Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
What is it for
Almost 100 years ago Walter Benjamin wrote an essay; The Work of Art in Age of Mechanical Reproduction. I'm a printmaker and have heard of this essay for decades but I only recently got my hands on a copy.
I'm interested that my own experience as an artist has been greatly influenced by the forces that he wrote about.
It's an interesting study to see how our concept of art has evolved over time - as in millenia.
The earliest pictorial art (found in caves) seems to be involved with magic - that's the theory - that the ancient artists were trying to increase their success at hunting somehow with these pictures.
I'm not completely comfortable with ideas like that - who knows really?
But it can't be denied that that cave art was often stunningly beautiful and also hard to get at.
It wasn't beautiful in the way that present pictures are thought beautiful - there seemed to have been no concept of composition - images are overlaid on top of each other.
But if you have any sensitivity to the drawn line at all the outlines in these ancient pictures are mind-boggling.
So - there's an aspect of art that is not often discussed - art comes from the need of some people to produce it.
Art had to exist before it could have any purpose - it's not something that anybody invented. It's always been something that some people are good at.
This is an idea that get's a bit obscured in Benjamin's thinking.
He discusses how for a long time art served the purposes of various sorts of rituals. It provided the physical objects of veneration for many religions.
And also for a long time art served to give an impression of glory to everything from kings to priests.
They would surround themselves with the work of artists precisely to be in an environment that could not be natural and showed their power and glory.
With the rise of secular power in the form of merchants and capitalists things changed.
Priests and Kings were secure in their politcal power - the art they commissioned was designed to make that power felt viscerally by subjects.
But the new rich had a different motive - they needed to impress each other with their wealth even though they didn't have direct physical power.
With this pictures became things that could be collected and traded.
That is, they became things to be appreciated as individual works cut off from their environment. The frescos of the Sistene Chapel basically can't be moved. You have to go there to see them. The frothy pictures of a Fragonard were completely disconnected from their environment. They could be put into a cart and moved any place to be possessed by anyone.
This lead to salons and art galleries.
I'm sure everyone has seen pictures of art galleries 150 years ago. The salon's were blockbuster shows with whole walls tiled with pictures.
No picture could be seen or appreciated alone - they all had lots of other pictures within anyone's visual field.
The environment was very far from one that is making people viscerally feel the power of the king.
The new context was a competitive one where the pictures were critcally compared - and became a whole social melieu about who was the most popular artist.
As you can imagine - that sort of melieu is crazy - a picture is called "great" because some famous patron bought it, or because some previously famous artis made it.
Gone were the idea of a master artist working in a studio filled with journeymen and apprentices.
Now we had the idea of the individual genius - whose work is valuable just because this popular "genius" made it.
Mechanical reproduction of art isn't exactly new. The ancients knew about how to make molds and stamps. But they never really considered that to be art.
With the coming of printing presses that changed - artists started making engravings to provide illustrations for books.
The invention of Lithography and then of photography proved to be the disruptive technologies though.
Lithography made the existence of daily illustrated newspapers possible. Picture went from being works of art to illustrations.
Notice what's happening there - skill at drawing had long been seen as one of the criteria for a work of art - but here we had pictures in newspapers that were executed by very sensitive draughters
But nobody considered them works of art.
Benjamin spends a lot of his attention on movies - he talks about how in making a movie the actor does not give a coherent performance.
Early movie actors found this to be disconcerting - they were acting in snippets that get recorded and strung together by an editor.
What is the art of acting in that context?
My own specialty - printmaking - tried to deal with producing art in the age of mechanical reproduction with the idea of the "original print".
The idea is that a painting is valuable because it is authentic - it was directly produced by the artist.
Now with painting you can only make one at a time.
But with a print you make a drawing on some medium and then print it - you can make as many as you want.
Here's the thing - the final picture doesn't exist at all until it's printed.
The medium you draw on that you print from is nothing like the finished picture.
I've made pictures that require dozens of printed colors - the plates that print those colors look nothing at all like the final print.
So - for printmakers the idea of the original print is the idea that the artist does the whole process - drawing and printing.
There is an elaborate system of authentication - each print is numbered and signed.
But here's where it get's funny.
Among printmakers it is legitimate for the artist to just do the drawing and let others do the physical printers. I did that for years - printing for other artists.
So they'd do the drawing and then I'd do everything else. Process it so it will print. Mix the ink to the approved color.
Print and make variatons until the artist approved
Then I'd print it.
The idea was that all of the aesthetic decisions were made by the artist and I was just a tech.
So I pushed the boundary a bit.
Besides being a trained fine art printer I'm also a professional commercial printer. I did fine art printing for about 20 years full time. Commercial printing for about 30. (There was overlap)
I started using commercial printing presses that can print at 10000 prints an hour instead of hand presses that did 5 an hour.
I did all the work myself. Drew the plates. Processed them. Ran the offset press.
That got me into a lot of shit - seems the problem with doing prints that way is that it makes a lot of prints which means the prints aren't rare.
That ran into big trouble with the whole art marketting machine which places a high value on rarity.
A famous wildlife artist here in BC who mass produces fabulous pictures of nature is widely derided as not an artist because he produces so many pictures - not because of the quality of the prints or his skill or artistic sensitivity.
My proposal was more radical (and I think more honest) than his.
He was marketting his prints for hundreds of dollars each - at the level that a print costs if you print it by hand given the labor.
People were 'collecting' them as investments hoping they would increase in value. My proposal was that pictures like that should be sold at the level of price that posters get - the artist would make money by just selling lots and lots.
I use the music industry as an example.
It's an industry that produces art en masse.
Lots of people are musicians.
Many many people are sophisticated music appreciators.
Music moves just about everyone on the planet.
And it's basically free - it's a business model that is very successful for art.
What do you think?