“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.” – Walter Benjamin
Six months into quarantine, I’m trying to balance my isolation and connection. It’s hard when the screen is our only portal to other people and to the art that feeds our souls. We can view thousands of objects on museums’ websites or watch countless hours of performances, but it’s just not the same. Art is so ubiquitous, but something is missing.
Walter Benjamin beautifully expresses this strange disconnection. He wrote about it back in 1935 when he published “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” the definitive essay on what is lost when we can infinitely reproduce an image. He describes how the intangible aura, or the uniqueness of a piece of art, can’t be replicated — no matter how perfect the likeness is.
What does this repetition do? The presence of the art is “depreciated.” The work of art is designed for “reproducibility,” and sharing becomes the entire purpose of the art. In this way, he so clearly anticipates many of the downfalls of social media. Reading now, the essay is an uncanny premonition of my doomsday scrolling. I wonder what he’d make of our Instagram feeds.
And yet, he ends on the potential of film reaching new people and allowing us to go to uncharted places. We’re invited to participate directly. We can envision new forms. He says: “The distracted person, too, can form habits” of contemplation and of problem-solving. Amen.
Tragically, Benjamin killed himself at the age of 48 in order to avoid being given over to the Nazis. May we remember him and embody his hope for media that promotes justice.
On Oct. 23rd, we’re airing three shows on ALL ARTS that remind me of his essay.
This 1965 gem from the archives captures iconic American photographer Dorothea Lange as she proposes a new photographic project to parallel the work she did with the Farm Securities Administration.
She wants young photographers to explore the suburbanization of America through their lenses. She seeks to capture the human face of America — the everyday moments that make up our lives — in photographs that “raise questions that are not answered.”
But she admits that she’s attempting the unattainable with this project, and I think Benjamin would agree.
To imprint reality on paper is the poetic aspiration of all photographers. Lange says her method of attempting the impossible is to lose her identity. She says: “You cannot do it without being lost yourself. When I said I was trying to get lost again, I really expressed a very critical point of departure. And not very easy to do.”
I love this paradox of photography that she articulates. It’s an art that isn’t created by the hand, but rather a machine — it’s based in everyday life, yet the photographer can shape it to have a point of view. It can be manipulated but not fabricated.
She says that her most famous photographs, like “Migrant Mother,” have become so popular that they don’t belong to her anymore.
This new documentary tells the story of Pepe the Frog, who began as a character in an irreverent indie comic series. But, over constant iterations on 4chan, he transformed into a hate symbol. This is the dark side of any art in the age of mechanical reproduction, now supercharged by the internet. In the film artist Matt Furie, creator of the cartoon frog, attempts to reclaim Pepe for peace, but the flooding of negative associations are not easily stopped.
“I’m just a spectator to how things mutate and evolve on the internet,” he says. “It’s kind of a window into a dark place.”
Furie’s art — and by extension, his entire identity — gets co-opted, then drowned out by the endless reproductions.
In a way, memes are the perfect example of the art that Benjamin was talking about. They mix forms and pile different meanings into one condensed image. Authorship is unclear, and the trace of the hand is usually nonexistent. They’re aesthetically simple but convey nuanced meanings, so we feel smart for understanding them. They play to our tribalistic tendencies and are powerfully seductive for our dopamine-seeking brains.
“I always look to show the personality of the subject as they really are, not the personality that they project to the public. And that’s the key.” This is how the charming photographer Henri Dauman describes his success at photographing notable people, which he did throughout his decades-long career.
I love this documentary because we see how Dauman tries to shape how the film is made. He’s a bit self-conscious in front of the camera and has trouble relinquishing control over the artistic direction. These unstructured moments make him more real to us and show how hard it is to capture a personality in a staged portrait.
Dauman describes himself as a journalist — and it’s true, he documented some of the most iconic moments of the 20th century. But his framing of his subjects, and his uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time, can only be described as art. He brings glamour to the everyday and marks it with a distinct perspective.
In this documentary, his photos are placed in a museum for the first time. He’s surprised that they look at home on the walls and that museumgoers embrace him as a true artist.
Top Image: Photo of Henri Dauman in "Looking Up."