedded metadata.

And where do these limitless copies go? Disseminated instantly across the internet to Universities, homes, schools and even galleries, where we are reminded that the physical parameters of ‘time’ and ‘place’, the prerequisites for ‘authenticity’, become utterly meaningless. And to have the technology to view this endlessly distributed artwork, must also mean that the viewer has the technology and agency to change it. This challenges Benjamin’s fundamentally Marxist assumption regarding a passive, absent-minded audience.

What I have described is only one possible judgment on Benjamin’s essay. We must not forget that computer art is evolving to become generative art – immersive interactive environments that demand a human-computer relationship. Each instance of this encounter is entirely unique, authored in part by the artist as auteur, and in part by the spectator. This experience demands a purposeful space, and a moment where artist and spectator collaborate – the viewer becomes the artist – the artist becomes the facilitator in an experience that cannot be reproduced.

You might say that this version of computer art provides artworks that have originality, uniqueness, and even an aura.

BENJAMIN, W, Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, UK, Penguin, 1936

D’ALLEVA, A, Methods and Theories of Art History, UK, Laurence King, 2005

DAVIS, J, Questioning ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’: A Stroll around the Louvre after Reading Benjamin, USA,, 2008

LECHT, J, Fifty key Contemporary Thinkers, UK, Routledge, 2008

MURRAY, C, Key writers on Art: The twentieth Century, UK, Routledge, 2003

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s