Tag Archives: Walter Benjamin

Art in the age of digital reproduction

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?

Ownership is irrelevant to Owels piece, display value is everything

The future of culture

I was going to write a review of online exhibitions during the lockdown. Most had a note on their website saying that they were closed — “indefinitely’/temporary/for installation” due to COVID-19 virus. I had a little play with at the NGV’s online version of their Keith Haring/Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition but that was like driving around an area using Google street view.

So I thought about it some more. The larger problem for art galleries is that contemporary visual art is still all about objects in a space. And not just any objects and not just any space; art objects in art spaces. It is a problem that they have brought on themselves by emphasising both the object and the space. If only they had considered more non-objective art outside of art space.

The commercial art galleries business model is to sell objects. So I blame, because they can change, the non-commercial galleries for not being progressive enough and following the art model sold by the commercial galleries. 

What happens when art leaves the physical space? What is the difference between the cultic object and the display? (see Walter Benjamin The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction section 5) What is the difference between loosing an object, like the Mona Lisa, in outer-space or at the bottom of the ocean, and not being able to remove an image of you posing naked with grandfather clock from the internet? Street artists and graffiti writers know something about the online social media display value of their art as distinct from the physical object.

And why are we still thinking about the arts? We should be more concerned with culture and not the arts, for culture is a larger set that includes the arts. Likewise, ‘culture worker’ is a broader category than ‘artist’ and ‘poet’ and all those other self-indulgent terms.

For culture is about people’s lives — Indigenous readers know what I’m talking about. Culture provides more of a sense of identity than a job, culture is what makes your life and work meaningful. Culture is not an industry and the value of culture can never be assessed in purely economic terms. While the arts industry can be seen as self-serving and little different from the adult entertainment industry; culture cannot. There are items of culture that are worth more than money, that should not be sold or does Uluru have a sales price? And after admitting that there are culturally significant objects that are outside of capitalist market forces, funding culture outside of a capitalist market is logical.

However, the small-minded, greedy, conservative people who run Australia cannot understand anything other dollars and bullets so currently there is no Minister for Culture in Australia and the arts is part of the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications (no Oxford comma in the Ministry).

Now we have the time to change our minds and think about the bigger picture of culture.

Glenn Romanis, Stanley Street project

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