In his essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin starts by stating that “a work of art has always been reproducible” (Benjamin, 1936, 217) . Though this was only the opening sentence, it was something that stuck with me. Having looked at John Berger’s work previously, I had only considered that art was reproducible via the use of a camera or printing machine. I had never looked at it the way Benjamin does in the first section of his essay. He points out that any man-man artefact could be reproduced, and they have been for centuries. Even before lithography came into existence.
A point that Benjamin touches upon in the second section is one that I personally found extremely interesting, as it coincides with what I had originally wanted to look at when first visiting The Collection and Usher Gallery; history. He says “the authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced” (Benjamin, 1936, 218). When you look at a reproduction of a piece of art, whether it be a particularly convincing copy or a photograph on your computer screen or on a postcard, it lacks one thing; the history of the artwork. It is void of any sign of previous ownership, for example perhaps a chip on the frame where a clumsy owner had dropped it or the fading that comes with age. A picture will stay the same forever, but the physical form will change over time. Looking at art like this you realise that every piece tells a story. All we know is what we’re told on a piece of paper next to it in a gallery. We know the name of the artist, when it was painted, and perhaps who the subject is. But knowing why it was painted, what made the subject so special to the artist that he or she simply had to capture the moment, is something that greatly interests me. For many pieces of art it may be impossible to find out, but imaging such things may be part of the fun. It would certainly give visiting a gallery a new experience, and it’s definitely something I want to try out on my next trip to the Usher Gallery on Monday.
“The technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition” (Benjamin, 1936, 219). Tradition goes side-by-side with history. Tradition, much like history, is almost eliminated when looking at a reproduction. For years and years we have been flocking to galleries to view art, and it was an experience shared with hundreds, maybe thousands, of people. But with the rise in popularity of the internet, it has made going to a gallery almost obsolete. If a person wanted to see the Mona Lisa or The Girl with a Pearl Earring, they simply have to type the name into a search engine, instead of having to go to the gallery where the painting is housed. The unique experience of going to a gallery is tarnished by the fact that you can simply google the art. In fact it is questionable as to whether we go to galleries for the right reasons anymore. Do we go to look at and appreciate the art or simply to say that we’ve been? That we’ve had our five second stood in front of the Mona Lisa. “Unmistakably, reproduction as offered by picture magazines and newsreels differs from the image seen by the unarmed eye” (Benjamin, 1936, 219). Seeing something in print and seeing it up close are two completely different experiences, though they revolve around the same object. Pictures of paintings are just that; pictures. No matter how good the quality may be, it is not the same as seeing the painting up close. If you go to a gallery and see a painting up close you may notice something you never did when looking at the photograph, whether it’s the shade of a colour or a little detail that was undistinguishable in the photo. It’s an unique experience that cannot be replicated.
Benjamin, W. (1936) The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. [online] Available from http://www.berk-edu.com/VisualStudies/readingList/06b_benjamin-work%20of%20art%20in%20the%20age%20of%20mechanical%20reproduction.pdf [Accessed April 25th 2015].