Benjamin, The Work of Art…2.0

Some (semi-random) thoughts on “The Work of Art…” in the age of digital reproduction…

Benjamin’s essay was about how technology was changing the function of art. Unlike Adorno, who saw technology as disabling the masses, Benjamin saw it as enabling. The technology of reproduction tore down art’s (and, by extension, media’s) aura, moving it from a ritual function to one of exhibition. If this new (film, photo) reproduction technology represented a break from the media past, we can view digital technology as another break.

The technology Benjamin discussed was analog — film, photo, radio, tape recordings. While these things could be reproduced, they were still not perfect reproductions. While two photo prints from the same negative visually look the same, they are not. What digital technology brought to the table was the ability to make a perfect reproduction. While visually the practical implications of this aren’t apparent, the practicality comes in on the back end.

What digital reproducibility does is change the economics of art. It’s The Long Tail. Niche markets become profitable. Reproduction is free. For art and media, digital lowers the barriers to entry. In music, what used to be done in an expensive recording industry can now be done at home. In film, while analog technology did open up new directions — French new wave, 70s film school auteurs like Scorsese, Coppola and the other “rebels” of Hollywood — digital technology has gone even further, enabling moviemakers (that is, anyone with a digicam and an iMac) to create art outside of the Hollywood system, and often its purpose is social change and politics.

By opening these doors, by lowering these barriers, digital technology enables the masses to move, as Benjamin notes, from readers to authors. We all now become “experts,” not just passive observers. These is seen most obviously in the world of blogs and, more specifically, in the citizen journalism movement. The idea of authorship also comes into play with things like mashups. I see a direct line from Benjamin’s discussion of authorship — “At any moment the reader is ready to turn into a writer…” — to someone like MIT’s Henry Jenkins’s and his notion of fan cultures, when he notes, for example, the parallels between sci-fi fans (who created their own newsletters) and today’s bloggers.

That’s all for now….thoughts?


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