Every once in a while, I read something that is instantly clarifying. It was like that when I read Walter Benjamin’s essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, several years ago. It was published way back in 1935.
I would like to focus on a main point in this essay – what happens when a work of art is produced or reproduced “mechanically.”
He is very clear about what he has identified as the “one element” that is missing in a reproduction: “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.”
A physically present work of art has an “aura,” he writes, that “withers” when reproduced.
To read Benjamin’s writing on such a mundane subject is to be carried (in my opinion) into the highest realm of thinking about our everyday lives – something that a master flaneur (look it up!) can do. Benjamin had the kind of genius that strolled through the mundane in our everyday lives, while scattering diamonds on the way. Consider this, which touches upon a subject from a previous newsletter of mine on layered meanings in art:
“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.”
These days when we see a photo of an object like a statue of Venus, we see a “work of art.” Without its cult value, magic, or religious meaning -- and certainly without its aura. Furthermore, today, the unfathomable explosion of photos and videos on the web, with the whole world taking pictures and videos & uploading them constantly – one estimate is two billion each day! – has created a new paradigm, one which we do not yet understand. This was not totally unexpected. When Benjamin published his essay, he included an epigraph from Paul Valery with this forecast:
“We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bring about an amazing change in our very notion of art.”
A photo of a work of art is clearly a reproduction. But what about works of art that are designed to be reproduced? Prints, which go back to the Chinese over two thousand years ago, are the obvious example of the use of mechanical means to create works of art.
When I create images on my iPad that are then printed out (that is, giclees), they become physical works of art themselves. The same goes for lithographs, monographs, etchings, and other multiple techniques. When people buy them, they are buying works of art which have, in a real sense, the aura that Benjamin identified.
So, while prints can be reproductions, they can also be original works of art. Whether the Hokusai print I have hanging is an “original” or a reproduction, while maybe not obvious to my eye, is critical to the collector and value.
When we get into photographs, there are similar issues. When was this Ansel Adams photo printed? Who printed it? What paper? What size? Is it signed? When signed? Numbered? All are issues related to the original vs reproduction vs multiple discussion.
Paintings, created on canvas with paints, are, clearly originals (unless copies of originals or, yikes, even forgeries!) and best appreciated “in person”. A print made from an original painting (for example, my "Sleeping Dog," above, found in my Art of the Dog gallery) allows enjoyment of the image and the aura of a physical object (the print), even if it is not the same aura to be found in the original painting.
(And the print has the benefit of being less money!)
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