Visual Culture and Its Replication

8 Sep
Rainy Thoughts

Rainy Thoughts

What interested me today is the discussion of visual culture (pictures, movies, photographs, video games) and its reproduction. The new semester has just started and I am assigned fascinating cultural and sociological text. The texts I read for my classes have hidden meaning and various interpretations. The reader, in this sense I, is bombarded with topics which can be decoded, if he is equipped with tools and competences allowing him to find the meaning of a theory. I admit I might still be ignorant for many issues in the social science department. However, I put an effort to understand the problems discussed in class. Today I try to make sense of The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Representation by Walter Benjamin (1892-1940).

Why Benjamin and his work are important in the social sciences? What triggered my interest?

The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Representation is a text which can be read in many different ways according to the expertise of the reader.  While I was reading it, I found some ideas vary interesting and worth giving a credit. In my attempt to understand Benjamin, I used what I already knew to upgrade my knowledge of the world I live in. This is what I like about RA; I have courses that provoke my own mental schema, so that I am able to develop and understand new issues. Class discussion also contributed for a better comprehension of Benjamin’s text.

Before I had gone deep into the text, I traced Walter Benjamin’ biography. Benjamin was an influential German thinker (philosopher, sociologist, essayist) and a member of the Frankfurt School of critical theory. He wrote about social processes in Germany as well the life in France. He committed a suicide, somewhere in the French-Spanish border, because he did not want to surrender to the Nazis. His writings portrait social reality at the beginning of the XX century, but interpretations are not limited only to that time. His writings do not have a single meaning as it is seen in the following text.

In The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Representation, Benjamin is an internal critique of modernity just like Foucault. By modernity I understand the social project of dominance and power whose origin is rooted in the Enlightenment. It is characterized as an era of technological advancement and cultural dominance. West is the center of the world; other cultures are actively ignored and viewed as primitive because they can not create and use technological know-how.

In the era of technological advancement, Benjamin addresses the issue of art and how it is affected in this particular era when it can be reproduced by technological means. To give an answer, he analyzes art from Marxist point of view. While Marx presents the mode of production in capitalism, Benjamin presents the mode of perception in modernity. Benjamin stresses on the aura of the work of arts which is its uniqueness of time, space and tradition.

He argues that the mechanical reproduction (by means of photography, films, and recording on a tape or CD) of art decreases its aura by lifting the work of art out of tradition. Tradition is very important in his analysis because it mobilizes ritual meaning and thus implies cultic value to the art. Imagine a painting of saints in a Chapel which let say is situated in Rome. The painting is a work of art that possesses an aura in the tangible sense that it is linked to physical space that has a ritual meaning and can only be appreciated if an individual visits that place. Benjamin stresses on duration of testimony of the work of art because from the beginning that art has an origin, history, interpretation which can be brought to the present. In addition the art has a value attached to it; thus we say it is authentic.

As stated above, mechanical reproduction takes away that aura (uniqueness) by detaching the work of art from its dependence on ritual and brings it to consumption to the masses. Benjamin comes to the idea of commodification of art. People become conscious consumers of art that is being replicated and exposed. Consequently the art gains an exhibit value. This means that the qualitative meaning is shifted into quantitative. The function and logic of art is recognized as something incidental.

The logic of consumption is logic of reproduction and logic of repetition. The copy of an art has lost its authencity because the consumer is not directly a part of the production line; he is alienated. Benjamin implies that we live in a world of repetition. This is the repetition of commodity for consumption. The consumer is attached to the artifice of the copy. For instance, someone who watches a move, a reality show, or advertisement experience reality at the moment (now time). What is not visible for the viewer is the technological equipment that makes that reality. The movie, the reality show, or the advertisement could have been made in the past, but the viewer experience the visual art at the moment. The observer is part of immediate experience and cannot trace the time in which the art was made. Therefore, I can say that the reproduction of art is not associated with time. It is characterized by empty time (no time). To stress, historical testimony is lost.

This idea makes me think of the world as novel. The world of traditional value is fading. Benjamin implies that we live in a cult of new. Today cult value would imply that the piece of art remains hidden. But, look around your social environment. There are so many copies of the same things like cloths, food, brands, and any kinds of commodities are visible and accessible thanks to photography, films, music, and internet.

I raise a question here. If the aforementioned things are available, are there many people who buys them and what is their value? Benjamin does not imply that copies are that bad, I think he also implies the democratization of art. Masses have principally equal opportunity to possess art. But possessing or holding an art and its replica in your hands does not mean that you make sense of it or experience the same like somebody else.

Perhaps the idea of copy right can be brought to the discussion. It is important in XXI because it implies decrease in reproducibility to keep the value high. Price and number of replicas define the new value. This is how the industry and market try to control the value of art and its copies. Unfortunately, I cannot state that the work of art can possesses aura and authencity in this case.

The aura and authencity are lost due to the transformation of the mode of perspective. The perception is different when you look into a piece of art with unarmed eye. For example, gazing a painting or watching a performance on stage is not the same like watching a film or gazing a photograph. When technology is involved in the work of art, your perspective is limited because the movie maker or the photographer chooses the perspective for you. You are not free to explore the environment of the art and change perspectives. The camera focuses on objects that are unconscious representation of things that are made distinguishable by your mind. This is how you can be distracted. Thus your appreciation of an object is controlled. The shock effect in art and most specifically in films is a good example of how the public is attracted to the work of art. Benjamin refers to Dadaism to illustrate this mode of perception – shock perception.

Benjamin extends his ideas by arguing that mechanical representation of art could also be used in a progressive politics as well as being a tool of fascist propaganda. He reffered to aestetisation of politics and politisation of aestetics.

Throughout the process of analysis, I think I gained some expertise and progress in learning and development. In one year I might find something else. I do not know. The good thing about such texts is that the reader can give variety of interpretation and apply his or her findings in many situations in the daily life.

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