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Art & Authenticity in the Age of Digital Reproduction

Newton
Art and Authenticity in the Age of Digital Reproduction
by Julian H. Scaff

In his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin discusses various modes of artistic production (i.e. Marxist, capitalist, etc.), makes a historical examination of the technology of art reproduction up to the development of photography and film, and explores such issues as authenticity in art, the foundations of art in ritual, acting for the cinema, the position of the spectator and the role of the audience. All of these issues are highly relevent in relation to the digital reproduction of art, which seems to both confirm Benjamin's assertions as well as greatly expand the possibilities.

As Benjamin explains, the mechanical reproduction of art is not a recent occurrence, but a long historical process with each technological development being a direct result of the developments that came before. This process began in ancient Greece (as well as Persia, China, and India) with the invention of the wood-cut which could reproduce patterns using ink on cloth, wood, or paper. The advent of the printing press was a later development of this same process, as was the lithograph, and eventually photography, film, and audio recording.

The advent of digital reproduction is a part of this historical process, but in many ways represents a revolutionary type of technology. The repercussions that digital reproduction has on notions of authenticity and the purpose of art are but two of the issues that are indicative of just how revolutionary it is. The diffusion of computers throughout developed nations is revolutionizing many things, not just art, as well as further widening socio-economic gaps between digital societies and "analog" societies.

The digital reproduction of anything is not reliant upon any materiality in the process, apart from the quantification of an image of a material object. This makes it vastly different than any other technology of reproduction in history. Digital reproduction is actually based a philosophy of quantification that began with the ancient Greeks. This philosophy of quantification lead directly to the invention of binary code, the representation of information with ones and zeros. The reproduction of art using this binary code removes any materiality from the process, and thus the digital is quite different than the mechanical. Although mechanical (especially photographic) reproduction forever changed our notions of authenticity and perhaps destroyed the ritualisticness of art in our society, these notions may not even apply at the simplest level to the digital reproduction. Much of this is due to the very apparatus of the computer. Just as the apparatus of the camera itself changed notions about art, imagery, and reality moreso than the content of the medium, the computer apparatus is inherently resistent to older assumptions about the purposes of art, the substantiability of authenticity, and the role of the artist.

Benjamin states: "Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be." This physical existence of the original, its presence at a particular place at a particular time is at the heart of authenticity. "The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity."

What is authentic with a digital reproduction? The art work on the computer can be replicated a hundred or a million times, each copy being perfectly identical. With the ingress of the global internet, the digital work of art may be transmitted and viewed by millions of people in schools, offices, and homes any time of the day in countless different conditions. Not only does authenticity become meaningless, but space and time become an ambiguity for which we only have vague metaphors such as "cyberspace." With the digital reproduction of art there may still be an "original" somewhere in the world that was scanned, sampled, or otherwise digitized, but the digital art form takes on a life of its own.

The apparatus of the computer is totally unlike the camera as a device for reproduction. The camera is a very accessible and inexpensive piece of technology, now requiring very skill and with processing labs abundant and relatively cheap in developed nations. However, the camera is only one step in the process of reproduction. Most users are quite removed from the film developing process, and do not have access to modes of mass production and distribution. The computer apparatus, on the other hand, serves as the mode of production, reproduction, and mass distribution. For around a thousand dollars, anyone with a telephone line can buy a computer with a modem and be "surfing" the web, grabbing digital art works, reproducing them, and distributing them to other web surfers.

Benjamin talks about the impact that both photography and the rise of socialism had on art, which had always been rooted in secular religious activity or in the Renaissance cult of beauty. "It is significant that the existence of the work of art with reference to its aura is never entirely separated from its ritual function." However, the digital work of art does not possess an aura, at least not in the classical sense. The negative theology (l'art pour l'art) that came about in the twentieth century, heavily influenced by Marxist thinking, is carried to the extreme in the digital reproduction of art. For now to have to capacity to view the digital artwork means also to have the capacity to (re)produce it infinitely, and to change it endlessly. Not only is authenticity in question, but the idea of authorship is almost obsolete.

As Benjamin points out, "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." This is the ideal in Marxist thinking, and the digital apparatus lends itself especially well to the political function of art, without the traditional confines of authorship or authenticity, and without the secular ritualism of aura. Nonetheless, the invention, design, and production of the digital apparatus has been and continues to be a part of a capitalist system. The digital reproduction of art in our society is not intended for political or even social action, but for economic action. We are witnessing another practice that Benjamin did not acknowledge (or did not wish to acknowledge)--art for the practice of money.

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Summary | 16 Annotations
This process
2019/10/24 19:23
digital reproduction of anything is not reliant upon any materiality in the process, apart from the quantification of an image of a material object
2019/10/24 19:25
mechanical (especially photographic) reproduction forever changed our notions of authenticity
2019/10/24 19:25
, the computer apparatus is inherently resistent to older assumptions about the purposes of art, the substantiability of authenticity, and the role of the artist.
2019/10/24 19:26
at the heart of authenticity. "The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity."
2019/10/24 19:26
Not only does authenticity become meaningless, but space and time become an ambiguity
2019/10/24 19:27
camera is only one step in the process of reproduction.
2019/10/24 19:28
the digital work of art does not possess an aura, at least not in the classical sense.
2019/10/24 19:28
For now to have to capacity to view the digital artwork means also to have the capacity to (re)produce it infinitely, and to change it endlessly
2019/10/24 19:29
Not only is authenticity in question, but the idea of authorship is almost obsolete.
2019/10/24 19:29
the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed
2019/10/24 19:29
politics.
2019/10/24 19:29
digital apparatus lends itself especially well to the political function of art, without the traditional confines of authorship or authenticity,
2019/10/24 19:30
without the secular ritualism of aura.
2019/10/24 19:30
economic action
2019/10/24 19:30
art for the practice of money.
2019/10/24 19:30