Berger and the Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Because photographs have been such a vital medium for developing the mythology of the National Parks in America, we are going to take one week to think about some of the implications of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.  What does it mean when a work of art can be reproduced in mass quantities?  Does our experience with the art (or the place itself) change?  Invariably, yes, but how, and to what effect?  If we think about the national parks as artworks, then reproductions of them could further distance us from the actual physical presence of nature that we seek to recall by having photographs or paintings in the first place.

Ansel Adams, Monolith, Face of Half Dome, Yosemite (1927)

These are not new ideas.  Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” suggests that we have, in theory, always been able to reproduce a work of art.  What changes, Benjamin argues, is that in an age of mechanical reproduction, the art work’s aura is compromised, and what is lost is some kind of “unique existence”:

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 unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence. This includes the changes which it may have suffered in physical condition over the years as well as the various changes in its ownership. The traces of the first can be revealed only by chemical or physical analyses which it is impossible to perform on a reproduction; changes of ownership are subject to a tradition which must be traced from the situation of the original.

Read through Benjamin’s essay if you will.  It’s a good piece, but also fairly complicated.  We’ll talk about it, and we’ll also talk about one of Benjamin’s great popularizers, John Berger.  For this week, you may read the first part of his 1972 book, John Berger’s Ways of Seeing.  Or you may watch the BBC telecasts of the chapter.  I suggest both!

What do you think?  Does mechanical reproduction destabilize the authority of historical art?  If so, how?  Is not this blog post an example?  How does photography factor into Berger’s discussion?  What if the mechanical reproduction is itself the artwork in question?  What does it mean to have an “experience,” either with a work or art or an actual physical place?


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