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Mechanical Reproduction and the Neo-Artistic Function

Updated on June 16, 2011

About this Hub

(This has to do with graffiti and philosophy of art, trust me.)

I got the idea to write this article after seeing Adam Kokesh's latest stunt (to the right). After witnessing this youtube video I was totally appalled and didn't think it could be real, so I looked up Adam Kokesh and sure enough he is a known demagogue who had every intention of getting himself arrested that day. Now in researching his various political stunts none of them seemed that appealing, like he carried an inflammatory sign to McCain's GOP nomination, that is like wearing Michigan colors on the Buckeye side of the stadium and shouting the rudest thing that comes into your head every time something happens in the game. However, Kokesh did have one stunt that I found to be awesome, and that is where at his college a conservative student group hosted "Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week" so Kokesh put up dozens of incendiary Islamophobic posters that were over the top in portraying terrorist awareness and pretending to be part of the awareness week. That is what graffiti art is really all about, and the only legitimate political stunt Kokesh has pulled, turn the world upside down so that absurdity is staring people in the face remaining anonymous in their relationship to the absurd. If I could sum up this aspect of street-art with a single picture it would be Banksy's Thinker in a Dunce Cap.

I wrote my undergraduate thesis on street-art as a viable political tool. It was called, Finding Metagraffiti: Visual Art of the Urban Environment and the Public Good. I really was trying to distinguish between graffiti that was productive for society and that which was not. Before I knew what I was doing I took a class in American Film and the professor prescribed an article by Walter Benjamin (Ben-ya-meen) titled, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. When I first read the article I was astounded to realize it was published in the 1930s as so much of it was true for today, the prophetic nature of it was eerie. Eventually I would come to realize this article showed that in many ways graffiti-art, the good kind anyway, is a much more authentic art form than most of what is traditionally considered art. Now the question of 'what is art?' is for another hub, here I am going to give you an excerpt straight out of my paper I written back in 2008-2009 giving my take on Benjamin's ideas being presented.


Mechanical Reproduction and the Neo-Artistic Function

In this section there will be an analysis of the article The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction written by Walter Benjamin in 1935, followed by an examination of the provided prognosis of the neo-artistic function. There will then be a demonstration of the public art forms of the graffiti-art movement discussed in this project as they relate to the neo-artistic function anticipated by Walter Benjamin seventy-four years ago. Ultimately in the age of mechanical reproduction art will have the capacity to be political and graffiti-art is already inherently political as described in the previous section and more recently there is already a strong presence of the graffiti-art movement in contemporary politics.

Contemporary politics is a reference to the this image.


The world of artificiality is a reference to Richard Kearney's book, The Wake of Imagination as well as phrases found in my hub, a strange assortment of quotes

The Wake of Imagination: Toward a Postmodern Culture
The Wake of Imagination: Toward a Postmodern Culture

Excellent book describing the background elements of human nature necessary for art to exist.

 

The limitless expansion of imagination over the course of history has granted humanity a unique existence of knowing artificialities. The ability to reproduce art increases to an ever greater degree while a copy is never as good as the original and the process of degradation may spiral ad-infinitum out of human control. Technical reproduction has such a precision that the original is either imperceptible or in some cases never even existed. Through failure to realize what is at stake we may find that art was just incidental, but by then we will not even know what was lost.

In the 1935 article “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” Walter Benjamin revolutionizes the way in which art is thought about. He describes how mechanical reproduction has direct implications on the entirety of artistic expression. At this time mechanical reproduction was in its infancy. The historically contextual diagnosis of the problem is an accurate account and still exists today. Much of what could have been art is no longer considered as such. Across the board in the arts that are reproduced there is a missing authenticity, substantive duration, unique existence and quality of presence.


Authenticity

When it is not possible for there to be an original, there is no authenticity. Benjamin elaborates, “The whole sphere of authenticity is outside technical--and of course, not only technical—reproducibility. (Benjamin 733)” Originality is a pre-requisite for authenticity. It is art that is losing this characteristic, natural objects are impervious to assaults on authenticity.

“The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced” (Benjamin 734)

"Art Object" means whatever is being called art, but only the actual, tangible, real world object.

Art as exists in the world as a physical correlate to whatever metaphysical qualities it may possess. Authenticity occurs upon original creation of the objective aspect of a given art (when referring to an ‘art object’ this is all that is referred to). As an original, art remains authentic throughout history. There is intrinsic value in this; if I wanted to own the poncho that Clint Eastwood wore in A Fist Full of Dollars, I do not want just any poncho. The additional value derives from the historical context that the poncho was once worn by Clint Eastwood. The art object of a reproduced poncho is inauthentic and less valued.


Quality of Presence

Separate from authenticity, reproducibility incurs problems of its own. A reproduction, unless attempted to be passed off as a forgery, will be lacking a quality of presence. This is a result of reproduction’s ability to place the art in contextual situations that the original could never be in (Benjamin 733). This is evident when a person visits New York City for the first time and relates that Lady Liberty’s appearance is diminutive. All their lives they saw her on the television and postcards where she was a giant. This effect is the loss of quality of presence. Unlike authenticity, natural objects may lose quality of presence as well.


Graffiti Art is meant to disappear. The name of the art collective known as FAILE is an anagram of "A Life" as in each piece has a life, this is in reference to graffiti maintaining substantive duration. If you have been to a major city chances are you have seen their work.

Substantive Duration

Separate from authenticity, reproducibility incurs problems of its own. A reproduction, unless attempted to be passed off as a forgery, will be lacking a quality of presence. This is a result of reproduction’s ability to place the art in contextual situations that the original could never be in (Benjamin 733). This is evident when a person visits New York City for the first time and relates that Lady Liberty’s appearance is diminutive. All their lives they saw her on the television and postcards where she was a giant. This effect is the loss of quality of presence. Unlike authenticity, natural objects may lose quality of presence as well.


Uniqueness

There are only two qualities that no matter how accurately reproduced can never be achieved by a copy; the original’s distinct location in space and time. This is the only avenue of unique existence left to the authentic art object. The experience of reproduced art occurs in terms and context belonging to the one experiencing. There is no longer a tradition that surrounds the art object. Two different cultures from different periods of time may both look at the same art object differently but before the age of mechanical reproduction they would have been equally faced with its uniqueness (Benjamin 735). In this way reproduction threatens art objects as cultural artifacts.


Cult Value & Exhibition Value

Consequently, there are two diametrically opposed values that art can possess; cult vs. exhibition. The fundamental answer to the aesthetic question (what is important?) given by art of cult value is existence. The answer for exhibition is display. Cult value is the ancient way of ascribing value to art. The art of cult value will be resembling ritual art such as The Venus of Willendorf dated around 2500 years ago which is widely believed to be a fertility figurine. Today objects of cult value are hidden away in the reliquaries and temples of the world and referred to as religious artifacts. There is specific tradition and ritual inherent in cult value that when art is no longer associated with allows for exhibition value to come into play. “…for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual (Benjamin 736).”

Mechanical reproduction stresses exhibition as the one and only value. “To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility (Benjamin 736).” When the age of pilgrimage to a specific setting for an art experience is gone, exhibition value increases. As a result art then becomes more compact such as the “…painting as against the mosaic or fresco that preceded it. (Benjamin 737).”

Benjamin saw the transition from cult value to exhibition value implying a transformation of the nature of art (Benjamin 737):

“…the work of art in prehistoric times when, by 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.” (Benjamin 738)

There are many important questions to be asked as now we enter into the murky age of the reproduced. The article was published in 1935, what can be said of the state of art now? What new functions (if any) have arisen? What does it mean for art to lose authenticity, quality of presence, definite substantive duration and unique existence?

The way that art functions within society has changed significantly throughout the course of human history. In its earliest forms, with an emphatic cult value, art functioned ritualistically and was subjective, personal, and sacred. Escaping an ethnocentric view; these early humans would most likely not view their objects that are currently called art as such, rather as totems or ritual artifacts with specific purposes of what is now called magic. Later there would be a demonstrative function. Greek pottery told a story, sculpture demonstrated what man could be. Even the early ecclesiastical practices which for the most part were against religiously sanctioned depictions of the divine would take advantage of this demonstrative function in order to make an impression on the illiterate. The moment art became demonstrative the emphasis on cult value began to spiral downwards.

There are many other functions of art such as attempting to achieve an abstract notion of ‘Beauty’ like The Forms, or art as self expression would too require that the art be experienced by many and the more the merrier. Then with the advent of mechanical reproduction cult value saw its coup de grace. Art is now on display; exhibition is its value.

The focus on the exhibition value that was greatly augmented from the advent of mechanical reproduction forever changed the function of art in society. Benjamin thought that the technologically based trends of reproduction were advanced throughout history “intermittently and in leaps at long intervals. (Benjamin 732)” In the time of the Greeks only bronzes, terra cottas and coins were able to be mass produced with the same image which is pale in comparison to the reproduction processes that are accessible today.


The Neo-Artistic Function

Not only did Benjamin diagnose reproducibility, he also offered a prognosis of its implications: politics (Benjamin 736). If the main value of art is to be on display, then it has the power to reach people not religiously as when it is exhibited for the few in a ritual practice, but politically as it is reproduced. There is a unique opportunity in politics today. Graffiti-art is inherently political as it questions authority and bypasses the problems of mechanical reproduction, mainly the loss of authenticity, quality of presence, definite substantive duration and unique existence.

Assuming Benjamin’s prognosis is true would mean humanity of the future would look at that thing once called art and call it politics just as today we call ritual objects art. This is not the case some seventy years later but it could be argued that not enough time has passed or the right technological advances with applications for art have not developed for the prognosis to be diagnosable. Understanding the provided prognosis of a political neo-artistic function requires an examination of Benjamin’s anticipated results of the age of mechanical reproduction. Benjamin thought that his theory of art would be, “useful for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art” and “…completely useless for the purposes of Fascism. (Benjamin 732)” Unfortunately the demands in the politics of art never came to be or if they did were able to not gain widespread appeal; rectifying this is a purpose of my project. As for the second anticipation, in the years that followed Fascism would show one of the greatest examples of the transitions Benjamin was describing.

The Swastika is an ancient symbol recognized in most eastern religions and found all over the globe (Schliemann even found it at Troy!). For thousands of years the Swastika existed as a symbol with nothing but positive connotations that promoted well being, that is until the age of mechanical reproduction. The symbol was mass produced for decorating the war machine of the Third Reich and could be found on flags all over Europe. The new reproducibility of art made sure that the Swastika’s connotations quickly changed leaving it in a contemporary state of ambiguity; feared, offensive and loathsome to some, positive connotative emphatic cult value to others. Benjamin was indeed correct in his assertion that a political neo-artistic function would do well in the age of mechanical reproduction but he could not have been more wrong about the uselessness of the political function of art for Fascism.

Reproduced art (some of which no longer resembles art) has continued to play a major role in politics since Hitler’s Germany fell. From comic examples such as the Democratic Party organizing groups of pregnant women to wear the Republican button with the slogan, “Nixon’s the one!” to the disturbing image of a young Vietnamese girl covered in napalm. The line used by many in the graffiti-art movement is, “the medium is the message”. This makes the sheer notion of the scope and illegality of reproducibility the meaning of their political art.


The Political Function of Art in Modernity

Reproduced art (some of which no longer resembles art) has continued to play a major role in politics since Hitler’s Germany fell. From comic examples such as the Democratic Party organizing groups of pregnant women to wear the Republican button with the slogan, “Nixon’s the one!” to the disturbing image of a young Vietnamese girl covered in napalm. The line used by many in the graffiti-art movement is, “the medium is the message”. This makes the sheer notion of the scope and illegality of reproducibility the meaning of their political art.

One man has taken advantage of the reproducibility of art more than anyone currently alive, he has gained fame, money, power, and (circa 2006) seventeen arrests, he has the farthest ‘reach’ (Figures 2,3) within graffiti writing and street art cultures: his name is Shepard Fairey. Known as ‘The OBEY Campaign’, Fairey’s original art campaign involved depictions of deceased wrestler ‘Andre the Giant’ with cryptic messages such as “Andre Has a Posse” and “OBEY”. Shepard Fairey recalling when he first became political:

“I saw the political angle for Obey Giant as “the medium is the message.” When something is illegally placed in the public right-of-way, the very act itself makes it political. My hope was that, in questioning what Obey Giant was about, the viewers would then begin to question all the images they were confronted with. I was very hesitant to make any literal political statements with my images, because I felt the mystery of the project elicited a variety of honest reactions that were a reflection of the viewer’s personality in the same spirit as a Rorschach test.”

Supply and Demand: The Art of Shepard Fairey (pg 89-90)


Further Reading on Philosophy of Art and Graffiti

The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature; Revised Edition (Signet Shakespeare)
The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature; Revised Edition (Signet Shakespeare)

This book is totally awesome! It is Ayn Rand's treatise on the philosophy of art, even if you hate Ayn Rand I still highly suggest it. One discipline of philosophy I am glad she stepped into, as it is greatly overlooked and fits well with her overzealous passion.

 

Related Hubs

If you liked this article then you may want to check out my Beginner's Guide to Kierkegaard

Also I found some notes from my Finding Metagraffiti project that I turned into a strange assortment of quotes (Hub coming soon) that are loosely (or maybe closely) related to some of the ideas surrounding the philosophy of art and graffiti.

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