Mechanical Reproduction In The Age Of Art

Adorn, questioned his assumption of the politically and culturally ‘progressive’ consequences of the practice of paleography, a number of recent writers have questioned the very idea that photography has had these consequences. According to W. J. T. Mitchell, for instance, paleography itself has been absorbed by traditional notations of fine art. When Benjamin (in his ‘Short History’ of Photography’) praises the production of aura in Nadir , and the destruction of aura in Taste, he is praising them as moments in the formation of a new, revolutionary conception of art that bypasses all the philistine twaddle about creative genius and beauty.

And yet it is precisely these traditional notions of aesthetics, with all their attendant claims about craftsmanship, formal subtlety, and semantic complexity, that have sustained the case for the artistic status of photography. Mitchell. 1986: 181 4) Similarly, Christopher Phillips (1 982: 28) has shown to what extent Benjamin predictions about the transformation role of photography seem to be ‘considerably at odds with the institutional trends that have, in recent years, borne photography triumphantly into the museum, the auction house, and the corporate boardroom’.

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Phillips begins his article with a citation of Benjamin: ‘From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the “authentic” print makes no sense. ‘ Since according to Benjamin the uniqueness of the ‘original’ artwork is a key both to TTS authority as an object worthy of respect and to its place in unfolding tradition, the mechanical multiplication or the print spells the end of these essential constituents or ‘aura’.

Multiplicity also brings manipulability: the photograph offers itself not for worship as a singular and rare object but for whatever uses the consumer wishes to put it to. By way of their photographic reproduction even traditional artworks-?paintings, musical compositions-?are detached from their original loci of radicalized significance and made available for the imposition of new meanings.

However, Phillips shows, the history of he art-institutional reception of photography runs visibly counter to this prediction. In his study of the curatorial practices of the photography department of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Phillips cites as essential to this reception both the establishment of the category of the rare, original, authentic print and the absorption even of magazine and newspaper photos into the domain of art.

The systematic study of the domain of photographs – along the lines of the history of photographic images, and by way of their formal analysis made possible the assimilation of photographs to more traditional art objects. The meaning of a photograph came to be seen, following a schema of ‘modernism’, in the photographer’s effort to solve formal, aesthetic problems posed by the medium, and so ‘in its relationships to other and earlier pictures – to tradition’ (Sharkskin, cited in Phillips, 1982:60).

Almost none of his commentators and critics have paid much attention to the ambiguity of Benjamin use of the concept of ‘reproduction’, to cover both (1) copies of (by contrast) original works Of art, and (2) works which are multiple by nature, such as (to cite Benjamin examples) ‘bronzes, terra coasts, and coins’ in the classical period and ducts, lithographs and photographs in more modern limes (Benjamin, AAA: 218). ‘ Benjamin failure is to distinguish clearly between these uses seems to me to have two causes.

One is the aphoristic and associative, as opposed to carefully analytic, character of his writing, which makes it both usefully suggestive and often frustrating 10 read. The other is that his real interest lies in neither of these topics per SE but rather specifically in photography as a means for the production of images of the world in general and of an works in particular. (This accounts also for what Sidney Tillie has eighty described as a major oversight on Benjamin part, his failure ‘to deal adequately with photoelectrical processes, a type of reproduction the masses-everyone-see every day (Tillie, 1983:77). Benjamin neglect of the distinction to be drawn between copies and multiples, however excused by its tangential relationship to his main focus, makes his already difficult discussion harder than necessary to follow. My subsequent remarks, therefore, begin with an exploration of the difference between copies and multiples, with some discussion of its relevance to the problematic ‘authenticity’ of photographs and other multiples.

A second section will deal directly with the question of the effect of reproduction on the ‘aura’ of artworks, and will conclude with a brief discussion of Benjamin analysis in the light of the art world of today. Copies and Multiples The distinction drawn by Nelson Goodman between what he calls ‘autographing’ and ‘oligarchic’ works is relevant to the discussion Of ‘originality’ and its supposed negation by photography, for It defines a contrast between works which can and which cannot be copied.

Autographing works are those of which even the most exact duplications do not count as nine, while ;oligarchic’ covers works, like musical symphonies, for winch the distinction between copy and original is meaningless: a musical performance is either of a given work or it is not, just as any copy of a novel is as genuine an instance of that novel as any other. The chief difference between the two groups, according to Goodman (1976: 1 13), lies in the availability of notations for the identification of oligarchic works.

A musical score, for example, specifies which sequences of sounds are a performance of a work, just as a given sequence of letters determines the identity of a literary work. But works like paintings, for which there is no notation, typically can be identified only by the history of production and transmission of the object in question. The point to be stressed here is that autographing works can be either singular or multiple by nature: ‘the example of print-making refutes the unwary assumption that in every autographing art a particular work exists only as a unique object’ (Goodman, 1976: 1 15).

One print of a lithograph or photograph is as original as any other made from the same stone or negative, with ‘originality’ defined by Goodman in terms of lee history of the work in time and space. In the case of a painting, The only way of ascertaining that the Lucrative before us is genuine is thus to establish the historical fact that it is the actual object made by Rembrandt. ‘ In principle the situation is the same in the case of a multiple art from like etching: ‘the only way of ascertaining whether a print is genuine is by finding out whether it was taken from a certain plate’ (Goodman, 1976: 116,119).

Goodman (1976: 119, note 1 2) is careful not to tie his concept of genuine’ here to that of artistic ‘originality’, taken for example as implying the work of the artist’s hand: Authenticity in an autographing art always depends upon the object’s having the requisite, sometimes rather complicated, history of production, but that history does not always include ultimate execution by the original artist’.

As Roseland Krause (1985) has demonstrated, in an essay taking as motto Benjamin dictum on photography’s challenge to the idea of ‘authenticity’, the history of production on which the concept of ‘genuine’ member of a set of multiples must rest can be complicated indeed. How should we classify prints pulled (or printed) after the artist’s death, or even just past the official size of an edition?

What content has the notion of ‘authenticity’ in the case of an artist like Roding, whose plaster models were not only cast and patented by others but also realized in marble, in a variety of sizes, by mechanical means? These are good questions; but Krause seems wrong to conclude that the concepts of ‘original artwork’ or ‘authenticity’ are empty with respect to such works, and that photography typifies a mode of ‘reproductions without originals’.

It seems more appropriate to say with Goodman that, in the case of oligarchic works, every example is an original, while in the case Of autographs works we can define ‘originality’ generally in terms of a standard process of production of the final object (photographic prints, etchings, sculptures) from the relevant original (negative, plate, plaster model), and then introduce additional categories as necessary to make whatever distinctions seem important, such as ‘printed by the artist’, ‘printed under the artist’s supervision’, ‘made under license’, etc. And, in fact, this is what is done in the study and trade of such objects.

Thus, reproductions of photographs by August Sander, for example, fall on one side of a divide, on the other of which ii prints made from his negatives, which in themselves are sorted into prints made by Sander, with or without signatures, prints made by his son and prints made under lee authority of the Sander estate. Such an example itself, or course, makes it clear that Krause is right to draw attention to an area of artificiality in the concept of ‘original’ invoked in the art business (an area covered by Goodman philosophical rug with all problems swept under by the phrase, ‘requisite history of production).

One could argue that the artists signature on a print confers authenticity on the image by guaranteeing the artist’s approval of it as a representative of his of his work, although an unsigned copy might in fact be just as acceptable a realization of artist’s intention as a signed one. But with editions of prints limited lo five, ten or whatever low number, we arc clearly dealing with attempts to raise market value by restricting supply. (We will return 10 this below. On the other hand, we have works like Roding’s Gates of Hell, assembled after his death from pieces produced by the artist, apparently in some disregard of his intentions. It seems correct 10 describe multiple casts of this piece as ‘reproductions thou an original’, but only because there is an element of fraud here in the claim that the work as displayed is an ;original Roding’ (Krause, 1985: off). Finally Karakul’s promotion of Sherries Olivine’s photographs of photos by Edward Weston and others as ‘work that acted out the discourse of reproductions without originals’ (Krause, 1985: 168) is misleading.

First of all, Olivine’s pictures are obviously in a straightforward sense copies Of originals, namely the prints by Weston et al. Second, they themselves also are originals, being prints of negatives made by Sherries Levine. In short: the distinction teens original and replica seems to be meaningful for all autographing works. A reproduction of a Rembrandt etching or a Zeitgeist photograph (even of one of the early photographers) is as much a copy, to be distinguished from an original, as is a forgery or a photograph of a painting.

Despite the fact that ‘one can make any number of prints’ from a negative, it does, pace Benjamin, make sense ‘to ask for the “authentic” print’. It is (his possibility of a contrast between original and copy which gives ;aura’ a foothold in the world of photography. At the same time, the practice of restricting the quantity of ultimate autographing works bears witness to the role played by quantity alongside that of quality in determining the appreciation of art works. Hotplates may, as Mitchell and Phillips contend, have entered the institutional world of art, but the restricted number of galleries and private dealers specializing in such images, as opposed to painting and sculpture, testifies to the limited prices they, like prints generally, can command. We must at least ask whether it is not ;aura’ but commercial value which is associated with uniqueness. But we are dealing here with more than the workings of price determination by supply and demand.

Photographs, as Tillie (1983:69) observes, ‘read differently from paintings because the photographic surface does not “signify” the way paint does’. Paintings, except for willfully designed exceptions, proclaim themselves to be handcrafted items. In contrast, photographs both in their most common forms, returned to us by the corner Footman or reproduced in magazines and advertising posters, and in the form of the exhibition print carry the signs of their origin in mechanical processes. While photographs can have the attribute of originality without uniqueness, their mode of production differentiates them room the traditional artwork.

In fact, as Susan Lambert (1987: 32) has pointed out, when formal definitions of the ‘original’ print were promulgated in the sass, the importance that the regulations attached to a particular kind of manual involvement with the making or the printing surface on the part on the artist makes it appear in retrospect that they Were framed also as a counter-movement by the old guard against a new generation or artists who were finding a powerful and personal means of expression in the photoelectrical techniques of popular visual communication.

Lamberts use f ‘old Guardia here itself suggests – in agreement with the views of Mitchell, Phillips and others – that in reality photography has entered, as an autographing production of multiples, into the domain of art. It was Benjamin (19690: 227) great idea to substitute for the question commonly asked at the turn of the century, whether photography is an art, ‘the primary question whether the very invention of photography [has] not transformed the entire nature of art’. It is thus that his essay centered on lee effects of photographic reproduction on the status of works of art. Aura’ and Reproduction In Benjamin view, traditional art is mimetic in the sense that it reproduces an experience known to its viewers outside of art, one saturated with the mystery of the ‘natural’, that whose meaning is seemingly given independently of history. This experience is that of ‘aura’, ‘the unique appearance or semblance of a distance, no matter how close the object may be’ (Benjamin, gaga: 250: see also BY ‘distance, Benjamin explains, he means ‘unapproachable’ (AAA: 243, note S, Bibb: 168).

Object and viewer are not connected in the spatial-temporal framework of action, instead the object appears as outside of time, a given, unalterable. In an essay on Baudelaire, Benjamin (Bibb: 188) speaks of objects with ‘aura’ as returning the gaze of the viewer: such objects have been invested with human characteristics. Put less poetically, ‘experience of the aura rests on the transposition of a response common in human relationships to the relationship between the inanimate or natural object and man’.

This experience, according to Benjamin, depends on certain social circumstances, those which he associates with ‘tradition*. While Benjamin use of this concept derives from the Romantic contrast of the culture of a lost organic totality with that of modernity, he emphasizes the slowly-developing modes of production and accordingly stable modes of perception and consciousness characteristic of ‘traditional’ society. The heart of tradition’ is repetition (in mode of production, in the rhythms of daily or yearly life), while the most developed form of repetition is ritual.

In this way Benjamin finds the origin of art in the religious life of pre-modern society. The dissolution of earlier society brings with it ‘the emancipation of the various art practices from ritual’ and the transmutation of the ;cult value’ of their products into the exhibition value’ of what is now seen as autonomous art (Benjamin, 1 AAA: 22$). That this alteration should allow the transmission of the property of ‘aura’ is, in Benjamin view, profoundly related to the uniqueness of the art object, which he believed essential to its original ritual function.

Benjamin claim seems to be that ‘aura’ depends on two factors: the presence of a tradition, a relatively stable framework of experience, in which an object is ’embedded’: and, across tradition, the continuous existence of the object as a unique physical entity. 6 In the modern world, tradition as such has been excessively disrupted by the advent of capitalism, with its basis in industrial mass production.

Since ‘the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity’s entire mode of existence’ (Benjamin, AAA: 222), the breakdown of earlier patterns of activity brings with it a transformation of visual experience. In his essay on Eduardo Fuchs, the pioneer historian of ‘popular’ imagery, Benjamin quoted approvingly Fichu’s statement that ‘every age has its own quite special techniques of reproduction. They represent the technological potential of the period concerned and are … A response 10 the requirements of the time’ (Benjamin, 1 Bibb: 384).

The employment of machinery for picture-making is only the adaptation to this purpose of the method of manufacture characteristic of capitalist commodity production. It is one element in the generalization of that new form of experience which spreads from the modern workplace to the crowds of the big cities 10 which this mode of production gives birth. The effect of photography on the traditional work of art is, in Benjamin view, a special case of its effect on our perception of reality generally.

To the ceaseless revolutionize of capitalist technology corresponds the power of photographic image-making to ‘capture mages which escape natural vision’ (Benjamin, AAA: 220). This is one effect which photography can have on our experience of artworks. More particularly, suggests Benjamin, photographing artworks (like recording musical performances) ‘enables the original to meet the beholder halfway’ (Benjamin. AAA: 220), by removing the image (or performance) from its original site in church, palace or museum.

Reproduction, that is, acts against the distance basic to the experience of ‘aura’ as it ‘detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition’ and allows it ‘to meet the beholder or Sistine in his own particular situation’. At the same time, finally, multiple reproduction ‘substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence’; together these processes produce ‘a tremendous shattering of tradition’. In this way, ‘that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art’ (Benjamin, 1 AAA: 221).

This is a powerful and attractive scheme, which has the virtue above all of treating the category ‘art’ as itself having a history and one continuing to be subject to drastic transformation. And from his too simplistic acceptance of the Hegelian mythology of the origin of art in religious cult Benjamin drew a picture of art as the object of a sort of secular ritual that clearly captures something central to this social institution (see Duncan and Wallach, 1978-79, 1980).

Benjamin conception can, however, be questioned at several points. To begin with, the idea that uniqueness is a necessity for ritual images is not well founded. Leaving aside the evidence from contemporary non-Western peoples, not to mention cult statuettes mass produced in archaic Europe, one need only remember the rows of hardly differentiated Madonna’s in the Opinionate at Siena 10 doubt Benjamin claim (though this is not to deny that particular images may, in various traditions, acquire special reputations for efficacy). We have already seen that uniqueness is not necessary for works to have the character of authenticity; the case of prints of (to take the most obvious examples) Rembrandt and Udder shows that is not a necessary condition for the possession fraud’ either. Moreover, aside from prints, Banjoist’s idea is based on a projection back into the history of art of a relatively modern idea of the work of art as a unique object, issued from the sole hand of a master. But even with respect to unique artworks to which something like Benjamin conception of ‘aura’ certainly applied before modern times. T does not seem to be true in general that it was diminished by reproduction . This was understood by paintbrushes as Antenna, Raphael and Rueben, who, realizing ‘the advantage of the fame that reproduction of their images brought’, played important roles in the organization of the reproductive print trade of their time (Lambert, 1 987: 147). (This mechanism still operated in lee nineteenth century, when ‘wealthy entrepreneurs of the print trade like Gambit in London and Coupling in Paris [became] the modern arbiters of taste.

On their reproductions soared the reputations of a Holman Hunt or a Firth, a Deadlocked or an Ray Shaffer’ [Facets. 1986: 1841 J. ) [in the case of the classical sculptures once felt to constitute the epitome of artistic creation, it has been observed, ‘the taking of plaster casts from an original was an essential step in spreading the world-wide appreciation of the most esteemed antique statues’ (Haskell and Penny, 1981:3. 21 . 65, 98). Their ‘classical’ status was created, not just a given.

The ‘aura’ of these originals could be so rueful as to pervade their copies: a palace inventory made for Philip IV Of Spain ‘valued the casts of the Fairness Flora and Hercules as each worth more than Vassalage’s “Bacchus” and twice as much as any of his portraits’ (Can, 1979: 33). This transmission of ‘aura’ to reproductions was expressed explicitly in the eighteenth-century idea of ;the importance of the traveler’s report, the engraved copy. The transposition from one instrumental setting into another, which bring the work to a wider public and at the same time make manifest its claim to universality’ (Can, 1979:123). And Thornton Thompson mid-nineteenth-century photographs of the Raphael Cartoons were hailed as ‘all but as valuable as the originals … Great works of Art arc now, when once photographs. Imperishable’ {Attenuate, 1859: Part 1, 86-7; Part II, 2. 247, cited in Fattest, 1986; 192}. This is to say, or course, that Benjamin idea of ‘tradition’ as a given context for experience represents a degree of mystification of the pre- and early modem past: tradition in any society must be constructed, and continually reconstructed.

And, with respect to the phenomenon under discussion here, the mechanical reproduction of artworks played a considerable role in the creation of the prerequisites for the experience or aesthetic ‘aura’. What we call ‘art’ exists within the structure of a social institution, a system or practices of production (by independent producers for the luxury trade), appropriation (market-based collecting), and appreciation (based on concepts of aesthetic autonomy of the work and of the original genius of the artist).

It must be remembered that this institution – what Benjamin (AAA: 224) in his sketch of its historical development called ‘the secular cult of beauty’ -? is itself a modern phenomenon. Meyer Shapiro as discovered roots of the modern sense of lee arts in the ‘conscious taste’ of eleventh and twelfth century spectators ‘for the beauty of workmanship, materials, and artistic devices, apart from the religious meanings’, to be found in the products of what was then called ‘art’ (I. . Products of skill). Here already it is linked with ‘urban development’ and ‘the social relationships arising from the new sleeting of the merchants and artisans as a class’ which mark this period as an early step towards the development Of capitalist society (Shapiro, 1977:2),” While appreciation of products of the arts in the remodel sense of the term is seemingly to be found in all cultures, P. O.

Gristlier (1965: 1 65) has emphasized that the ‘system of the five major arts, which underlies all modern aesthetics and is so familiar to us all, is of comparatively recent origin and did not assume definitive shape before the eighteenth century’. ” It could even be argued that lee conception of art on which Benjamin idea of ‘aura’ rests was not fully evolved until the late nineteenth century, and perhaps not until the formalism of the twentieth, with its transcendent aesthetic centered on the autonomous object.

At any ate, like all social transformations, the creation of the institution of art out of its medieval and Renaissance precursors was dependent on the development of new discursive practices, above all these of the late eighteenth-century theorists to which Gristlier draws our attention. It was also dependent on the mechanical reproduction of images, invented in Europe at about the same time as the mechanical reproduction of text. The earliest datable (woodcut) prints of precisely identifiable objects are, according to W. M.

Veins, Jar, representations of paintings, the decorations of the church of Santa Maria opera Minerva made at the command of Cardinal Trademark. ” Since the rapid expansion of the printmaking industry in the sixteenth century. ‘most of lee printed pictures that were made and collected were reproductions of paintings and drawings’ (Veins, 1958: 146). These were not collateral but essential to the way in which the production of ‘originals’ developed. The great influence of Italy on the north, and later that of Paris on the rest of Europe, was exerted through reproductive prints which carried the news of the new styles.

If we would understand those influences and the forms they kook, we must look not at the Italian and Panning originals but at what for us are the stupid prints which the publishers produced and sold in such vast quantities. (Veins, 1958: 69) These prints also provided the basic visual experience of the theorists and critics of art who played an essential role in the creation and promotion of this institution. When Winemaking first wrote on Greek art, for example, he knew it only through engravings; Leasing had never seen the original when he wrote On the Lagoon.

This visual experience, furthermore, was provided in a form determined by the emerging institution of art. Collections of reproductions constituted (to use Malaria’s phrase) a museum without walls, ‘transforming paintings specifically designed for a wide variety of specific purposes – religious contemplation, moral instruction, sexual arousal – into objects whose pure aesthetic enjoying is disturbed only by occasional doubts as 10 the name of their 1987:57).

On the other hand, it has been suggested that the development of mechanical methods for the reproduction of antique sculpture in the nineteenth century, especially in the form of reductions, may have created a ewe situation: ‘it is possible that the promiscuous familiarity encouraged by these techniques may have unintentionally diminished the glamour of the statues reproduced’ Haskell and Penny, 1 981 :125). This effect must surely be explained as due not simply to the changing quaintly and aquatic of reproductions but also – and above all – to the expansion of the audience for art and so of its social composition.

Admirers of the fine earls in the sass and 17005 represented a severely limited sector of the Riemannian population, but Tate eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century purveyors of classical imagery like Josiah Wedged were responding to ‘social emulation through emulating spending… The lead offered by the aristocratic few being aped by the socially aspiring many, the general clambering after the example provided by the legislators of taste… ‘(Mesenteric 1983: 140-1 : see also Haskell and Penny, 1981 : 124).

That the accuracy of a method for the production of sculptural casts developed in Paris in 1839 led to immediate comparison with the sexually contemporary daguerreotype’ (Haskell and Penny, 1981:1 24) brings us back to Benjamin, who was certainly ready to relate arts loss of aura’ to the change in the social base of its consumption, asserting that ‘the simultaneous contemplation of paintings by a large public, such as developed in the nineteenth century, is an early symptom of the crisis of painting, a crisis which was by no means occasioned exclusively by photography but rather in a relatively independent manner by the appeal of art works to the masses’ (Benjamin, 1 AAA: 234). This mass audience, he held, in its modern conditions of life, actually requires new forms like illus treated papers and films, for which a way is cut through the cultural detritus of the sat by the ‘aural-destroying work of photographic reproduction.

The idea that the demagnification of culture produced a general ‘crisis of painting, to which ‘progressive’ artists responded by the development of an esoteric avian-garden art, has been a central strand of modernist art theory since the time of Baudelaire. There is, in ninny opinion, not much that could count as evidence for such a view, which is also countered by the many efforts of avian-garden artists to widen their audiences. In any case it is far from obvious tall photographic reproduction or artworks contributed to art’s loss of ‘aura’ y ‘[depreciating] the quality of [their] presence’ (Benjamin, )1 AAA: 221). It could even be hailed – as it Was by G. W.

Thornburg in 1857 – for ending ‘the old selfish aristocratic days of hoarding great art, brought by these means with its ‘aura’ intact ‘nearer the reach of the poor man – to whom it will some day become, not mere furniture and wearying luxury, but hope and comfort, and prophecy and exhortation’ (Attenuate, 1 857: 856-7, cited in Fact, 1986:194). And quite fundamentally, as veins (1958: 136) points out, ‘the photograph made it possible for the first lime in history, to get such a visual cord of an object or work of art that it could be used as a means 10 study many of the qualities of the particular object or work of art itself. Here it may be noted that Benjamin treatment of photography as ‘mechanical reproduction’ missed that which distinguishes this from earlier graphic techniques, which is not its inherently multiple character but its relative independence frown the copyist’s hand and eye (its nature as – again, relatively – mechanical disorientation).

The rise of photography as a reproductive medium in part reflected the circumstance that by the mid-incitement entry ‘the sort of awe we now feel for the status of the original made it necessary for there to be an “authentic” or direct relation between the reproduction and its original’ (Lambert, 1987: 196). (It should be remembered also that it was not in earlier periods deemed essential that reproductions be made after the original, copies being often substituted where more convenient. ) Photography made possible not only a relative gain in accuracy of reproduction, but also a qualitative leap to tech very possibility of documenting the material character of art works, as in details of factual.