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Thoughts on Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Walter Benjamin's The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction seems very much in tune with the post-WWI era of its origin. It's kind of dark, grim, and maybe even a bit defeatist (though these observations could just be artifacts of the essay's translation.) There's this sense that we were at the brink — at the mercy — of the new all-powerful medium of film, where the fight between politics + communism vs. aesthetics + fascism will be waged.

As with most of the readings thus far, it seems most interesting to recast his predictions and perceptions of art and production / reproduction into the present. Two of his ideas seemed particularly ripe for reconsideration:

First, Benjamin laments the expense and infrastructure required to create a film — and the resulting need for large, paying audiences, and perhaps the disproportionate creative power in the hands of large organizations (see Goebbels). Yet today an iPhone crams the means of (video) production in a pocket, and distribution (YouTube, Vimeo) are basically free. Today, access to an audience is (at least conceptually) meritocratic. (Though it could be argued that the patterns of consumption around social media might resemble a return to the cult-and-ritual mentality of art-production that Benjamin thought technology had liberate us from.)

Second, he describes loss of the (supposedly) interactive medium of performance to the passive mediums of photography and film, and goes on to suggest that a lack of interactivity actually gives reproducible mediums disproportionate power over us: "[...] the camera intervenes with the resources of its lowerings and liftings, its interruptions and isolations, its extensions and accelerations, its enlargements and reductions. The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses." Interactive mediums, or even the access to the authors and other viewers of a piece of (new) media again disrupt Benjamin's take on where things were headed.

(For discussion: Some of the characteristics of new media and the web — cut, paste, subversion of medium, absurdity, excess — suggest a return to Dadaism. I was surprised to see Benjamin dismiss Dadaism as a mere presage to popular film.)

October 5 2009 at 11 AM