I’m writing the biography of Detroit artist Charles McGee. The book is called “Signature” which refers to McGee’s view on art and life – that we imbue everything we do with ourselves, with all the layers of experience that make us unique individuals. I liken this to Benjamin’s notion of “aura” – a work of art’s “presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” (220)
Mechanical reproduction transforms the aura of a work of art into an image of itself. We “flatten” it out to make it reproducible, transportable. A painting becomes a dot matrix of a photograph, a symphony becomes analog grooves in vinyl, a recipe becomes a combination of chemicals – all of these things have now become binary bits in a digital universe – all ready to be restored, decoded, and thus reproduced anywhere, anytime. Benjamin’s essay persists because of how relevant it continues to be. These continue to be the issues of our time. As Valery wrote (as quoted by Benjamin): “… We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art.” Absolutely, this is the case. And while things have always been able to be copied – we’re good at copying – they’re still originals of a sort after all. Mechanical reproduction is something else altogether.
Art is now transportable – and increasingly more so all the time – to the eyes and laptops of the public. (231) This is something that happened to language a long time ago, and in Benjamin’s time it was happening to the visual, to music, and really to life. As letters allowed stories and ideas to be transmitted, photos allowed images of things to shared, and the digital allows all of it. This bifurcates art: on the one hand it becomes more about things that can be reproduced – art is about ideas. On the other hand, the original is treasured even more for its unreproducibility – hence the emergence of Dada (237), of performance art, of the situationists, earth art, and much more. Art is democratized/art is liberated to be its own thing, in service of only itself.
As the arts have always enabled new ways of seeing, mechanical reproduction makes “a new kind of perception” (222) possible. Benjamin cites “slow motion”, zooming in, now we have HDTV that enables vision we don’t even have – we can’t look that closely at something while still so far away. Our means of reproducing reality have given us the power of Superman. Benjamin writes: “With the close-up, space expands; with slow motion, movement is extended. The enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was invisible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject.” (236)I’ll let Benjamin speak uninterrupted here: “The technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced.” “These two processes lead to a tremendous shattering of traditions which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind. Both processes are intimately connected with the contemporary mass movements. Their most powerful agent is film.” (221)
Benjamin makes an excellent point: “Earlier much futile thought had been devoted to the question of whether photography is an art. The primary question – whether the very invention of photography had not transformed the entire nature of art – was not raised.” (227) Photography changed how we saw the world, it froze it in a sense. Whatever aura a moment in time has, it’s ethereal and dissipates. Even if we capture its image, this is a fallacy, it’s only an image, a mechanical reproduction and any sense that it has that aura – that signature of a unique moment of time is false. Yes, we can send an image of that thing anywhere, but it remains an image, a flattened out version of the real thing, a string of letters standing in for the sound of someone’s voice and the power of their intonation. Benjamin writes (223) “Unmistakable, reproduction as offered by picture magazines and newsreels differs from the image seen by the unarmed eye. Uniqueness and permanence are as closely linked in the latter as transitoriness and reproducibility in the former. To pry an object from its shell, to destroy its aura, is the mark of a perception whose ‘sense of the universal equality of things’ has increased to such a degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of reproduction.” Reproduction is flatness. Although mechanical reproduction has made it possible to see more of our world in great detail, our view of actual experience is mediated by the images of what we’ve seen on our screens. I see something that strikes me in the formation of clouds and perhaps that conjures up something I’ve seen on TV, which in itself is an attempt to reproduce reality. It’s a two-sided coin – with something gained as something is lost. Perhaps (as I wrote in the culinary arts essay) we’ll demand more experiences filled with aura, the art we’ll value is the art of moments, only that imbued with signature, and we’ll make purposeful choices of how we live in this world – rather than leaving it to the chance of the toss of that coin.
A few disjointed thoughts:
Benjamin discusses the difference between film and theater (quoting Pirandello, 229): in film the “body loses corporeality, it evaporates, it is deprived of reality, life, voice, and the noises caused by his moving about, in order to be changed into a mute image, flickering an instant on the screen, then vanishing into silence. … The project will play with his shadow before the public, and he himself must be content to play before the camera.” In reading this, I can’t help but think of Woody Allen’s “Purple Rose of Cairo,” and Jeff Daniels character in the film within the film walking off the screen, only to eventually meet the actor who plays him…
More on film. As Benjamin rightly points out, the shooting of a film “affords a spectacle unimaginable anywhere at any time before this.” (232-3) We’re witness to a reality never possible before. A movie scene is not a real place and only exists as a result of “cutting” (233). Disagreeing with Benjamin – a cameraman is like a painter – bringing new world’s into existence through his tools. This was true in the early days of film and is becoming more so with digital age.
Finally, a bit about war. Confess, I didn’t follow all of his conclusion about war. Can’t see how “war is beautiful” in the least. Perhaps I’m missing the ironic tone, reading this mechanically reproduced as it were. No – war is the end of possibilities. Period. Not beautiful. – Nick