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Art in the age of digital reproduction: liberating or cheapening?

Walter Benjamin famously wrote in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction that “even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence.”

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Since then (and even more so today, much more) people have become accustomed to seeing copies of original artworks reproduced as posters, album covers, calendars, books and endless other mediums. In Benjamin’s context, mechanical reproduction referred to copies of photographs and film for example. Today digital reproduction can reproduce and manipulate thousands of photographs, songs, artworks, videos etc. Think of scanners, fax machines, downloading and copying songs. The number of things that are being digitally reproduced today are beyond quantifying.

Does digitally reproducing art take away its authenticity, its value from the time and space from where it was created and exhibited? Or does it emancipate it from its intended exclusivity for a minority group to the enjoyment of millions for free?

It is great that all forms of art have in some way been liberated from a time when art was seen as something to be enjoyed by the upper classes in a designated space such as a theatre or a gallery. Today you can access all forms of art from your desk just by watching and listening to countless videos, songs and images on the Internet.

“Work of Art” traditionally has been interpreted by scholars including Benjamin as something that relates to “bourgeois and fascist ideologies and to the conditions, inevitably generated out of capitalism itself”.

According to Benjamin’s 76-year-old theory of modern technological reproduction, institutions and their iconic artworks are stripped of their authority. Take for example the Internet pirating debate that has been going on for years now. Pop artists and companies, even countries are often embroiled in lawsuits and finger-pointing situations. In 2008, Swedish prosecutors filed a lawsuit against The Pirate Bay (who lost) for copyright infringement. Even though one could agree that digital reproduction has emancipated art forms from static historical existence, it might also be argued that it has generated a lot more competition and a need for more money.

With all of this in mind, it is fascinating to consider the position art is taking in our 21st Century landscape. It has become so instant and varied than ever before. People scramble to get hold of the “next best thing”, just to abandon it a few months later for the next — quick satisfaction for the user and a quick buck for distributors. In a way, digital reproduction has cheapen various kinds of art forms because it has become so readily available, almost like a fast food chain.

Take the music industry for example. People now have access to songs from their favorite artists even before the official album release. There are hundreds of websites where pirated MP3s are available for a quick download, which according to many, is a great thing. But I like to think that buying an album from your favorite band is so much more special. A carefully put together album is an artwork in its own right.

Some artists have taken all this change their stride coming up with innovative ideas and new ways to produce art. Take for example David Hockney, the 75-year old English painter, draughtsman, printmaker, stage designer and photographer, who in 2010 created over 300 paintings with his iPad’s Brushes application, which he emailed to identical devices on display at Paris’ Pierre Berge — Yves St. Laurent Foundation, where the exhibition was called Fresh Flowers. The exhibition later moved to the Royal Ontario Museum:

I personally love this initiative. And it goes to show that digital art media isn’t confined to the younger generation. Anyone, from anywhere can join in and collaborate, share, buy and sell their art today. Yes, with so much freedom things can sometimes have negative pit falls, but at least it creates some controversy, and art would mean nothing without some criticism.

As a final thought, it is worth referring to the opening statement with which Benjamin set the tone for his Marxist argument. He quoted Paul Valéry from his Pièces Sur L’Art (The Conquest of Ubiquity) who argued that “art that was developed in the past differs from that of the present time and hence our understanding and treatment of it must develop in order to understand it in a modern context and develop new techniques.” This statement is just as relevant as it was in 1931 when Valéry wrote it. In order to let art survive in our modern age and beyond, one needs to understand its context and develop new techniques to keep its fundamental essence alive and liberated for everyone to enjoy and appreciate.

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