Art in the Age of Reproduction


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Art has always been replicable (Benjamin, 1939, p. 252). From Morse’s Gallery at the Louvre to art history textbooks with photographic reproductions, the only change was the exactness of the reproduction. Once a work of art is copied, authenticity and originality come into question. “The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity” (Benjamin, 1935, p. 3). Indeed, technology allowed for the ability to see the original work of art in a new medium, a photograph, but Benjamin is more concerned with how the technology changed the concept of art. The way we consume music today greatly differs from the pre-Spotify era. Once we could experience music without the actual musician in front of of us, the way we experience it changed. As McLuhan says, “The medium is the message.” However, I do not think reproductions of music or art causes us to devalue the cultural capital, but technology offered affordances to experience art or music at any distance from the creator.

So how have new technologies changed the way we perceive art? On one hand, works of art are taken from their context and lose what Benjamin describes as an “aura.” Museums have traditionally been the context we associate with consuming art; they “are the frame and effective support upon which the work is inscribed/composed.” (Buren, 1985, p. 189). We trust what is in museums to be authentic work, which is why standing in front of a Vermeer involves a transcending experience of time-traveling back to the presence of the painter himself. “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 it has experienced” (Benjamin, 1935, p. 4). We have been socialized to believe that in the presence of the original, we can connect to a different time and place. However,  as our lives become more digital, virtual, and technical, our grasp of what is considered original changes. If the museum’s function is to be mediated by technical means, the art would have to change forms.

Call Me By My Monet Mika Labrague

Technology has not only changed the form in which  we receive messages, but also how those messages are perceived. For example, there has been a certain buzz around an Instagram account called “Call Me By My Monet” – which combines scenes from the Oscar-awarded film “Call Me By My Name” and Monet’s paintings. The Guardian writes “Call Me By Monet: how Instagram hybrids turned pop into art” (Gosling, 2018). But is this art original by combining two mediums in a new way, or is this simply appropriation? Debray observed that “no new dimensions of subjectivity has formed without using new material objects (books or scrolls, hymns and emblems, insignia and monuments)” (2000, p.2). The film, Call Me By My Name was actually filmed where Monet used to paint so by combining two forms of artistic expression – the film and Monet’s paintings – Mika Labrague uses a new material to mediate her own expression. As a collective, art still exists in the safekeeping of the museum; however, like the music industry, technology could redefine how and where we perceive art.

Creative geniuses – like Warhol – combined aspects of our social world and art history to form new definitions of art. People said what Warhol was doing wasn’t “art” and now his artwork is the most coveted (according to price) in the world and his name is forever sealed into art history textbooks. Just as during Warhol’s time, we are undergoing a cultural shift. Ours is a shift from people of tangible things (books, paper, pens, faxes, etc) to people of screens. We look at screens more and more so why can art not appear on screens? Arguing that Call Me By My Monet can be considered art, we could be entering a new genre of art, with its context in the cultural phenomenon of memes, digital reproduction, and nostalgia for art of the past.  Much like we have not forgotten the importance of tangible books, seeing a musician live, or the appreciation for the authentic, a work of art will always be valued more in its original form, but maybe we are moving away from art in a museum, bound by a canvas, to art existing on our phones.

‘Call Me By Monet’ is your favourite new Insta feed

Benjamin, W. (1936). The Work of Art in the Era of its Technological Reproducibility. (From the new edition of Benjamin’s writings, Harvard Univ. Press, 2003, with the revised title.) Focus on sections: Pref., I-VI, X-XII, XV.

Buren, D. (1985). Function of the Museum. In Theories of Contemporary Art, edited by Richard Hertz, 2nd ed., 189–92. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985.

Debray, R. (2000). Transmitting Culture, trans. New York: Columbia University Press. Chapter 1-2.

Gosling, S. (2018). “Call Me By Monet: how Instagram hybrids turned pop into art.” The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/mar/16/call-me-by-monet-instagram-hybrids-alexa-chung-artlexachung-harry-potter-gryffindior