Sunday, September 25, 2011

Walter Benjamin's The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction


Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction focuses on the changes in art as a medium, both cultural and social, by the invention of mechanical reproduction. 

The following quote by Paul Valery from the very beginning of the article aptly sums up the progression of the future of art:

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.

Benjamin begins by describing the idea of authenticity and aura as it pertains to art.  In painting, there is the perception that there is only one original, which contains and aura, and that any copy or reproduction is a forgery, and therefore inauthentic, and does not contain an aura.  Benjamin writes, “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.”

Benjamin points out that “lithography enabled graphic art to illustrate everyday life,” and that “only a few decades after its invention, lithography was surpassed by photography.”  This shift freed the production of images from the artist’s hand and allowed a greater focus on the visual.  I was interested in Benjamin’s points about how the camera can capture more than the eye can see. 

In photography, process reproduction can bring out those aspects of the original that are unattainable to the naked eye yet accessible to the lens, which is adjustable and chooses its angle at will.  And photographic reproduction, with the aid of certain processes, such as enlargement or slow motion, can capture images which escape natural vision. 

He continues to discuss the idea of reproduction bringing the original work into a context it otherwise would never reach, such as the ease of displaying a marble bust in different locations versus bringing viewers to a fixed statue, or listening to a recording of a choral production while in one’s studio.  In this way, mechanical reproduction plays into a type of socialism, making available to the masses what was once an elite experience.  Benjamin writes:

With the advent of the first truly revolutionary means of reproduction, photography, simultaneous with the rise of socialism, art sensed the approaching crisis which has become evident a century later.

Also integral to this article is the idea between art being created for the ritual, or spiritual realm, and art created with the intention of being viewed or exhibited.  Earlier forms of art were created solely for the cult purpose, while more modern forms of art are being created with exhibition as their intention.  Benjamin writes:

For the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.  To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility.  From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the “authentic” print makes no sense.  But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed.  Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice- politics.

He continues to relate these ideas to photography specifically.

With the different methods of technical reproduction of a work of art, its fitness for exhibition increased to such an extent that the quantitative shift between its two poles turns into a qualitative transformation of its nature.  This is comparable to the situation of the work of art in prehistoric times when, but the absolute emphasis on its cult value, it was, first and foremost, an instrument of magic.  Only later did it come to be recognized as a work of art.  In the same way today, by the absolute emphasis on its exhibition value the work of art becomes a creation with entirely new functions, among which the one we are conscious of, the artistic function, later may be recognized as incidental.  This much is certain: today photograph and the film are the most serviceable exemplifications of this new function. 

He continues to speak about the film specifically and how it is fundamentally different from both painting and theatre. 

The artistic performance of a stage actor is definitely presented to the public by the actor in person; that of the screen actor, however, is presented by a camera, with a twofold consequence…  Guided by the cameraman, the camera continually changes its position with respect to the performance…  It comprises certain factors of movement which are in reality those of the camera, not to mention special camera angles, close-ups, etc.  Hence, the performance of the actor is subject to a series of optical tests. 

He also describes how film denies the actor the ability to interact with his audience and to present himself to them in person.  Rather, he is solitarily projecting into a camera, knowing he will eventually be seen and criticized by a public he cannot see or be aware of at the time of performance. 

While facing the camera he knows that ultimately he will face the public, the consumers who constitute the market.  This market, where he offers not only his labor but also his whole self, his heart and soul, is beyond his reach. 

The disconnect between the actor and the public allows the public to play the role of the critic through the viewpoint of the camera, passively watching the film as an absent-minded viewer, as opposed to really deeply engaging with the art as was previously mentioned necessary to viewing painting or theatre in person. 

I also really enjoyed Benjamin’s comparison of the painter and cameraman to that of a magician and surgeon. 

Magician and surgeon compare to painter and cameraman.  The painter maintains in his work a natural distance from reality, the cameraman penetrates deeply into its web.  There is a tremendous difference between the pictures they obtain.

He also addresses the issue of art being presentable to the masses, arguing that painting was designed to be viewed by only a few people at a time.  And perhaps, by larger numbers of people through ritual and the passage of time, such as a cathedral painting.  Film, on the other hand, was designed from the beginning to be easily available to the masses and viewed by many people simultaneously. 

Painting simply is in no position to present an object for simultaneous collective experience, as it was possible for architecture at all times, for the epic poem in the past, and for the movie today…  Although paintings began to be publicly exhibited in galleries and salons, there was no way for the masses to organize and control themselves in their reception. Thus the same public which responds in a progressive manner toward a grotesque film is bound to respond in a reactionary manner to surrealism. 

He continues to speak to how human behavior can be much more closely analyzed in a film than it can be in a painting, and how capturing human behavior on film did not merely make it available to a wider audience, it changed how it was perceived.

Evidently a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye- if only because an unconsciously penetrated space is substituted for a space consciously explore by man. 

In Man with the Movie Camera, filmmaker Dziga Vertov utilizes a modern, avante-garde approach to film-making.  Ignoring a linear or narrative style, he instead films a variety of moments in the life of a common man and edits them together in a somewhat random fashion.  The point is not to tell a story, but to show a series of moments together in an experimental style, focusing on the possibilities of film to take viewers somewhere they have never been before.  He also focuses heavily on industry and machinery and how they affect life, which is parallel to the way he is using film to create a new visual experience.  He uses many innovative camera techniques, such as double exposures, slow motion, and freeze-frames. 

I found the following on Wikipedia, and I especially enjoyed the last sentence.  It related Vertov’s intentions as a filmmaker to Walter Benyamin’s article.

The film also features a few obvious stagings such as the scene of a woman getting out of bed and getting dressed and the shot of chess pieces being swept to the center of the board (a shot spliced in backwards so the pieces expand outward and stand in position). The film was criticized for both the stagings and the stark experimentation, possibly as a result of its director's frequent assailing of fiction film as a new "opiate of the masses.”

Leni Riefenstahl’s film Triumph of the Will is quite different.  It is a propaganda piece commissioned by Adolf Hitler that chronicles the 1934 Nazi Party Congress which was attended by more than 700,000 Nazi supporters.  In contrast to Vertov’s film, Triumph of the Will has a very clear narrative storyline and intended message.  It has a very clear intended meaning and is a vehicle used to spread political propaganda.  Vertov’s film, however, focuses much more on the abstract of the every day life and leaves interpretation and experience completely up to the viewer. 


Sunday, September 18, 2011

Week 2: modern, modernity, modernism, Modernist

I began my reading for this week with the Charles Harrison reading, "Critical Terms for Art History."  Harrison begins by giving three senses of the word "modernism."  In the first and most widely used sense, he states "modernism is used to refer to the distinguishing characteristics of Western culture from the mid-nineteenth century to until at least the mid-twentieth: a culture in which processes of industrialization and urbanization are conceived of as the principal mechanisms of transformation in human experience....  as thus understood, modernism may be vividly exemplified through the stylistic and technical properties of works of art, but it will also be recognizable in certain social forms and practices and in the determining priorities of certain institutions, such as museums, or universities, or financial markets."  In this first sense, "'modernism' is the substantive form of the adjective 'modern,' while the condition it denotes is virtually synonymous with the experience of modernity.'" 

According to dictionary.com, "modern" means "of or pertaining to present and recent time; not ancient or remote."  In this regard, the idea of modernism in a work of art relates to its engagement with the current practices of the time, both socially and technically.  

Harrison uses Edward Manet's painting "Olympia" to illustrate modernism through painting.  In the first sense of the term modernism, Olympia "might count as a work endowed with modernism by virtue of the figurative term in which it rewards the classical precedent it invokes: the type of the reclining Venus as painted by Giorgione and Titian."  Harrison claims that because the painting seeks to place the viewer in the position of a prostitute's client, it is making a statement about the nature of love in a modern world.  "In the language of modernism the classical 'goddess of love' becomes translated into 'a prostitute.'"  In the first sense of modernism, Manet's painting could easily fall within this category because of its social relevance and inclusion of issues important to contemporary life.  

Edward Manet's painting "Olympia"

In the second sense of the term, Harrison differentiates "modernism" from "modernity" by saying that "the point becomes clearer the more the concept of modernism is distinguished from its partial synonym, modernity.  Modernity is a condition that the work of art both distills from and shares with the encompassing culture, which must include what Greenburg called kitsch.  In its second form of usage, on the other hand, 'modernism' implies a property that must be principally internal to the practice or medium in question."  


Harrison expands on this idea by pointing out how Manet's painting "Olympia" is referencing the medium of painting itself and is not modern simply because of its subject matter.  Manet's "Olympia" contrasted significantly in style to Old Master painting, which was meant to transport the viewer seamlessly into a scene and completely conceal the hand of the artist, while Manet chose to consciously use the two dimensional surface and the inherent flatness of painting to make a statement about painting as a medium.  Harrison states that for Clement Greenburg, "Manet's paintings 'became the first modernist ones' not primarily by virtue of their picturing of circumstances redolent of modern life, but 'by virtue of the frankness with which they declared the surfaces on which they were painted.'"  According to Greenburg, flatness was the only quality that painting shared with no other art form, and Harrison states that "the frank ackowledgment of surface becomes the condition to which the self-critical modernist painting must tend."  In the second sense of modernism, the technical and aesthetic aspects of a work of art are more important than the subject matter.


Harrison states that "this third sense of 'modernism' is distinguished from the second not so much by a difference in field of reference as by a a distancing from the terms in which that field is represented...  In this last sense, 'modernism' stands not for the artistic tendency it designates under the second usage, but rather for the usage itself and for a tendency in criticism which this usage is thought to typify."


While Harrison has pointed out that the first use of modernism focuses on the social and cultural implications of a work and the second focuses on a self-referential questioning of or interplay with the medium, he continues to describe Manet's "Olympia" in the context of the third use of modernism, saying "in the deep space of 'neoclassical and thus unmodern' fantasy such as this the represented woman is left undistinguished by the signifiers of class, which is to say she is available to serve as an ideal.  In this world there are neither prohibitions or prices.  The space of Manet's painting, on the other hand, is the space of 'modern' imagination...  Olympia's world, that is to say, is a world in which actions have imaginable consequences and pleasures are paid for, in which flesh bruises and others also have minds."  


I found the article by Harrison to be informative but fairly dense.  "Modernist Painting," by Clement Greenburg proved to be a more accessible read, though because I read the Harrison piece first, I felt that I had already wrapped my head around many of Greenburg's concepts.  


The articles by individual photographers were interesting also.  Lewis Hine clearly fits within the first type of modernism, as his images of the working class and child laborers were important political issues of his day.  He aimed to address social problems through the use of photography, going so far as to advocate the use of cameras by members of the working classes in order to more accurately document their conditions and call for social change.   Below are two images by Lewis Hine:






Paul Strand, by contrast, was interested in the inherent qualities of the medium of photography and advocated for high focus, detailed imagery.  "Strand's stylistic contention with soft-focus work, in general, stemmed from his belief that photography's strength lies in its capacity to depict detail clearly."  In this vein, he believed that any attempt at mixing photography with hand painting or more organic processes would result in a dead end.  He wrote, "the introduction of hand work and manipulation is merely the expression of an impotent desire to paint.  It is this very lack of understanding and respect for their material, on the part of photographers themselves which directly accounts for the consequent lack of respect on the part of the intelligent public and the notion that photography is but a poor excuse for an inability to do anything else."  

Paul Strand's "Abstraction, Twin Lakes, Connecticut, 1916

Lastly, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy was interested in the ways our cameras could see things that the eyes could not.  He wrote, "the photographic camera can either complete or supplement our optical instrument, the eye."  He continued to speak about "faulty" photographs, meaning photographs taken from views that our eyes cannot see accurately or comprehend visually- photographs from above, below, etc.  "The secret of their effect is that the photographic camera reproduces the purely optical image and therefore shows the optically true distortions, deformations, foreshortenings, etc., where the eye together with out intellectual experience, supplements perceived optical phenomena by means of association and formally and spatially creates a conceptual image."  I found this last idea to be especially fascinating, both as it relates to issues of modernism and as it related to my current practice of picture making.


Photogram by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy

(the above image can be seen with more information on the Harvard Art Museum website).