Text: The Identity of the Art Works (2018)
“From today painting is dead”. This was said by Paul Delaroche, a renowned 19th century painter when a camera, a means of mechanical reproduction, was invented. After that, the whole contemporary art scene has faced the technology of reproduction positively and negatively. It has been nearly 90 years since Walter Benjamin had published “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, which explained that original objects lost the element of uniqueness due to duplication and it caused the value of art works were changed. In this essay, I would like to explain Benjamin’s texts and how their ideas illuminate the construction of identity of the art works in contemporary times, taking Marcel Duchamp’ and Andy Warhol’ works as examples.
In Benjamin’s text, there were three key concepts, aura, cult value and exhibition value. His most significant opinion was the technology of reproduction impacted the value of works greatly.
Art works which are copied by mechanical reproduction are different from tradition. Even high quality copy of art works does not possess the aura. Following sentence is an example of the aura from the text.
‘Follow with the eye while resting on a summer afternoon a mountain range on the horizon or a branch that casts its shadow on the beholder is to breathe the aura of those mountains, of that branch. In the light of this description, we can readily grasp the social basis of the aura's present decay’.
Benjamin believed the feature of the works is uniqueness: the here and now of the work of art. Due to this untransferable element, the works also have historicity.
According to his definition, this feature of historicity cannot be kept in the process of technical reproduction. There are two reasons. One is that mechanical duplication is more independent than original object which has the aura. The other is copied objects take an unexpected place which does not have any relation with the original. Moreover, he explained two differences between the works which keep the aura like paintings or sculptures and objects which are created by the technology of reproduction, newspaper with photographs or movies. The works have the elements of uniqueness and permanence. On the other hand, copied objects have the elements of transitoriness and repeatability.
Ancient objects are known to be created for primitive ritual. However, these differences changed the meaning of the works from the cult value to the exhibition value.
Nowadays, we can see the works in various occasions because many reproduced objects appear by technical duplication. Therefore the spiritual distance between objects and viewers is closer than before. This process gives actuality to reproduced objects.
Before Renaissance period, objects emphasized the cult value. For religious reasons, these kind of work are needed to installed hidden places. However, after mechanical reproduction appeared, the value of objects were changed. The objects emphasize the exhibition value.
Through the text, he affirmed the technology of reproduction influenced on the meaning of the works. Did his ideas change after he published the text?
In the text, Benjamin touched on Dadaism which was artist group since 1910. He explained that the work of Dadaism used the technology of reproduction. Because of this, even the original work could not have the aura. Dadaists chose daily objects such as buttons or train tickets to make paintings. For Dadaists who came up with the idea of readymades art making was based on choosing objects not paintings and so they banished the aura from their work.
Marcel Duchamp, a French artist and a representative of the Dada movement in New York, invented the concept of a readymade. His most famous work, Fountain (1917), is not only one of the important works in 20 century art history but also representative the movement of Dada. He used a false name as R.Mutt and sent the work to an yearly exhibition which was carried out by NY based artists and collectors. Since the Fountain was simply a urinal bought from the J L Mott Ironworks shop, it was quite sensational and provoked a big discussion about the value of art. The original got lost and only photographs remained; the Tate gallery in London has its replica, so ironically a copy of the readymade. This means the element of uniqueness is entirely lost.
One of the main figures of Pop art, Andy Warhol, is known for mass production of art work. “A hundred Marilyns are better than one.” It is said that his representative work, the portrait of Marilyn Monroe, was created in 1967 after her death in 1962. The image which he used was picked up from “Niagara” which is American thriller film starring Monroe. We can find opposite ideas, the cult and exhibition value, in this work through Benjamin’s text. It explained two points which might make an interesting reflection to decipher Warhol’s paintings.
Benjamin pointed out that face expression such as portrait contends to keep the cult value in age of technology of reproduction. To see the photograph of deceased persons whom you loved is not only the opportunity of reminisce about them, but also the spiritual or religious act which is definitely related to the cult value.
On the other hand, this work was created by the mechanical reproduction. Warhol’s work often used the technology of screen printing, in addition the artist did not take part in art making. He worked as designer for the advertisement or illustration of fashion magazine, for example VOGUE or Harper’s BAZAAR, until 1962 when he became a globally recognized artist.
According to Benjamin, an object created by mechanical duplication is more independent than one copied by hand. Warhol took distance from art making. He named his studio in NY as The Factory in 1963 and employed assistants called art worker who created the paintings instead of him. Furthermore, they used the screen printing technique habitually. Screen printing allows making considerable quantities of copies, which enabled Warhol to print the same image on a number of canvasses. That is slightly different, as classical art work such as oil paintings take a long time to complete. The mass production of Monroe’s portrait definitely shows the important of its exhibition value.
As Benjamin mentioned, the technology of reproduction changed the identity of works from the cult value to the exhibition value. In addition, it extended the expression of the works such as readymade or the mass production of pop art. These days, the set of photographs or film works is getting more and more popular in the whole contemporary art scene. It can be said that mechanical reproduction is one of the vital technologies used in the art.
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