(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 seventh and eighth sections of Benjamin’s piece.)
The nineteenth-century dispute as to the artistic value of painting versus photography today seems devious and confused. The twentieth-century dispute as to the value of the digital over the analog (for sound, for video, for anything able to be translated into binary code) is this dispute, redux: how much of the “real” thing are we getting in the object-as-remade, and how much of the “real” could we have ever gotten, anyway? Does the object-as-made have it? Maybe, maybe not; but with the conversion of works of art into digital forms, there has been a correspondingly increased emphasis on the condensed, on the compact. The exhibition value, as Benjamin puts it, of the is precisely that it does not take up the space that it inhabited previously (and even then out of pure necessity: a given sculpture takes up a given amount of the room). Its habitation of that space was not so much an afterthought to its cult value as a conduit for it; without a plane to make itself known against, the cult object becomes conquerable and deflated, deprived of its form. The “rituals” surrounding such an object loan their legitimacy from these particulars of space and form, and when these lenders are lost, so is the sense of reality that the ritual of art-viewing in question has. New rituals can eventually be devised, and are—as I mentioned before with regard to advertising and its ingenious fusion of the cult value and exhibition value of a given object—but such sheer changes in presentation as are made to paintings when reproduced via facsimiles in a paperback edition, as with A Humument, can produce catastrophic effects for the cult value of the original. The exhibition value and the viewing convenience it provides are prized instead. One could say that the art object—or the objects in question here, the paintings—are continually freed from the bounds of the physical and instead distilled to their “essence,” but the essence is not the same as the aura: Spicer’s “real lemon,” for instance, is not the zing of the juice or the color yellow, which might be essential to its being a lemon, but the bulbous fruit itself. A Humument is available for download as an iPhone app; in this form, its paintings shrink even further, almost—though not quite—to the point of their re-creation. We move from holding the bones of a dead animal to the embryo of a new one.
The debate here is not one of whether or not the art object—whether it be the object-as-made or the object-as-remade—successfully mines something of the “real” of that which it depicts. If this is the goal, then the argument over the value of painting versus photography which Benjamin cites is not so misguided; but in the sense that we accept works of art not merely as depicters of “real” things but as themselves additions to the numerable corpus of objects, this argument fails to account for the affront to the aura that mechanical reproduction constitutes. More specifically, it fails to address the issue of an original artwork and its reproduction as an issue of determining reality, after defining the reality of art in terms of the aura, of cult and exhibition value; this concern over the materiality of art’s making should be a preface and not a footnote to discussing its success in terms of mimesis. That which is continually made and remade by axles and gears appears more and more a product of something besides its own meaning—it is no longer self-generative. It is no longer tautologically valid. When the age of mechanical reproduction separated art from its basis in cult, the semblance of its autonomy disappeared forever. Not its significance or its capacity to convey, but the semblance of its autonomy: a deus ex machina in many ways, the seemingly sought-after epiphany which is taken to be native to a near-religious artistic experience comes, instead, from the factory. But this does not force us to view its metamorphosis as all-encompassing; its departure from the realm of cult objecthood appears only to some, only unilaterally. To most, it might be said, it flickers between the altar and the assembly line. Séverin-Mars on film: What art has been granted a dream more poetical and more real at the same time?
Where does the human rescind—or relocate—to, in all of this? To return to Séverin-Mars and the preoccupation with film that Benjamin also shares: The audience’s identification with the actor is really an identification with the camera. The camera, which mimics not the mode of production of a work of art (as do printed paintings, as do consumable versions of A Humument) but of its consumption. Though one could say that it is the image projected from the film itself which is to be viewed by the human eye, the camera constructs its narrative and presents itself so that it might be confused for a doppelgänger of the eye. It is true that, when the audience turns away, the camera and all of its projected images continue to “see” despite the lack of any consciousness processing them. But if the goal of the camera is to reproduce the experience of sight, then in another sense the camera aims not merely to displace the art object but also its viewers. To find both the object-as-made and the experience of its consumption commoditized is a dual challenge to the human viewer already adrift in the mechanisms of reproduction. The appropriation of the biological apparatus of sight into the unthinking region of the machine confuses the question of to what extent, if any, the object-as-remade transform into an object-as-made over the course of its reproduction; it delays the rectification of this troubling process by giving us reason to doubt our own faculties, or at least to reevaluate them in the face of their imitation.
If the effects of mimicked consumption—which is then fed back, via exhibition and ingrained-ness in mediums like film—cannot be totally avoided, then the question becomes one of description: how exactly does the interaction of the audience with the art object change when its perceptual toolbox is interfered with covertly? With film, there is a philosophical weight to this interference by which the audience takes the position of the camera; its approach is that of testing. Prompted to adopt that which seems so much like our own bodily ways of seeing, we in fact adopt more: the sentiments of commodification, for which production, exhibition, and consumption are the only three mantras, become embedded in any attempts to evaluate the medium. And so critical response (“critical” meaning not so much officiated discourse but as psychological reaction) in turn becomes imbued with the mechanistic aspects of what is before them as an integral part of what we might have otherwise termed its aura, its art-being—save for the fact that the “aura” in this situation is not, in Benjamin’s estimation, the same as that which the ancient object filled ripe with cult value possesses. A Humument is relentlessly re-shaped not just by Phillips but by the fact of its presence as a commoditized object working both in favor of, and against, the “original” of which it is “derivative.” This claim about the nature of the work may be deemed a fallacy by some—one can always insist on describing a work of art exactly how its creator wants it to be described—but it is difficult to argue that the unitization of existence need not be explained. In the hall of mirrors composed of these “originals” and “derivatives,” rays of resemblance travel measurable distances; everything is explicable, especially in historical terms, but the illusion of the original “aura” can pass through the eye and aperture alike.