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The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction

By Christopher Matthew Wise (cwise@knox.edu)

The Internet is, and has been for the past couple of years, a hot topic for those of us who are curious to see where it will take our society. We have been promised an information renaissance, where everybody has access to all sorts of information and everyone has a voice to be heard. We have also been forewarned of an apocalypse in terms of society, where the people are estranged because reality is confused with "virtual" reality. In either case, the Internet poses new questions for humanity and society.

It seems that there is a notion that technology leads art, that artistic practices are informed by technology ("Pandora Revisited: Art and New Technologies" 19). With this concept in mind, the Internet is a new medium that is worth discussing in terms of art. We should broaden our focus from the production of art to art practices--which includes the context in which we view and consider art--because, "contemporary 'high-tech' research proposes new dimensions for investigating perceptual and representational issues, expanding once in the scope of art practices" ("Pandora Revisited..." 19).

Our scope of art practices has been broadened in many ways. We have art that is made with computers and art that is posted on the internet. Moreover, it is the art that is posted on the Internet that is worth considering. We must ask ourselves what does it mean to use the new medium of the lnternet to show art work? and how is it received?

In answering these questions we must first familiarize ourselves with a talk that has been going on for a large part of this century beginning when Walter Benjamin asked what happens to art when it is reproduced mechanically and distributed? According to him, the art work looses its uniqueness, its "aura." His theory however, implies something that has to do more with the context with how the art is viewed. More importantly, Benjamin considers the work's social and art-historical position. Applying these same considerations, I intend to look at what happens to art when it is put into the context of the information super highway.

Since the beginning part of this century there has been a concern for the implications of mass producing art images. The development of photography and photo-printing techniques spawned the debate because for the first time in history all art objects could distributed. Moreover, because of the development of mechanical printing techniques, the photographed images could be produced in seemingly endless quantities.

The German man of letters, Walter Benjamin, chronicled many of the problems and achievements of the implications of reproducible and distributable art images in his landmark essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." In this essay, Benjamin celebrates the mechanical reproduction of art for its ability to reach the masses. He goes further to assert the benefit of taking art out of the hands of the privileged elite, who is the traditional audience for art. Implicit in his essay though is some degree of negativity that he associates with mass reproduced art objects. While it seems that Benjamin wanted to assert the benefits of mechanical reproduced art, he cannot help but describe that the implication of mass reproduced art is that the original art object is marginalized. So, while Benjamin advocates democratizing art by letting everyone view it, he has a problem with the idea that the reproduced art work will somehow be a second best to its original. Moreover, it seems that he implies that this relationship between the original and its copies could be detrimental to the uniqueness or "aura" of the original.

From what I have read while researching this paper, it seems that this Benjamin essay has not enjoyed much critical attention until recently. Benjamin's essay has resurfaced because recently our culture has become immersed in a fascination with a new media. The Internet has brought reproducibility to a new level. No longer do people have to buy printing presses or television air time to distribute art images to a mass audience. Instead, all they need is some computer equipment, which is even available at most public schools and libraries. It is because the Internet has exemplified and taken further the problems and triumphs of mechanical reproduction that Benjamin's text becomes very important to our discussion on art and its relationship to media; he foreshadowed some of the concerns that we have with art on the Internet.

To begin with, Benjamin was a Marxist. This fact is note-worthy because his political views, in relation to art necessitated a deconstruction of an art world that was controlled and maintained for the privileged elite. The patrons of art enjoyed their viewership because they had the financial means to buy and purchase art, to travel to other places for the purpose of viewing art and they were in control of the museum system. Also, since the elite were part of the class that bought art they were privy to other buyers' private collections. In the egalitarian cultural political society of which we are part, Benjamin's viewing politics are relevant.

The benefit of reproducing art on a mass scale therefore is that the art can reach a mass audience. The Internet is even more massive because it can reach audiences on a global scale without any materials, the web-sights existing in virtual space. When we go online, we can look at the murals and frescoes from the great European cathedrals without leaving our home or office. Benjamin says that, "...technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself... [enabling] the original to meet the beholder halfway..." (299). This means that the average office worker, construction worker, teacher, politician, school child, house wife, door man or venture capitalist can access one of these sights and see art that in its normal existence they would never be able to see, leveling the social political hierarchy of viewership.

Benjamin, however, is not quick to dismiss the problems that come from reproducing art objects in quantity. In fact, his argument concentrates itself not so much on the benefits of mechanical reproduction but rather on the problem of mechanical reproduction: "...his main postulate [is] that mechanical reproduction destroys the aura of works of art" (Knizek 357). Benjamin tells us that when we reproduce art work we separate it from its own time and place. The context in which we view the work is artificial. 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" (298). Using the example of the traditional role of art in religion and its ritual function, he says that, "...the unique value of the 'authentic' work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original value" (301). This social role of art is imperative to the works' "aura" even if the ritual or religious value of a work exists only within the context of the museum. Mass reproduction, then, severs the work from this social function. Reproducing art and distributing it detaches it from its history and its context thus destroying its aura.

However, Ian Knizek, in his critique of Benjamin's essay, "Walter Benjamin and the Mechanical Reproducibility of Art Works Revisited," is quick to note that Benjamin's concept of aura "refers to something which is not in the work of art" (358). Knizek notes that the aura that Benjamin describes is determined by society. Moreover, since the aura of a work does not exist within the work itself, mechanical reproduction does nothing to dislocate the work from its place in history. The work continues within its historical place because its aura is "communicated through oral tradition or art-historical research" (361). Since the aura of a work is "imaginary and not perceptual... There is no very good reason why even reproductions cannot appropriate for themselves the features composing the work's 'authenticity'" (361).

In light of Knizek's clarification of Benjamin's text, we must change the way we think about originality. We can understand now that the social value and the social role of a work is not something that exists within the work itself. Instead, the uniqueness of an art work is the product of the art world and its critiques of a given work. Knizek goes further to challenge Benjamin's essay by asserting that he doesn't think that at any point in history the aura of an art work has been destroyed by reproduction. This statement, however, is shortsighted, especially given the context of the Internet.

According to Knizek, and implicitly in Benjamin's essay, art objects and their uniqueness come as a result of their own relationship with history and the art world. Art books then, and magazines to a lesser extent, do nothing to destroy the uniqueness of art because they only reinforce its presence within history. For example, why would a painting be reproduced within a book if not to refer to it, strengthen its claim in the art-historical scope? The history according to Knizek is determined by the mechanical reproductions.

When art objects go on-line, though, something new happens. No longer are the art objects collected and reproduced to present them to a wide range of people. Instead, art objects are collected and displayed on the Internet for economic reasons. The context in which we view art on the Internet is then the context in which we engage the Home Shopping Network or QVC as Paul Zelecansky, in his article Shopping on the Home Image Network, is quick to note: "The typical artist home page, museum site, or on-line magazine and the twin QVCs share a common layering of information, personal appeals, and marketing strategies" (Zelevansky 47). The strategies that these TV and on-line buyers' markets use "is characterized by the graphic integration of image and text; the domination of photographic imagery; the use of menu structure for access and navigation: the clean, concentrated color and light of the screen, which buttresses the technological and authorial power of the message: and finally, the imperative to attract and hold the viewer's attention in an environment where alternative options are available with the click of a mouse or TV remote" (Zelevansky 47). All these things are designed to yield superficial information to a passive viewer. These strategies are not intended to present ideas or assert or challenge an art work within a specific historical role. Rather, an art work's role in history is marginalized. The work becomes an image, like any other advertisement, that is viewed and apprehended in an instant. Art no longer exists as art on the Internet. Art, when it goes on line, becomes the selling point or marketing tool of a producer's product, be that a membership to the MOMA or a coffee mug that says "The Chicago Art Institute" or a poster with a picture of a teddy bear on it.

Another feature of the on-line art scene is its links to other buying options on the Internet. In this case, not only are the art objects being used as icons for selling a product, but their disposability becomes reinforced by the user's access to alternative sights. As a surfer on the net if an image takes too long to load up, or if the image doesn't entice me to stay at a particular web page, I can click on my mouse and be in another time and place. The entire experience of viewing is changed in the climate of the Internet where its medium is controlled by the forces of capitalism and governed by principles of disposability. It is fitting here to note the new vocabulary that we have created to describe our on-line experiences. Consider how when we become "users" when we go online and visit a museum page instead of the "viewer" we once were in the context of the actual museum.

We must now return back to Benjamin s essay and consider his views of authenticity. Apparently, authenticity happens because of a works' historical position. What happens then, when we take the museum out of its historical position? Not only are we now reproducing art work in mass quantities but we are reproducing their viewing space. Knziek was correct when he said that "there are no indications at the present time that the surge of mechanical reproductions has affected in any way the western cultural heritage" (361). He is correct in making this statement because the art work carries its history on its back into books. When art work enters into the context of the Internet, however, the histories that books make no effort to describe is replaced by a historical context that is assigned to the work because it is on the Internet.

Art on the Internet is assigned a new history because it put into a context where viewers read the entire web-sight as part of the work. On the Internet images do not have much significance from one to the next. This is not surprising given Paul Zelevansky's statement that web-pages "are designed to be read as a form of visual/verbal collaboration accentuating short of condensed hits of information keyed to a menu of choices" (47-8). The art is being used as a marketing tool so that when we put art in the context of marketing it no longer is attached to its art historical history but instead to the social history of the company, organization or product that is being advertised.

We have seen that it is not the reproduction of art that becomes detrimental to the work. The reproduction doesn't compete with the history of the work. The web-page however, does. Because the web-page dislocates the work of art from his history, the "aura" of the work is distorted; Internet posting marginalizes art work. So, can it be said that there is no way that the Internet can contribute to our artistic history? Surly not.

It seems to me that the Internet can offer art some new ideas and problems to work through. As we have learned, high-tech "produces new dimensions for investigating perceptual and representational problems" ("Pandora Revisited..." 19). This fact means that artists can do nothing else but explore the Internet. The most exciting fact about it is that there is no cultural history to bind artists into a conventional mode of working. The only convention that there is on the Internet is that everyone is trying to entice their audience into buying. If this fact can be over come, the door to new avenues of expression s wide open.

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