(This post is a continuation of a series. Italicized lines in this piece are sourced from Walter Benjamin’s essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, and each corresponds to the section of the original essay in which it appears. This second segment continues to respond to Tom Phillips’s A Humument in light of the fifth and sixth sections of Benjamin’s piece.)
I have to ask, as I have asked before, what changes when the painting is unhinged from the wall: because, as long as it hangs there, its space dictates that it be “read” a very particular way. What is this way? Not like a book—not like anything I could hold in my hands; nothing like the mass-distributed editions of A Humument, which themselves have reproduced Phillips’s paintings as digestible components of paper mulch dyed with ink in specific locations. I say reproduced here, when in fact this term is misleading; the paintings aren’t remade to the same dimensions, nor with the same material. They are not reproductions as much as they are re-creations, or, if the negative value of this term can be expunged from its application, reductions—reductions in the sense that they minimize both the size of the painting, and the forum in which it is viewed. This is the forum of the easel, the museum, the wall, the standing-back-from; in most cases, the viewer is displaced, is cast as a superfluity, as unnecessary intruder. A book must be held, must be opened, though when it is opened it, too, becomes a sort of exhibition—a viewed exhibition, less fixed in space, able to be manipulated and marked up or even, if the occasion calls for it, destroyed. This is the book: it both is, and is not, the painting. Without the wall, I can touch the object-as-remade, I can subject it to by body (and, in some rare cases—in the case of an encounter with the original object itself—I can subject the object-as-made to my body, to the physical fact of my presence). Some impermeable membrane that separated the viewed from the viewer is, if not entirely dissolved, punctured; the dialectic is spoken face-to-face, body-to-body, and not disseminated through the structure of formal gallery viewing and post-hoc criticism.
In A Humument, another sort of physical encounter takes place: that between the “untouchable” text of Mallock’s novel—an object-as-made, with all the pretensions to completion and finality that such a state entails—and Phillips’s ever-moving hand. But here a differentiation is necessary between the conventional sense of how one type of artwork is to be exhibited and its value as an object whose purpose it is to be esoteric, to be clandestinely exalted. Works of art are received and valued on different planes. Two polar types stand out; with one, the accent is on the cult value; with the other, on the exhibition value of the work. The lineage of the publicly-available text ascends (or descends) from the vaunted object of scriptures, when the physical existence of the text itself could not be split from the testimony it contained: the Word, as it were, made flesh. It is hard, in the age of the mass-market paperback, to imagine a text as a thing unable to be reproduced—as a thing unable to even be conceived of sans its specific materiality—but such was a pre-Gutenberg reality. And as language, carried within text, has become liberated from its relegation to numerable instances of existence, cult value has been made to compete with exhibition value: the urge to condense, to enforce scarcity, brushes up against the desire to produce and proliferate. And this is not without effect. With the different methods of technical reproduction of a work of art, its fitness for exhibition increased to such an extent that the quantitative shift between its two poles (i.e. its multiplication in the world, its re-population of the world with more versions of itself) turned into a qualitative transformation of its nature. The aura of the cult object rescinds into the background and we are left with a past made, if not anymore sacred, newly fascinating. Untouchability as a cult value is, quite literally, painted over—eroded by Phillips—but then it reemerges: in perfect-bound, glossy pages that call the bluff of the pen or the brush.
Modification as an artistic practice (which, to some extent, all art practice is—matter “neither created nor destroyed”) is one of the last refuges of the human in the advent of mechanical reproduction. Only via a non-commoditized form of alteration, an act that leaves physical traces that cannot be originated by a machine, can the human hand make itself known against that which thoughtlessly reproduces by command. This kind of slavish manufacturing is useful for the above-mentioned aim of exhibition; it facilitates the distribution of the object-as-remade to viewers for whom it is the closest they will ever come to encountering the object-as-made. So it is, in some senses, undesirable to completely do away with the mechanisms of publishing: reproductions, when properly viewed, are lenses—albeit cloudy ones—into the artworks they contend to reproduce. But a process can happen by which the sense of distance we feel is flattened. We are in danger when we think the original not a lens but a thing-in-itself: when we mistake the object-as-remade for the object-as-made, when we relativize the process and results (not products) of artistic creation to the un-artistic (as is often, though not always, the case) construction of goods to be consumed. To see the object of reproduction as a means to reach the original is to understand that the length of distance between the two is greater than would be experienced if one stood in front of the objects themselves. It is to understand that the aura, as strange a thing as it is, cannot be molded and cast, cannot be formulized and concocted. The organic confrontation of a viewer with the original artwork consists of an alchemy that does not lend itself, by its nature, to easy invocation—or, really, to any sort of summoning. This is not to say that reproductions do not have their own auras, but that those auras are not wholly the auras of the originals that they claim to “be,” or at least to represent. The distance that tiers one stage of the engagement from the next is constantly being flattened by its reproduction. Instances of modification interrogate the slickness coating these objects; they make un-reproducible—or yet to be reproduced—moves across the surface of an object-as-remade, bring it back into the territory of incompleteness. In the destruction of an object-as-remade, the recognizably human bursts through; the aura of the cult object supersedes, if only temporarily, the aura of the object built for exhibition. It is no accident that the portrait was the focal point of early photography.
All of what I have said so far, though, presupposes that viewers have epistemological access to temporal ideas about when a work of art was created and when it reaches them, when it is becoming increasingly true that we do not have access to such information anymore. We do not know when a book was written, and the artwork we most encounter in the terrain of capitalist society is a wilderness of advertisements, none of which reveal anything about the nature of their making but lend themselves categorically to commodification. And more than any of its array of mediums, that of the photographic image takes precedence: visual information is conveyed to the mind quicker, and more gutturally, than linguistic symbols that necessitate active thought and interpretation. We look for the human, or for the world as represented through human sight, in these photographs which mimic or abuse cult aura but do not originally possess it (they possess it by remaking it). One could say that the cult of remembrance of loved ones, absent or dead, offers a last refuge for the cult value of the picture, but this would be only partially true: the photograph has taken on another cult value, that of minimized distance between seen-thing and seer, that of appropriation. It is a different sort of cult value, one that shares the impetus of the original—that of a scarcity, a significance that is significance precisely because of its scarcity and the status it implies—but which embeds exhibition as part of its value. In this way, its cult value is a sort of illusion: it is no longer available to a curated gathering of “worshippers” but to the purchasing public.
Perhaps those with financial means constitute a group of the ordained; perhaps there is no ground to valorize those motivated to exclusivity via social resources and those motivated via financial ones. Regardless, they have conflated into a cauldron of elements: the aura—now muffled in the background—of the original object, the improvised aura of its reproduction, and the newer cult value which is a combination of these auras with a sense of the object as inherently designed for exhibition. In other words, the advertisement, and all of the eerie ways it glorifies and perverts for its purposes. Let us return to photographs (one form of “the image”) and consider that, relatively for the first time, captions have become obligatory. And it is clear that they have an altogether different character than the title of a painting. They are expositional, in service of the newly-assigned intent of the object to reach a seemingly un-exclusive (but which, in truth, is brutally and explicitly exclusive: no advertisement speaks to the penniless) cadre of those who might be moved—to act, to purchase—by it. A Humument straddles these lines. It cradles the cult value of the painting as conveyer of the archetypal, and the text as a sanctified object; but at the same time it remodels the text, and subjugates the painting to the service of this remodeling. The human hand is moving—is visible in the wreckage—but in being photographed, in being printed, has been stilled.