The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction
Walter Benjamin's theories in the context of the Computer Age

…the amazing growth of our techniques, the adaptability and precision they have attained, the ideas and habits they are creating, make it a certainty that profound changes are impending in the ancient art of the Beautiful. In all the arts there is a physical component which can no longer be considered or treated as it used to be, which cannot remain unaffected by our modern knowledge and power.
               Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction  

 

…Multimedia is a revolutionary art form, appearing at the end of a century of revolutionary art forms…"Art" no longer functions as a unified concept because its meaning depends on how, from where, and by whom it is viewed… multimedia must be more than a new technology, it must become a new conceptual art. Glenn A. Kurtz  The Aesthetics of Scale
 
 notes on the text (last updated 04/28/99)

Introduction

    In his famous 1936 essay entitled "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," cultural theorist Walter Benjamin expressed great concern regarding the advent of reproductive technologies that were making works of art universally accessible to the public in a way that had never before been possible. He saw the proliferation of artistic reproductions as annihilative of the uniqueness of works of art and of the "aura" that surrounds them. Writing in the Marxist tradition, Benjamin posits two utilizations of the ever-increasing capability of mechanical reproduction – the Fascist, which gives the masses "not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves," and uses reproductive technologies to create a political aesthetic which culminates in the Futuristic ideal of war as the ultimate expression of artistic sensibility; and the Communist, which resists the cult influence of Fascist aesthetizations by politicizing art to reflect the ascendance of the proletariat and promote the redistribution of property.

    Benjamin’s vision of a world saturated with artistic images has been realized to a degree that might well have exceeded his wildest expectations. The modern personal computer's mind-boggling capacity for the plentiful and inexpensive representation of visual, aural and performance art makes his agitation over photographic and cinematographic reproduction seem quaint. However, the questions Benjamin raised regarding the social consequences of such proliferation press upon us with a greater intensity than ever before. Multimedia technology is affecting our perception of reality, divorcing our definition of authenticity from its former prerequisite of physical existence – by what means? to what ends? What are "the developmental tendencies of art under present conditions of production?" Are we moving towards "the art of a classless society," or does the geometric proliferation of art and artists inevitably tend toward "a processing of data in the Fascist sense?"

    My aim is to evaluate the validity of Benjamin’s theories as they apply to the new realm of digital art. Has increased participation by the masses provided a new safeguard against the oppression of the individual, or does a culture in which everyone can call himself an artist relentlessly drag the exceptionally talented down to the level of the common man? Is the unprecedented reproductive potential of hypermedia a fulfillment of Benjamin's prophecies, or is digital art a fundamentally different concept to which previous theories cannot be fruitfully applied?

 I. Technical vs. Digital Reproduction
 

Around 1900 technical reproduction had reached a standard that not only permitted it to reproduce all transmitted works of art and thus to cause the most profound change in their impact upon the public; it also had captured a place of its own among the artistic processes.
                                      The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
        Benjamin acknowledges that the notion of an oft copied work of art is not a new one. He traces the development of reproductive technology from the Greek foundries through the advent of woodcutting, movable type, engraving and lithography. It is here, he argues, that the means of artistic reproduction came to have a discernible influence on original works that were being created. The relative ease, speed and cheapness of lithography "permitted graphic art for the first time to put its products on the market, not only in large numbers as hitherto, but also in daily changing forms."
 
         Digital reproduction has certainly increased the relative accessibility of all types of artistic creation, but the artistic attributes of such reproductions do not significantly differ from those produced by earlier methods.

A jpeg rendition of the Mona Lisa is unquestionably a reproduction, devoid of both the uniqueness and aura of the original. The reproduction of original works by digital rather than mechanical means is merely a methodological variation of the same concept. There is no question of these new versions supplanting the works that they are based upon - Penn's CETI program is not creating electronic facsimiles of Renaissance era Shakespearean texts with the ultimate aim of doing away with Furness Memorial Library and replacing it with a parking garage. In that sense, the difference between scanned and uploaded texts and paintings and a Gutenberg Bible is purely one of form.

    Paintings, statues and manuscripts are treated to ameliorate the effects of aging and pollution - a process that inevitably corrupts the artist's original intent with traces, however subtle, of the restorer's aesthetic ideology. Any physical object's "unique existence at the place where it happens to be" is an inescapably transient phenomenon. The same rule applies to digital reproductions of art. Their tools - Quark Xpress, Adobe Photoshop and a host of other programs with sophisticated image editing capabilities - merely mimic the effects of  the laborious "preservation" processes enacted on the originals.

    Photography and film, which were the epitome of technological achievement in Benjamin's lifetime, have achieved such canonized status that it is difficult to imagine a time when they were considered artistically unorthodox, even suspect. However, Benjamin is correct in pointing out that these developments "freed the hand of the most important artistic function which henceforth devolved only upon the eye looking into a lens." The speed and ease of capturing photographic and cinematic images made all previous innovations seem insignificant in comparison. The increases in quantity and accessibly were likewise unprecedented.
 
    Hypermedia has extended the revolutionary potential of photography and cinema in redefining our conception of authenticity, but as with still art, the digitization of the reproductive process does not alter the fundamental assumptions under which art been created throughout human history. The encoding of images that were initially captured on film is not an attempt to make the artist's original vision into something new; it is simply a new method of disseminating the material. In fact, hypermedia has greatly enhanced the ability of filmmakers and film critics to study and compare cinematographic art without resorting to abstraction (see University of Maryland professor Robert P. Kolker's The Moving Image Reclaimed for a detailed explanation of how digital encoding helps to preserve authenticity in his field).

    Insofar as one accepts Benjamin's assertion that reproduction "may not touch the actual work of art, yet the quality of its presence is always depreciated" and acknowledges that any method of copying "detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition," digital art has certainly contributed to the "withering of aura" that characterizes postmodern society's
attitude towards works of art. In the absence of ritual, art's meaning has indeed come to be located in the realm of politics.

II. Digital Creations

    A new generation of artists are compiling a body of works that are specifically intended to be presented on a computer screen. Are these works intrinsically lacking in the explicit quality of singularity that Benjamin attributes to true art, or are they the only purely unique art that we have left?
 
    Objects that exist in virtual reality remain untouched in their essence by the constant progress in their means of representation. New monitors may display images with greater resolution, new speakers produce clearer and richer tones, but the binary sequences that represent an artist's "original" effort cannot be modified with the excuse that time and exposure to the elements has distorted the physicality of the object. To modify the source file of a digital work of art is to obliterate its existence and create an entirely new object whose difference from its predecessor is an unambiguous mathematical certainty.

    Benjamin's theories of authenticity, formulated years before any kind of digitization was developed, seem to find their fullest expression in the theory and practice of hypermedia. The existence of digital art is inextricably entwined with its mode of representation and at the same time completely independent of it. The assembled code that constitutes a digital work of art 
bears no resemblance to the art as it is meant to be viewed. Its "unique existence" has meaning for the observer only when filtered through the deciphering processes of a Web browser. The result of this translation is the art as it truly exists, without consideration of storage or transport, displayed on the monitor in undeniable authenticity and utter lack of location. For example, this illustration by digital artist Nancy Stahl was transferred into my essay as a collection of symbols completely meaningless to the human observer (for a graphic demonstration of this fact, right click on the image and select "View Image," then right click again and select "View Source." ). However, the image as she envisioned it is accurately represented through the good offices of Netscape, and the existence of the work of art, its authenticity, its aura, is present on this computer screen in exactly the same way that it was on hers. No single hard drive can lay claim to possession of the original image, yet it is undeniably a unique creation.
 


 

© Nancy Stahl

III. The Social and Artistic Significance of Hypermedia

                    "The mass is a matrix from which all traditional behavior towards works of art issues today in a new form. Quantity has been transmuted into quality. The greatly increased mass of participants has produced a change in the mode of participants... a man who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it... in contrast, the distracted mass absorbs the work of art.
                                                         The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

        In considering the digital versus mechanical reproduction of art, Benjamin's theories seem to be easily applicable, since proliferation, accessibility and the consequent shift from cult to consumer value are merely enhanced by the advent of hypermedia technology. However, the issue of hypermedia creation of artistic works compels us to tackle the issue of interactivity in a way that Benjamin was unable to. Does the universal editing capacity of an Internet audience mean that a work of art is absorbed by them, or does the ability to manipulate how a work is viewed draw the observer deeper into the artistic experience than was previously possible. Is hypermedia an absorbed or an absorbing phenomenon?

    Glenn A. Kurtz's The Aesthetics of Scale finds a parallel between Benjamin's theories on the revolution in perception created by film and the current "aesthetic of multiple scales" that is being shaped by the increasing use of hypermedia for artistic purposes. This new mode of creation is fundamentally different from was has come before it. Using hypermedia merely to broaden the spectrum of accessibility for reproductions of "traditional" works of art would constitute a tragic underreaching on the part of both creators and observers of digital art. As Kurtz states, "[multimedia's] significance will emerge only when it changes how we see, when it changes what we understand by an "image." To be revolutionary, multimedia must be more than a new technology, it must become a new conceptual art."

     Thus far, participation in hypermedia creation has adhered to Benjamin's observation that "the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character." Just as with writing half a century earlier, visual and aural artistic license "is now founded on polytechnic rather than specialized training and thus becomes common property." Literally millions of people in this country alone posess all the resources needed to publish their creations online. It can be argued that widespread technical capability results in a plethora of mediocre artistic output, with quality being buried under rather than transmuted into quantity. Benjamin cites a passage Aldous Huxley's Beyond the Mexique Bay as an example of this type of thinking, but he himself does not subscribe to the notion that accessibility can outstrip the resources of a finite pool of talent. Rather, he maintains that the ability of each observer to become an artist increases the value of art, creating more of a shared experience and diminishing the cult influence that Fascism relies upon to retain its popular mandate.
 
    The unique power of hypermedia to supply the positive aspects of both the mass consumption and mystical/religious traditions of producing art simultaneously is something that Benjamin did not foresee. Because digital art is so incredibly inexpensive to produce and make available to a large group of potential viewers, art is being created without any thought of entertaining the mass of viewers or obtaining their approval. For the cost of a computer and an Internet connection, electronic sounds and images can be disseminated to the masses at a rate of efficiency that print and broadcast media can never hope to accomplish. While digital art certainly can be created with a specifically mercenary intent, "art for art's sake" is not required to give place to commercialization. As exemplified by the common tactic of placing banners advertising commercial sites on nonprofit sites of the same genre  (click here to view an instance of this practice), creativity and commerce on the Web exist in a mutually supportive relationship. In the infinite universe of cyberspace, there is room enough for all kinds and qualities of art - Pepsi logos and Picassos alike. The art that is absorbing and the art that is absorbed are no longer in such danger of coalescing.

 


Bibliography
 
Walter Benjamin – works, criticism and contemporary theory

Benjamin, Andrew and Peter Osborne. Walter Benjamin’s Philosophy: Destruction and
    Experience. London: Routlege, 1994.

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Edited and with an introduction by Hannah Arendt;
    translated by Harry Zohn. Publisher: New York : Schocken Books, 1969, c1968.

The origin of German tragic drama. Translated by John Osborne; with an
    introduction by George Steiner. London ; New York : Verso, 1998.

Reflections: essays, aphorisms, autobiographical writing. Translated by
    Edmund Jephcott; edited and with an introduction by Peter Demetz. New York:
    Schocken Books, 1986, c1978.

Buck-Morss, Susan. Title: The dialectics of seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades project.
    Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989.
 
Bush, Vannevar. "As We May Think." Originally published in the July 1945 issue of The
    Atlantic Monthly. Available at: http://www.ps.uni-sb.de/~duchier/pub/vbush/vbush-all.shtml

Jacobson, Manfred and Evelyn M. Jacobson, trans. The correspondence of Walter Benjamin,
    1910-1940. Edited and annotated by Gershom Scholem and Theodor W. Adorno. Chicago:
    University of Chicago Press, 1994.

McCole, John. Walter Benjamin and the antinomies of tradition. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell
    University Press, 1993

Nagele, Rainer. Theater, theory, speculation: Walter Benjamin and the scenes of modernity.
    Baltimore: Johns Hop :

Wolin, Richard. Walter Benjamin, an aesthetic of redemption. New York : Columbia University
    Press, 1982. Note: 1994 edition with a new introduction by the author available from
    University of California Press.

 

 
II. Hypermedia Theory
 

Bruckman, Amy. "Cyberspace is not Disneyland: the role of the artist in a networked  world."
    Written under the auspices of the MIT Media Lab’s Epistemology and Learning Group for the
    Getty Art History Information Program.
    Available at: http://www.ahip.getty.edu/cyberpub/bruckman.html

Delany, Paul and George P. Landow, eds. Hypermedia and Literary Studies. Cambridge: The
    MIT Press, 1991.

Kac, Eduardo. "Interactive Art on the Internet." Available at:
    http://ekec.org/InteractiveArtontheNet.html

Kurtz, Glenn A. The Aesthetics of Scale. Copyright 1997.
    Available at http://www.cel.sfsu.edu/MSP/Instructors/Kurtz/Aesthetic.html

McGann, Jerome. "The Rationale of Hypertext." Available at:
    http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/public/jjm2f/rationale.html

Ryan, Marie-Laure. "Immersion vs. Interactivity: Virtual Reality and Literary Theory."
    Available at: http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/postmodern_culture/v005/5.1ryan.html

 

III. Digital Art Resources
 

            (Re)Soundings  - peer-reviewed "hypermedia periodical in the humanities"

            MIT Media Lab - research center for both technical and aesthetic multimedia issues

            Adobe Art Gallery - this virtual gallery on the Adobe web site offers a varied collection
                                           of hypermedia works by professional digital artists.

            Postmodern Culture - journal of postmodern theory, publishes both hypermedia and
                                             plain text documents