Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Walter Benjamins’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” is perhaps less of a definitive or prescriptive attempt to resolve the problem of originality in art, than a musing upon the possible ramifications of technology for the idea of the artwork, from the viewpoint of the strolling observer, the “flâneur”, in the genre of the essai. He was, however, along with perhaps Heidegger, among the first to realize that technology did pose troublesome questions for the traditional notion of the artwork as a singular, and invariably ‘hand-made’ object such as a painting or a piece of sculpture.

While it is true that the original artwork - if indeed there is one - has an undeniable “aura” in the informed mind of the percipient, one question raised  - or rather highlighted - by Benjamin in the reproduction is whether that aura is a singular reality surrounding, or attached to, the original work; or the product of intentional consciousness - in the phenomenological sense - in that mind. That is to say, does the material presence - of, say, Duccio’s Rucellai Madonna - hold a more authentic meaning for us than its reproduction in a photographic image? And whether it does or no, what inferences can we draw from this concerning the essence of the artwork and how it affects us?

As a young boy, I was awed by the presence in William Wallace’s Monument (a themed Victorian ‘medieval’ tower near Stirling, Scotland) of his enormous two-handed sword: much larger, in fact, than myself at the time. I have since learned, however, that apparently the sword on view - whilst being one from the late 13th century - did not belong to Wallace at all. This would suggest that my thoughts and feelings about the sword derived purely from my knowledge of history at that time, and from my imagination, and not from the authenticity of the sword itself. Of course, the imagination of a child might be said to contain more of reality than the dull factuality of his elders, and that may be truer than we think.

It is, however, also possible to have similar feelings about a comparatively modern, even mass-produced, ‘arti-fact’ (an interesting compound word). Take for example a 1938 Volkswagen Beetle. Its combination of design form and function is an aesthetic that is truly ‘beautiful’ in the sense that it is a delight to the eye and mind. But would this be true of, say, a contemporary car design? Does not the Beetle’s design history and socio-political context add something more to my appreciation and enjoyment of it, through its consequent “aura”? Laying its history to one side, if it is true that it has beauty, then it is equally true that there is no ‘original’ Beetle. Its only origin, in that sense, is its concept and the essentially mutable features that were developed, on paper, in the process of its final design. There is no ‘original’ car which has been subjected to mass-production or reproduction, only the blueprint, which is in itself a copy embodying a plural process. In fact, the VW’s mass-production, popular availability, and paradoxically (as it was developed in Germany’s fascist dominated 1930’s) democratic quality are all arguably part of its aesthetic qualification. Here, unlike the altarpiece by Duccio, the original is missing. It is rather like Plato’s ideal form: it is nowhere in actu, visible, tangible. The ‘copy’ is the original - just as Benjamin noted of the photographic print.

What is real, in the Platonic sense, is perhaps the vision. Whether designed by one individual or by several, the object in this case is the product of imaginative vision, in combining science, mechanics, industrial capability, political ideology, and a particular design aesthetic that encompasses all of these in a physical form. One might argue, of course, from a Marxist and even a Darwinian dialectical point of view, that the practical exigency, from the social, political, historical and industrial ground, in effect dictates the vision. Or, to put it another way, we could apply either the paradigm of origination or structuralism. It has, of course, been pointed out by Derrida that while structuralism situates origin within structure, its own origin cannot escape the same structural analysis, which supersedes its truth.

But perhaps we are not left in a quandary as to the true origin of the artwork: for we do know for certain that it would not be possible without the human mind or imagination. In that sense we are its origin, and the source of its originality. But what - if anything - is our own origin, and are we as individuals truly original? Perhaps the answer also lies in art. No two created works can be exactly the same, even if identical, so far as they can occupy the same spot in “time and space” - as Benjamin, in his preoccupation with minute detail, might have agreed. While ever the same inwardly, no human being can absolutely reproduce his or her outer life from day to day, moment to moment. Perhaps, then, we could say that eternity is our birthright within, and infinity without. So, originality and creativity are, to voice a commonplace, as essential to art as they are in reality part of life, and art brings us this insight.

Not very original, you might say - correctly - and more so as this thought derives in part from archaic Eastern philosophy. But, then again ...


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