The Medium “and” The Message

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Interface (n.): ” a point where two systems, subjects, organizations, etc., meet and interact.”

Art, meet art enthusiast; art enthusiast, meet… the death of originality, authenticity, of the aura… through the technological reproduction of art. In his essay “The Work of Art in the Era of Technological Reproducibility”, Benjamin discusses the effects of technological reproduction of art on the originality and authenticity of artworks and aids us in understanding what that means for art and all forms of cultural expression in the digital world we live in today.

He argues that traditional art forms, such as paintings have an “aura” – as they preserve their uniqueness and their attachment to their origins, their history and by extension their materiality – while the reproduction of any form of art or cultural expression using modern technological mechanisms, such as photographs, do not. Think of the original Mona Lisa in the Louvre vis-a-vis a poster of the painting that can be bought from the boutique, which is completely detached and removed from its sphere of traditions. As such, art mediation becomes concerned with preserving and delivering the aura of an art form. Here, Benjamin recognizes that although art has always been reproducible, the technological reproduction of art should be evaluated as a process in itself, extending his theory to the art of film.

We begin to move from evaluating and assessing what is authentic and what is not, what is considered to be original and what is not, to fixating on the knowledge and traditions – i.e. culture – that are being transmitted within a medium. In other words, we focus on the relationship between technology and culture: Mediology attempts to study the transmission of cultural meanings in societies, according to Debray. It is not concerned with technological determinism – whether or not “The medium is the message” (the famous phrase coined by McLuhan),  but instead with the social construction of technology (think socio-technical systems –  the relationship between the medium (technology) and the message. Mediology broadens the spectrum of understanding mediation – going beyond assessing whether or not printed books and paintings are real – in order to include digital mediums such as photographic images and cinematic footage and ultimately reconceptualize the understanding of art within social, political, and economic frameworks. It calls for the interaction between technology and culture, rendering the dissemination of ideas embedded in artworks possible.

Benjamin argues that the reproduction of art meant losing the uniqueness of an art piece; but Mediology makes room for digital reproduction, such that studying the relationship between the way art is transmitted and memorized (i.e. media as a memory, archival system) and the way it interacts with, structures, and organizes our thoughts, beliefs, and information (i.e. culture) is being studied. It allows for ideas to transpire digitally. As a consequence, it expands our network model of mediation by exploring the cultural aspects embedded into technology, and regenerating new and different encounters each time the audience meets and interacts with art. Thus, not only does this interpretation of mediation transcend space (i.e. communication), but also it transcends time (i.e. transmission).


Works Cited:

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.) Focus on sections: Pref., I-VI, X-XII, XV.


Régis Debray, Transmitting Culture, trans. Eric Rauth. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.  Excerpts from Chaps. 1-2 and 7.