Pt 2 Project 1 The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction

We are asked to read an essay by Walter Benjamin, originally published in 1936 and still as relevant today.

How does he state his case fort the removal of art’s elite nature?

Walter states that the work of art is depreciated by its replication and as the image of the cathedral can be brought into the living room, or the choral music be listened to away from the place it was recorded, it has less value and is accessible to many more. This demystification through replication had for Walter a huge effect on the value of the work. He couldn’t have fore-sawn the increases in technology that mean our sound systems could replicate the recorded acoustics of a space without the crackle of the phonograph or that ultra HD would bring in sweeping views of a cathedral that you couldn’t reach in a pre drone- pre floodlit cathedral era.

He attributed art as having either cult value or exhibition value, cult value meaning the work wasn’t for public consumption and was for ritualistic purposes although this had different meanings to the different viewers of the work throughout the ages, the statues of the greek gods not having the same significance to the Christian victorians etc.

However he points out that the oft repeated photo won’t have the same authenticity as the original due to it having relevance in its time and a history of care and ownership that has accompanied it to this point. I can’t help feeling that his attitude is a touch aloof though, almost as if the reduced value of the reproduced is about right for the masses.

What do you make of his ideas of the ‘aura’ of the work?

The Aura is linked to the objects point in history, the work, ie a point in time where you see the sun through the autumn coloured leaves, is un reproducible as the moment will pass, the things that make your viewing of the object the thing you remember, will not happen in those circumstances again, in this Walter is correct it is water under the bridge, he also links an aura to the history an object has accrued, the dust and patina of age, which is lacking in an easily reproduced thing, however I’m not convinced it takes away from the objects authenticity as a thing potentially wanted by someone, it lessens its value because its distanced from the origin and probably the person who originally came up with it, but we have already distanced ourselves by not creating it as a one off painting anyway. It is now a more accessible thing because its more affordable, like prints of a painting, who are we to judge if a thing has such a reduced value though if its reproduction is of a good enough quality to mimic the original satisfactorily in someones home.

Does the improvement in the methods of reproduction, colour printing, digital imaging and television, strengthen or weaken his case?

Walters case has an element of truth regarding value, however, multiple copies have a value too, listening rights on radio means a composer will gain every time a piece of music is used, so potentially over a lifetime the same amount as the cost of a private performance even if the experience is a slightly de-valued version without the emotion of the experience of being at the concert. However, as an entry point to engender interest in an artist, the reproduced is accessible and shouldn’t be overlooked.

Does the failure of the soviet experiment alter the validity or otherwise of this case?

Communism as a method of dissemination of assets fails because someone always wants more than the next person. Walter’s suggestion on the devaluing of the easily reproduced does not take into account the media and the strength of imagery in holding people in a set pattern of behaviour or the fact that easy access to world news gives them the means to see another future contrary to the person in charge at the time, this is a power that is a value of its own that Walter could not have foreseen. In this context, the value of images changes somewhat.

On John Bergers first essay in ‘Ways of seeing’

Do you find his case convincing?

Yes, value and meaning change immensly as the original work is seen out of context and out of time, Bergers argument for Aura is more powerful than Walters because his examples are strong. His case being that the item has many meanings, seen by many people in many locations and that value is created by an elite educated few who both review the art and purchase it, also that in reviewing within the reviewers agenda the work cannot hope to represent in writing what its initial point was and that the writing can and does sway how we think and feel towards it.

Do you think that a work of art removed from its original site grows or dimineshes in meaning?

I think its meaning changes, the point in time it was created for has gone, potentially the people with those beliefs and lives are gone so we cannot access the art for the same reasons or purposes, however, we can make an informed decision to look at the art out of situ. We will of course always be viewing it through the eyes of the curator, they will have decided the setting, the objects to the left and the right, the cost of entry and the arts perceived value, but we can get something out of it.

Does familiarity breed contempt?

I think it can breed contempt for the people who are outside the scene and that is why the language around art is so tough to understand as its a bit far up its own bottom. I have a deep distrust for a work of art that takes 500 words next to it to explain…

Has Benjamins Aura been replaced by the postcard?

The postcard is a memory of a point in time where you saw something you could not afford to have in your life. It represents a part of the Aura of the original thing, it disseminates the aura further around the globe, it propagates it, but it isn’t the aura on its own. Also, a postcard is as inadequate at showing a sculpture as a moving image, whilst its showing a point in time that is felt to be as perfect a rendition as can be achieved, the external senses and dimensions are lacking.


Benjamin, W(1936) The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction In: Visual culture reader, Jessica Evans, Stuart Hall. London. Visual culture reader. pp. 72-79

Berger, J(1972)Ways of seeing, Penguin Books LTD, London

British art show 8 – Southampton gallery

Saturday 22 Oct saw me getting the train to Southampton gallery to attend a tutor led OCA trip to view the British art show 8. This is a travelling show held every 5 years, this one going to Leeds, Edinburgh, Norwich and Southampton.

The show is curated to bring the most Contemporary of art at the time around the country, this years themes being materiality ‘whether they work with their hands, archives, people or the internet – and how they relate to objects and physicality, particularly at a time of increasing convergence between the real and virtual worlds.’

Emma Drye was our tutor for this trip, I and 5 other students at various points in study managed to spend most of the day around a venue that aside from the Perseus pictures had been emptied of the permanent Southampton collection that is constantly on rotation.

The difficulty in showing a selection of artworks in different settings was brought home when Emma advised she had seen the exhibition at one of the other venues and its impact had been different, the Southampton gallery is an art deco space, the high ceiling is a decorative space that needs a rich focus beneath it not to be out-done, and I can see that some of the artwork would lose out in this setting.

Understanding why the curator has put the works together is a revelation to me, its a whole new level if you can go around a gallery and even the pieces you don’t like have a meaning to their time in this spot and you understand it. As an example, Anthea Hamiltons 2 pieces as prints attached to the back of perspex which is in itself elaborately patterned and has at some point had an ant farm filling the patterns with dirt. However, the ants have died and I’m not sure on the visual imagery of the naked woman using her legs as the clappers on the top of a clapper board (but then I am going through John Bergers ways of seeing again) So I’m fairly sure I’m missing the point.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s piece  A convention of tiny movements (2015), as an explanation of which items in a supermarket (a large wall filled picture of mixed black and white items and coloured items in photograph. We are informed through test that the black and white currently cannot be used to listen and the coloured can, while on a table a box of tissues has a speaker and  a voice talking from it to the chair at the table) can be used to collect sound acting as a microphone, speaks to me about a paranoia in the current age, of being watched. The revelation in that a crisp packet has the closest ability found so far to mimic the acoustics we as humans recognise, I was left wondering if the point was real or another example of the paranoia and made up to add another layer.

Ryan Gander’s The Way things collide (2014), provided 3 beautiful sculptures carved in wood, his point being that he was bringing 2 things you wouldn’t normally see together in the woodwork. He’s right, the Prious seat and the tampon led to so many questions as to why those 2 would be together and none of them where comfortable happy options, the pigs snout and the  (what looked to me to be ) ammo/army storage box made more sense as did the 4L ice cream tub and the leather tool rest. The workmanship in the use of the material was beautiful, smooth recognisable items over the unfinished chiselled wooden bases.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye oils (2015) were the only paintings in the show (although the whole exhibition is stretched over a couple of sites in this incantation, we only visited the one yesterday) and they represented fictional people worked from sketches the artist had done of actual people, the group of paintings seemed to be linked, the pallette use to create them was the same earthy discordant group of colours available in 1950’s adverts, but as each individual had their own canvas, what the link was could only be guessed at.

Alexandre Da Cunha’s work re-purposing, was well named and provided tactile items I really wanted to touch, Fatigue (2014) as a metal grid where the crosses in the lines where weighted down with a concrete donut created with the tyre from a wheelbarrow as a mold, had a sense of force pushing it down that worked well with its name, I could feel the draining weight. Also his use of mop heads in Kentucky (2010) created an effective quilt I would have liked to tucked my feet under. I wonder at its effect though if it had been made from used mops, the repurposing would have had more history to it, another story perhaps?

James Richard’s Raking light (2014), created an unsettling video with a, equally unsettling soundscape to go with it. His use of video clips he had either made himself or collected from cult films, had been turned to the negative or solarised making for a post apocalyptic feel to the whole thing with almost poisoned colours, the sounds were eery and discordant to the timing and delay in the changes on screen, as a piece to create a sense of unease, it worked well.

Caroline Achaintre’s Mother George (2015), was a hand tufted rug created with a thought to tribal masks, the colours leap out of the unkept face, which is neither pretty nor friendly, but recognisable and I didn’t find it threatening. It was again a tactile piece, organic in form. I liked it for its use of the material.

Cally Spooner’s Damning Evidence illicit behaviour insurmountable great sadness terminated in any manner (2014) is an led message display programmed to show the comments from after a lance Armstrong interview on Oprah admitting his banned techniques for upping his game in world cycling and comments from you tube clips about singing stars ‘outsourcing  their live performances to technology’. This all creates a rolling text of mixed messages both damning and supportive  for the stars. This contradiction is the nature of social media though, you can find your safe haven and like minded souls as much as the next comment can be inflammatory for you and a complete about face from your views.

Benedict Drew, Sequencer (2015) which seemed to be in two parts was a room with two large pictures of mountains with a tv screen in front showing and playing interference that seemed to replicate the texture of the hills, on another screen showed a mountaineering expedition metal frame back pack (empty) in pink. In front where 3 screens showing different coloured masses of gloop with air passing through as a small scale geyser while in the middle a playdough’d support with a gorilla pod on top held up a device with 2 ears on it. At this point the visuals are stronger than the sounds though, so whether this central device is to draw your attention to the sounds is anyones guess. This is all played out in a darkened room and the extra light in this first half is a quite warm yellow, so The feeling isn’t deeply uncomfortable, more confused.

Then you move to the second part where 3 large screens with a conch shell attached stand in front of the walls. The shell is a puzzle, I’m not sure if its referring to the creature inside? or the childhood message of putting your ear to the shell to hear the sea? or the link to Lord of the Flies and only being able to talk when you are holding the conch? Or because it looks like an ear? The screens all show a mix of videos of mud geysers or a rocky hill and valley or an oily geyser, with an electric backing noise accompanying the gloopy bubbling of the pools. Theres a hint of mad chemistry lab to the whole thing, right down to the tinfoil leads in the previous section going from the picture of the mountain to the tvs with the coloured geysers. Its an experience, but I don’t get ‘an environment dripping with false promise of desire and seduction conjured by the mediated image of the lens, the screen and the loudspeaker’ (artists words from the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition (p44)).

The exhibition contained such a vast array of mediums and assorted items that it gives me hope there is a place for whatever my mind could possibly create as an answer to anything. the messages  were just as diverse and swung from hope to despair but kept us engrossed for over 3 hours and I have to thank Emma for helping open my eyes to slowing down and thinking each piece through.

All quotes are from the catalogue [Anon] (2015) British Art Show 8. First edition. London. Hayward publishing