The Age of Excess

The massive reproduction of artwork has changed the nature of how an image is perceived by contemporary society. In a short essay by Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, the author explains that art has always been reproduced throughout history. However, the extent and methods in which it is mass-produced has changed the aura or authenticity of art; it has altered art’s social relations, historical and cultural rituals, and traditions. Mass-production has also transformed artistic works to serve political agendas. Benjamin discusses that this is a repercussion from film and photography, which has intensely changed art in its traditional form.

Mechanically reproduced work reactivates the original object reproduced. It presents a visualization that could not be done with out the mechanized process. However, this process, where the visualization can be mass-produced and has no originality, destroys the traditions, rituals, and aura of the work. The destruction of an object’s aura (which is present in natural historical objects) is caused by the contemporary desire “to bring things “closer” spatially and humanly.” (4) With this desire comes the acceptance that the reproduction of reality is sufficient therefore creating an absence of traditional and ritualistic references during its historical existence. The acceptance of mass-production creates belief that the reproduced is sufficient to the original even though the artwork has no historical insight about the cultural and historical development of a society.

With out authenticity, art’s function has changed significantly from being based on ritual and traditional practices to political propaganda to serve a cult following. This is emphasized through extreme publication where the work can be seen and exhibited in endless locations, film and photography particularly. The context of viewing has changed with mass production and consumption along with a loss of mental contemplation. This is exemplified as Benjamin discusses a curious tendency to compare film with painting. He questions this connection, which originated when film theorists read ritualistic elements in film and discussed film as if discussing a painting.

It appears that Benjamin rejects this association because film does not and cannot function like a painting. Much like Lev Manovich’s writing on authorship in new media, there is a need for the development of vocabulary in the realm of photography and film. These medias cannot be compared to the theatrical arts because an actor partakes in the mechanical reproduction by performing for a “mechanical contrivance” rather than a live audience. The decay of the aura is evident when we consider the silent film where the actor had to disassociate his presence by portraying a figure. This figure is completely deprived of reality when there is no voice or noise, which illustrates emptiness.

Another example of the loss of aura in contemporary media is the idea of the writer. The press presents opportunities to its readers to become a real writer by asking the reader to participate by submitting ‘letters to the editor’. This openness exemplifies the propagandistic objectives of a mass produced/media rich society that exploits a self-fulfilling desire in order to generate revenue. This is also reflected in film as the masses are mesmerized by the Hollywood lifestyle while “the film industry is trying hard to spur the interest of the masses through illusion-promoting spectacles and dubious speculations.” (8)

In an age full of reality television, incredible cinematic digitalism, and the growth of ‘media experts’ of musicians, movie goers, web designers, gamers, graphic designers, and television observers, quality does seem to be sacrificed for quantity. This emphasizes the notion that mechanically reproduced art is always depreciated. Because of this, a trend for deep investigation and research by new media artists is necessary in order to reveal society’s obsession with immediacy and new media and utilize this research to reflect back upon society and the media itself (much like the Dadaist’s negation of traditional artist values). The over stimulation that mechanical and digital production has created is a basis for contemplation in new media artwork that cannot be disregarded.

The idea that film (or new media) ”is inconceivable without its destructive, cathartic aspect, that is, the liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage” (3) is something I consider frequently in my own artwork. I tend to value my work more when it is not completely digitally reproduced, by combining elements of hand-made objects with media elements. This creates a level of satisfaction that I do not have when my work is completely media based. I feel my work is more compelling when you can see the artists ‘hand’ rather than created through software and/or hardware. Of course, the content will greatly affect the impact of an artwork, however, a combination of traditional methods with new methods provides historical relevance and personal reflection that is important to my artistic development.

Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction


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