In the book the Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction from 1936 critical theorist and member of the Frankfurt school Walter Benjamin discusses the work of art in modern time. He uses photography and film as examples of how the mechanical reproduction breaks with the traditional aspect of artworks, and with religious cultic aspects to be replaced by displayability.
All art is reproducible: what man has made, man has always been able to make again, however the reproduction of art is somewhat particular and have happened intermittently through time (Benjamin 3). Reproduction has been made possible with printing techniques, as in copperplate engraving and etching, which ultimately lead to lithography, but with photography the work done by hand was replaced by decisions made by the eye. The speed in which things could be photographed, the possibility of enlargement of sections, and with the film the introduction of a temporal narrative changed the work of art.
Further, Benjamin writes that the invention of the photography has removed the reproduced artwork of its ritual value and its aura. “The genuineness of an art work is the quintessence of everything since its creation that can be handed down, from its material duration to the historical witness that it bears” (7). This constitutes the aura of the work, and as the work is reproduce this disappears. Let us exemplify this by the comparison between the famous mural The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci and a postcard depicturing this mural. The actual mural, and as for paintings in general, is not suitable for being watched by many simultaneously, but the reproduced copy can be seen by many more and can be seen other places than in Milan. The emphasis of the painting is its cultic value the photographic reproduction its displayability.
The film in 1936 was a physical film exposed to light, chemically processed into a negative, which could be produced into many exemplars. None of the copies was being more authentic than the others. This effect is increased with the emergence of digital media. In the age of digital reproduction it is meaningless to speak about an original or master, since copies can be extracted without a loss in quality since they consists of exactly the same stream of bits as the original. We can say that the digital reproduction is taken yet another step from the mechanically reproduction since an exemplar is now existing in the world without a physical manifestation in itself. It is being stored on hard drives, but unlike the film negative, it is not chemically imprinted into the hardware but stored in magnetically particles or in solid-state disks. Whether the work is located on a server accessed through the Internet – in the cloud – or in a memory card in your computer, the bit stream is abstracted from a physical presence. A file, a sequence of binary bits, will as long as it is not altered by compression or other methods, stay in the same bit-stream independent of which computer, memory-card or disk-medium it exists. The work of art, digitally reproduced is no longer bound to a physical media, neither is it bound to a geographical place.
Simultaneously as this is happening, some cell phone applications try to resemble a visual expression from the past, through digitally manipulating pictures to look like those shoot with a pinhole camera, or adding elements resembling the holes of a film reel or the white plane at the bottom of a Polaroid picture. The digital reproduction has started a trend where mechanical reproduction is emulated.
Benjamin, Walter (2008) The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction London: Penguin Books
The picture is shot during a trip to France and Spain the summer of 2008 at the Walter Benjamin Memorial in the Spanish city of Port Bou close to the French border. Benjamin died here while fleeing from the Nazi Germany 27th of September 1940.