A generation ago, Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936) was much discussed. Little known when published, it influenced André Malraux’s famous books about the art museum before becoming widely known to the English-language audience. The essay’s argument is very much bound up in its now distant historical and political context, and so it’s late in the day to offer exegesis. Instead, I propose to use its viewpoint as a guide to the immediate present.
“The Work of Art” discusses two distinct transformations wrought by reproduction of visual art. The destruction of the aura of a unique original artwork leads to its effective replacement by multiple copies. And the creation of film changes how visual artworks are constructed. Older paintings and sculptures are thus understood in new ways. And a new visual art form is born.
In the early days of cinema, movies like those of Georges Méliès, were akin to filmed plays, with a fixed viewpoint trained on a single set. But directors soon discovered the emotional impact of close-ups, pans, traveling shots, parallel edits, and the like. These pioneering artists explored the qualities of film art in the way that the first sculptors who welded steel discovered what could be done with that medium.
A few years ago Darren Jones and I published The Contemporary Art Gallery: Display, Power and Privilege (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016). Aware that the styles of art displays have changed, we updated Brian O’Doherty’s classic Inside the White Cube (Lapis Press, 1986). Nowadays many galleries are not white cubes. In the period covered by O’Doherty’s book and the one I wrote with Jones — the 19th century up to the present — gallery lighting has improved, the architecture has changed, and upscale spaces have grown exponentially larger. Art has changed and political activists have very often expressed dissatisfaction with the gallery and the system of commerce that it represents. But, still, the gallery’s fundamental structure has not changed. It has proven to be a container capable of holding painting, photography, sculpture, and the myriad of forms of recent contemporary art.
In March of 2020, however, art displays everywhere suddenly changed. (Of course the entire culture has also been transformed, but I discuss only the art world.) This change had nothing to do with leftist politics or the development of novel art forms. Right now the only way to see art exhibitions in museums or in galleries is online. Without leaving my study I visit art shows anywhere in virtual displays.
Of course, not all venues are in a position to deploy these new technologies. This development accentuates the ability, much commented on, for the largest galleries to dominate the market.
Twenty-four years ago I reviewed The World Over: Art in the Age of Globalisation at the City Gallery Wellington, New Zealand, which was complemented by an exhibition at the opposite point on the globe, at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam (“The World Over, City Gallery, Wellington,” Artforum, February 1997). Since most reviewers could not get to both Wellington and Amsterdam, a CD-ROM allowed viewers to tour the galleries of both museums, giving them the illusion of moving forward, or turning left or right. At that time, I was teaching in New Zealand using slides. By 2009, when I was teaching in Beijing, I reworked PowerPoint lectures courtesy of the local Starbuck’s internet connection. And today YouTube has been an essential resource for my book-in-progress about Naples.
Some institutions survive even drastic change. The natural home of art criticism is now the internet, as commentaries are posted and read alongside the shows they are critiquing. But there are also holdovers from not-so-distant eras. For example, although many American journals have folded (or rebooted), the print edition of Artforum retains its traditional format: columns about timely events; long essays, most theory-heavy; and, at the back, short exhibition reviews. Sometimes archaic survivals have charm. Some people still enjoy horse-drawn carts.
From our present experience of the internet, what changes might we expect? We are all André Malraux now. To create his “museum without walls,” an archive of images from around the world, begun in 1947, he had to collect and sift through thousands of photographs. Now anyone can readily compare any selection of works, setting them side-by-side.
In Wild Art (Phaidon, 2013) and Aesthetics of the Margins/ The Margins of Aesthetics: Wild Art Explained (Penn State, 2018), Joachim Pissarro and I argued that there is no difference in kind between art in the art world and what we call ‘wild art’, (art from outside the art world). But we never envisaged the present effect of the Internet. On your screen you can set a George Herriman comic strip next to a Giotto fresco or place graffiti alongside a Watteau. Indeed, you can intermingle pictures with texts and even music.
There used to be a certain fascination in traveling to see important works, especially if their sites are important. But the distinction between what’s here-and-now and what’s distant has been undercut.
What has changed is not just the display system, but the very nature of the artwork. Now it is not the unique artifact, but the reproductions that matter the most to the greatest number of viewers. You see the work better – that is, closer, in more detail – online than in person. The reproduction no longer serves its traditional function as a stand-in for the original artwork , whose aura evinced a desire to be experienced in the flesh. The original physical object is now merely the source, just as the author’s manuscript is the source of a novel, and the reproduction has become a genuine replacement for that object. And so owning the original is like owning the manuscript of a novel, a thing of value for specialists but not the general public.
In an art world like the one where we find ourselves were to continue indefinitely, in which the basic, primary experience of visual art is online, how would museums function? What would loan exhibitions or catalogues be like? How could art galleries work? How would reviewing be transformed?
More pointedly for the art market, would there still be interest in collecting unique, original artifacts? And how would this art system be financed? There are so many unanswered questions! Benjamin tracked the disappearance of what he called contemplative immersion. Now, ironically, it’s returned as we all stare deeply into our computer screens.
The late 18th-century creation of the public art museum drastically changed both the presentation of older art, much of it moved there from churches, and the creation of novel secular works. Museums turned sacred altarpieces into artworks interpreted by scholars and viewed aesthetically. You pray before a Titian in a church, but in a museum you study its iconography and describe it as a stage in the history of cultural expression. The present events will have equally dramatic effects. On-line you can see the Titian from the museum’s collection alongside its original site in a church; you can call up similar treatments of the same subject, comparing the it to its sources, view works it influenced, and contemplate it close up.
I have focused on what’s already clear, how the internet affects our experience of prior artworks. How will it also transform the way that contemporary visual art is created? As Malraux noted, unlike the old masters, Édouard Manet and his successors painted for the museum. For some time it’s been clear that the editioning of photographs by galleries, treating them as if they were unique works, is merely a marketplace concession. The present change is more sweeping. The next generation of artists will very likely work for the internet more than for the aura of the original.
In 1790 Immanuel Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment defined aesthetic experience in terms of the agreeable, the beautiful, the sublime, and the good. As yet, the internet lacks a comparable philosophical perspective. Perhaps a similar categorical system could be divided into the immediate, the social, the activist, and the “liked.”
The politics of this change are not easy to understand. Benjamin dramatically contrasted fascism and communism. Now it’s the virus versus humanity.