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Walter Benjamin begins his essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction by stating that, “In principle a work of art has always been reproducible.” This statement is quintessentially, both the gist and the concern raised by him in order to highlight how “art” with advancement of technology is molding itself into new forms, thus shaping the perception of people and their thinking. In the process he introduces the term, aura which is one of the most commonly invoked terms in media theory. The aura for Benjamin represents the originality and authenticity of a work of art that has not been reproduced. He has focused on film and photography as the new means of mechanical reproduction, which were the two major technological advancements at his time. He connects these two new technologies with the shift in the way people think and how it has affected the various media industries. The medium of art has changed tremendously through ages and he talks about the loss of aura of the original work. The shift in the perspective and the growth has led to various new mediums to be formed because of which the original work of art has been losing its ‘aura’.
Benjamin was trying to understand the cultural significance of reproductive technology, such as photography that allowed for the mass reproduction of images. This was something that at the time of the early twentieth century had not yet been encountered. He offers an insight by stating the consequences that film and photography were having on the work of art. Since the essay was printed more than 80 years ago, reproductive technology has proliferated even more so throughout the society by the means of Internet, smartphones, computer games enhanced television, augmented reality and 3D-Printing. Not only it has proliferated but is far more accessible than ever before. Benjamin agues that due to the rise of reproductive technologies, distraction has substituted contemplation, for it is fundamentally social. Distraction swaps a viewer’s thoughts by a set of carefully coordinated set of images (film) thus stopping the viewer imaginary to take a form of itself which is central to understanding a piece of art. For Benjamin, contemplation is something that is asserted by the author on his audience by letting his work of art absorb the audience thus creating an ‘aura’ around it.
Oppositely, distraction involves the audience absorbing the art. This change in the reception of the art is due to this state of distraction. A classic example is the case of film. “The film with its shock effect meets this mode of reception halfway. The film makes the cult value recede into the background not only by putting the public in the position of the critic, but also by the fact that at the movies this position requires no attention. The public is an examiner, but an absent-minded one.” Benjamin’s perspective stresses on how an individual and their art form a bond that should last in it’s original for conservation purposes. “In even the most perfection, one thing is lacking: the here and now of the work of art- its existence in a particular place”. For example, getting an autographed picture with someone won’t have the same value If someone purchases said photo online because the person didn’t have the chance to interact with the signer which is a creation of a moment in itself.
Benjamin states how technological art creates a new form of alteration through conception. Subsequently, he mourns the loss of “real art” for a different reason. He is a firm believer that every piece of art has a certain aura about it and when it gets reproduced, it loses the initial appeal that it once had. For example, a painting has an aura because it’s an original creation. He goes further to say that a camera operator on a film set is robbing the audience of the full story because they are only filming and editing what they want and not what the audience deserves to see. Benjamin argues that artists have been looking and willing to experiment with new tools that came their way to reproduce images, thus pushing the boundaries of their artistic abilities. The camera, for example, gives an artist greater access and prowess to reproduce a scene as compared to a sculpture. Further, tools need not always be tangible in nature. They can take intangible, abstract form, such as a computer algorithm for manipulation of images. Photo Manipulation has become such a huge market since the last eight years that now the industry is valued at more than 1 billion dollars!
As Benjamin observed in his essay, with expanding publication nearly everyone is free to publish what they want to. Hence the division between the author and the public disappears. What remains is the functional division- the author happens to be an entity writing at a particular time and the rest, the public. As with everything in the world, manipulation of images has both a constructive and a destructive sense attached to it. The rising phenomenon of the ‘fake news’ concurrently with ‘morphed images’, something which Benjamin perhaps wouldn’t have foreseen, has shaken the world to say the least. With the creative rights resting with nearly everybody, these destructive forces have shocked the world. Instances of fake photo IDs, fake identities, groom victims, revenge have been reported for at-least a decade now.Further, one of the things that Benjamin saw and addressed in his essay was how ‘new media’ (film and photography at his time, Internet and its byproducts in this Information age) changes the way in which people interact with each other which an array of exciting opportunity provided by it. It enables interaction, sharing and participation among people at same time from multiple locations. “Mechanical reproduction of art changes the reaction of the masses toward art. The reactionary attitude toward a Picasso painting changes into the progressive reaction toward a Chaplin movie. The progressive reaction is characterized by the direct, intimate fusion of visual and emotional enjoyment with the orientation of the expert. Such fusion is of great social significance.” Internet, in our age has offered people an opportunity to be their own creative head, express media products or art works and display it to a global audience. For this reason, the greatly increased mass of participants has changed the mode of participation: the way of producing, sharing, enjoying and criticizing the work of art. With the advent of YouTube, a parallel stream of media is emerging, very different from the commercial media which Benjamin gave reference in his essay. This film movement, if I may call it, is known for its light-weight content, realism and naturalism, symbolic elements majorly geared towards younger generation has gained immense popularity since a last few years. Such has been this ecosystem that virtually anybody can be a creator, a critic or audience. This has led to art and media being merge causing the width between the artist and society to decrease.
Contemporary visual artists have embraced these new technological developments by creating websites as a natural extension to their artistic output. Every artist has the urge to maximize his audience and the websites like Instagram and Snapchat have given them the liberty to go and show-case their art. However, the Internet is like an open web forum where there are no guidelines, no establishments, and no quality control thus the art represented in the net will not only be subjected to aesthetic judgments of the art but also on the self-promotion of the artists. This not only induces the visitor to become acquainted with the art but also with the artists.
Another issue pointed by Walter Benjamin is the issue of authenticity and originality of the work of art using the modern technologies. “The whole sphere of authenticity is outside technical – and, of course, not only technical – reproducibility. Confronted with its manual reproduction, which was usually branded as a forgery, the original preserved all its authority; not so vis-à-vis technical reproduction.” For artists of 21st century, privacy may not be a matter because it is he that has to gather an audience and the best way is to ‘throw’ your art out in the cyberspace. But anonymity and identity are something that should be taken cautiously. Since participants cannot access the each other physically and thus the resulting anonymity, the reproduction and imitation of ‘art’ in the usage of contemporary media should be perceived carefully because there is no conceptual distinction between the original and the reproduced work. This hold true especially for digital art including photography.
The whole ecosystem of Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter thrives on the fact that fake and imitating accounts upload images/photos of the art with a better caption and thus a better marketing technique to garner more influencers and supporters. “The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced. Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter. And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object.” This leads to diminish the distance between the artist and the spectator leading to the creation of a psychological inapproachability. This inapproachability leads to a situation of a continual degradation of the aura of the work of art by continuous replication over time by the mechanical reproduction.
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