Most of the art I consumes, music, movies, text, and images, comes in a digital format. A virtually unlimited digital feast for the mind and senses. And with this, the aura of exclusive access to the original that once gave cultic status to art has disappeared.
Recently I’ve been re-reading Walter Benjamin The Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. This short book by an eclectic Berlin philosopher written in 1935 continues to resonate. Benjamin examines how the aura of originality is devalued with photographic reproduction. Some his arguments still work even as we debate his conclusions.
At the start of Section V, Benjamin distinguishes between polarities of the “cultic”, the unseen value of an image and its “display”, value to the perceiver. Having a precious item in a vault is cultic value, part of a cult of exchange value. This is very different from “display value”, which is simply what you most enjoy looking at? These are a different set of values to what art costs to buy or to make: “display value” is the aesthetic separated from the economic.
Benjamin didn’t live long enough to witness the results of digital reproduction on the arts. Where the repetition becomes meaningless and, even torturous, producing overdose reactions (for example, a Barry Manilow song on repeat).
With repeat viewing, everyone can become an expert and a critic.
When there is no original, as the digital is the original, there can only be variations: the director’s cut, the extended version, the remix, the extended dance mix, the unofficial release… the t-shirt, the movie, the game … Market segmentation to sell more. Benjamin expected an increase in commodification. However, in the long term, the only ones who have made massive profits from the arts in the age of digital reproduction have been the warehouse owners and distributors.
As the aura of originality becomes more nebulous in the digital age. The record collections of Baby Boomers gather dust, and their libraries of books are given away. Now creating unique works of art is a political statement; the intention is for them to remain private, or at least constricted and restricted, drawcard attractions for blockbuster exhibitions.
Now the aura of cultic value is an area for grifters to exploit as once priests preyed on their flocks offering unseen values. NFT sellers offer ownership of digital properties, like buying seating in heaven. Will the fetichism of owning something unique become just another kink of appreciation?