Project The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction

This project is based on study of the Walter Benjamin essay The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction and Chapter One of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing  that is based on Benjamin’s essay. The project calls for the following questions on Berger’s book to be answered:

  • Do you find his (Berger’s) case convincing?
  • Do you think that a work of art removed from its original location grows or diminishes in meaning?
  • Does familiarity breed contempt?
  • Has Benjamin’s ‘aura’ been removed by the postcard?
I have set out my thoughts on each of these in turn below.
Do you find his case convincing?
I found Berger’s presentation of Benjamin’s ideas very compelling. The style of presentation seeks to simplify what are very complex ideas. Berger’s intent is to question some of the notions about the tradition of European painting and in particular about how we now see such art today.
He begins by suggesting that how we see things is directed by habit and convention. He focusses particularly on the convention of perspective in European painting. This convention implies that the viewer has to be a a particular place, at a particular time to see a particular scene. The convention of perspective gave European painting its sense of reality. He uses the 1923  film and quotation from Soviet film director Dziga Vertov to illustrate how the camera has changed this convention. We can now see things which happened a long way away and at different times. He also references how the birth of photography led to artists such as the Impressionists and Cubists to challenge the conventions of perspective. These arguments are compelling.
He moves on to show how mechanical reproduction of images has changed how we view paintings made long ago. He contends that originally such a painting would have been unique in terms of what it showed, where and when it was displayed, its history and how it was used in ritual, e.g. religious art. All of this created a unique presence or ‘aura’. In the age of mechanical reproduction its uniqueness now relies solely on the fact that it is the original work. The ‘aura’ is lost. Once again the arguments are persuasive.
He next illustrates how the art world has sought to mystify original works based on the rarity value. He references the fact that the National Gallery’s  catalogue entry for Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks  runs to over 14 pages and the way in which Leonardo’s cartoon The Virgin with St Anne and St John the Baptist  has become the most popular exhibit at the  National Gallery purely because of the monetary value it achieved. His argument is further supported by statistical data which shows that the majority of people when questioned say that Museums remind them of church demonstrating that a bogus religiosity has been created. Once again these arguments are effective.
He shows how reproduction gives images information value. Through isolating details, presenting narratives and introducing text the same image can be used to convey different meanings. He also demonstrates how the context in which images are viewed can create different readings.
In the final section he argues that for the first time images of art have entered the mainstream of life over which they have no power. He argues that very few people have noticed this as the means of reproduction are used to create an illusion that nothing has changed. I am less persuaded by this last point today as in the post modern 21st century there is much wider awareness how images are used to influence opinion.
Does art removed from its original location diminish or grow in meaning?
Most original works of art would originally have been created for a specific purpose and as such would have had a well defined meaning. This is not to say that the power of the art would have been limited. Indeed religious and iconic art would have been highly influential. With the mechanical reproduction the  capacity to display images of art in many different locations has been hugely broadened.  As explained above, they have now entered the ‘language of images’ and can be used to convey a far greater range of meanings.
Does familiarity breed contempt?
I think there is information overload taking place in society such that we now take for granted images which 50 or 100 years ago would have seemed miraculous. This most likely also applies to images of art. A contra view is that the democratisation of images of art may encourage a wider cross section of society to explore an interest in art.
Has Benjamin’s ‘aura’ been removed by the postcard?
In effect Benjamin defines ‘aura’ as something which a work of art loses because of the removal of its uniqueness in time, place and history. So yes, if one uses the term postcard as a metaphor for the many forms of reproduction of images of art, then ‘aura’ has been removed by the postcard. There may be those in the art world who would wish to move away from Benjamin’s original concept, and to suggest that original works of art still retain an ‘aura’ because they are original, but a strict interpretation of Benjamin would  reject this notion.

Sources

Evans, J. & Hall, S. (1999) Visual Culture: the reader London: Sage

Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing  London: Penguin

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  1. Project Author? What author? « Understanding Visual Culture – KRG Learning Blog

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