How mass production changed the philosophy of art
The path to freedom is often hindered. Walter Benjamin, the German philosopher and art critic, killed himself to escape from Nazi repatriation. He was trying to flee from European fascism through Spain and Portugal to get to the United States, when Francoist police told him and his fellow refugees that they would have to return to Germany. He chose his own fate and overdosed on morphine instead of being deported to a concentration camp. That is precisely what happened on the 26th of September 1940, while war was devastating both Europe and humanity.
Walter Bendix Schönflies Benjamin was one of the most influential aesthetics philosophers of the twentieth century. Benjamin changed the way we think about art, freeing artwork from its stereotypical uniqueness. In his book The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, he explained how mass reproducing works of art allows culture to spread to a broader audience, giving people easier access to knowledge. He believed that an original artwork should be seen everywhere. Photography and film reproduction could be enjoyed by everyone, this allowed cultural enrichment to become popular and accessible. Today, images are spread over the globe through the internet, faster than ever. In a way, he already had a vision of where we are today with social media and the internet!
The original artwork wouldn’t lose its importance because it has the Aura, a trait that ensures its uniqueness. It creates a time and space collocation, that would define it as unique. Instead, the value of the artwork changes in time due to the change in cultural events and the ever changing popular taste. Today we might not regard Marcel Duchamp’s Fontaine with the same eyes as someone that lived in 1917. Certainly, he wouldn’t have produced it today (as a matter of fact, the original Fontaine was thrown away as rubbish, but thanks to photograpy, we still have an image of it!).
Benjamin’s idea had been developed around 1935 while he was trying to escape from Hitler’s regime. At the time, he didn’t know how far this idea would develop in time, seeing as the internet was far away from fruition and even further away from his imagination!
Thirty seven years later another art critic named John Berger developed upon Benjamin's beliefs and delved further into the argument with a small essay titled The Ways of Seeing. His theory was that the original artwork lost its aura, while new machine fabricated reproduction artworks were being evaluated en masse. What is and what is not art has to be defined by the people, now we can have that knowledge.
Today we should add an entirely new chapter to these books, because we primarily learn about new artists and their works due to the internet. One might even suggest that the title of Benjamin’s book be changed to The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction! Today the internet is an infinite museum, where knowledge is quickly and readily available. After Marshall McLuhan’s essay The Medium is the Massage, which explains that signifier and signified are related and change through medium, we know that an artwork is not confined to a material image. Now that we have innovative technology in most fields like cinema, industrial production, digital devices, and much more. We, as patrons of the arts, must consider the mediums we have, while continuing to think critically about art. The aura may not have completely lost its meaning, but we can not deny that beauty and culture occur in our everyday lives in a completely new way.
Ivan Black is a contemporary artist that decided to go even through these concepts, that uses internet to share culture. While videos and photos of his works spread all around the world, he has designed a special collection for Atellani, a crowdfunding spin off of one of his works. Ivan Black’s Square Wave is now available on Kickstarter, so people aren’t just able to appreciate through image reproduction an artwork, but even to have an original copy funded by themselves!
At the beginning of the third millennia, people are now able to afford art by digital reproduction at any given time and even purchase it at an affordable price. Buy an original work online while walking down the street or from your desktop, at home, wherever you are, the world of art is easily accessible!
We should aim to share knowledge through information and art, using the technology we have today so we can live in a better world. Who knows, maybe the future will be brighter for all the current could-be Walter Benjamins.
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