How can we chase the beauty in modern society?

Zhihui Yu (Yvette)

“In principle, the work of art has always been reproducible……

In even the most perfect reproduction, one thing is lacking: the here and now of the work of art—its unique existence in a particular place. It is the unique existence—and nothing else—that bears the mark of the history to which the work has been subject.”

——Walter Benjamin

In The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, Benjamin mainly discussed about how technological reproduction changed traditional art interface and representation. And from my perspective, “technological reproducibility”, theoretically, is the technology standpoint of how art, or the work of art, was transformed in modern society. Technology both represents the physical devices in art invention and reproduction methods that produce replicas. “Reproducibility” became one of the existing condition of art works, and which is what Benjamin called as the destructor of “aura”, “It might be stated as a general formula that the technology of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the sphere of tradition. By replicating the work many times over, it substitutes a mass existence for a unique existence.” (Benjamin 254) and the difference and divide between tradition and modern. Modern art not only made the precise replica of our world possible based on contemporary technology development, but provided new theories to the evolution of art technique.

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After the period of industrialization and with the enhancement of modern technology, it seems that hardly anything physically can be regarded as unique and ‘authentic’. Just like the satire we can see from Charles Chaplin’s Modern Times, which portrays Chaplin as a factory worker employed on an assembly line who finally suffers a nervous breakdown because of the ubiquitous repetitive life of his industrial life. Nevertheless, do reproducibility really that ‘evil’?

To me, reproduction is one of the component of creation. There are two kinds of art pieces that can be ‘invented’ due to the appearance of reproduction. The first kind is those replicas replicated based on certain art or art works, which different from original ones due to the lack of ‘aura’. However, thanks to the huge amount and the accuracy and precision, these copies break the original ones’ limitation of time, space and medium, expand and enlarge the influence of art itself. The second sort is those mechanical productions without exact origins such as films, which can be produced and distributed with exact the same version hundreds and millions of times without a tiny difference. In my opinion, in the process of art production or invention, originality and innovation are the premises or preconditions of art. Activities of reproduction are the industrializing and enlarging process of it, which change the function of art and push art to the public. We cannot deny the fact that replication do change certain ‘aura’ of art, while I regard that creation is not opposite from reproduction.

 

“What happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it” (T.S.Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, in The Sacred Wood, London, 1921)

Within the history of art, there is one significant question that will never come to a concrete answer. What can be defined as beauty?

And what is essential to the beauty of replicas?

From Benjamin’s perspective, one of the differences between traditional art, those ‘origins’, and those replicas is the lack of ‘authenticity’. “…whereas the authentic work retains its full authority in the face if a reproduction made by hand, which it generally brands a forgery……” (Benjamin 253-254). He mentions photography and films as examples. “In the case of film, the fact that the actor represents someone else before the audience matters much less than the fact that he represents himself before the apparatus” (Benjamin 260). What we cannot deny nowadays is that photos and images in the exhibitions or shot by famous photographers are not that ‘real’. Almost every single ‘finished’ photo was under a process of Photoshop or filter changes.

And as Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin mentions in their theory of remediation, “our culture wants both to multiply its media and to erase all traces of mediation: ideally, it wants to erase its media in the very act of multiplying them”. That’s the ‘reality’ we and the whole art world are pursuing. “Filmmakers routinely spend tens of millions of dollars to film on location or to recreate period costumes and places in order to make their viewers feel as if they were ‘really’ there” (Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin), it seems like that the more ‘real’ the replica depict, the more it can be accepted.

Uniqueness and permanence are the quintessence of art, origins. And precision and the new sparkle those replicas can create through coping are essence to ‘Ficticious Art’.

 

References:

Martin Irvine, “André Malraux, La Musée Imaginaire (The Museum Idea) and Interfaces to Art“.

Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Era of its Technological Reproducibility” (1936; rev. 1939). (From the new edition of Benjamin’s writings, Harvard Univ. Press, 2003, with the revised title.)

Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000.