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It’s all about the Benjamin, baby

Wow, I’d totally forgotten the pleasure of complete immersion in cultural theory, where everything is inscribed and mediated and passed through a sieve of Freud and Marx and Arnheim and Adorno, and everyone is intimate with Faust and the Symbolists and those pesky Dadaists!

It’s strange to reread Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in art school. The last time I read it, it was in the context of a film class; the time before that, for Science, Technology, and Modernity (alongside “The Dynamo and the Virgin” from The Education of Henry Adams I believe). The temptation for me is to treat the text itself as a (mechanically reproduced) work of art, though I still find in its Germanic convolutions an aura that no amount of typesetting or photocopying can efface.

One of the things Benjamin doesn’t really discuss is a work of art’s interpretation. He places most of the value of the work within the work itself, not in the space between it and the artist or it and its audience. The things I’ve found important in the essay, the sentences I’ve underlined in the various copies I’ve read, have changed as I have, my context filling in meanings that are not nearly as prescribed as the captioned pictures he mentions.

For instance, on this reading, I considered for the first time the perspective of a prospective creator of art. Every one of my thoughts was tempered by my six years in China, where works of art (and of commerce) are manually reproduced, in the case of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers for instance, thousands of times per day by skilled painters who have memorized every brush stroke and photometrically analyzed and synthesized every color. What happens to authenticity in a climate of mass manual counterfitting? And to art in an age when its creation is directed by market research and sold abroad to collectors in New York? What kind of aura will time bestow on a canvas painted in a workshop in Shanghai to conform to an American collector’s idea of Asian-ness? It seems to me that much of the artness of a work of art resides in the perception of the beholder. Which is why repressive governments still devote much of their attention to “supervising” art.

And which is also why new technology changes our very conception of art: things perceived in new ways are perforce going to affect the way people think of them. It’s the argument Wolfgang Schivelbusch puts forward in The Railway Journey: perception is shaped by culture. Reading Benjamin, it occurs to me that photography is to art what the railway journey was to travel—an overcoming of physical constraints by technological means, a move from belonging within a landscape or a tradition to consuming it. Trains allowed people to move faster than they ever had before and Schivelbusch argues that the new form of gazing on a moving flattened landscape punctuated by telegraph poles rather than laboriously traversing it on foot or astride an animal whose exertions were clearly perceptible actually paved the way for their acceptance of film—a similar kind of spectating.

Citing Breton, Benjamin makes a very similar argument while pinpointing art’s value in its ability to in some ways predict the future, its aspiration to be something technically impossible, interpreted retroactively as a premonition by those looking back when it has become technically feasible. I especially like the idea that this premonition involves a kind of shocking disjunction that technology is able to smooth over. In the example he gives of Dadaism as film’s precursor, he says that the cuts and constant shocks of film made palatable the much more explicit shocks of the Dadaists. Whereas they relied on traditional means of creating an effect of shock and disjunction, the technology of film internalized the effect. It’s a very similar argument to Schivelbusch’s, though in this case montage plays the role of the locomotive.

Another thing that struck me on this reading was this idea of The Masses. The Internet has changed our perception of the mass from a roiling but faceless political and economic force to an interconnected network of individuals, tangled together into a web but knowable and discrete in a way its Benjaminian predecessor was not. Google’s success as an advertiser stems from its success negotiating the new mass of individuals, from its ability to deploy a distinct message to each unlikely to be ignored or misinterpreted. The constraint of meaning that Benjamin attributes to photo captions and film has reached its apex in the manipulations of marketing: brand promises and directed messaging and product placement. Ambiguity is no longer to be tolerated in vernacular communication. Bridge and I went to see a play this weekend about three mothers who all become pregnant by technological means. The playwright spoke after the performance and explained to us that the play had been altered from the original and tailored specifically for us, a New York audience, so that we’d be maximally receptive to its message. The man is writing about fertility treatments, so I guess this approach is understandable, but is this what is becoming of art in the era of mass customization?

If we stand with Benjamin, we are to demand from art “an aspect of reality that is free of all equipment.” But increasingly, our reality is the equipment, our media becomes our message. We’ve entered a kind of William Gibson universe, the logical evolution of the movement he ascribes to print, the creation of the inextricable author/reader/critic who some times produces and some times consumes written words, now multiplied a thousandfold. We’ve moved beyond the magician and the surgeon to a new kind of paradigm, a combination of the two that embraces both interpretation and representation, the documentary and the fantastical, Muybridge and Méliès. What before was a mechanical intermediary has now become a giant pulsating collaborative work itself. Painters paint alone in a workshop. Film is made industrially in a giant factory. But increasingly, what I would call contemporary art is made in an ambient and instantly ubiquitous non-space. Connections are made within great collections of information, classifying and redefining and changing shape. Because of technology, it’s possible that the lost aura of authenticity Benjamin describes was actually lost only to him and that we of changed perception and technology have regained it in the placeless instant slices of reality that are available to us at the speed of thought.

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