Authenticity in the post Mechanical Reproduction Age by Gabriel Wollenburg
Reshaping Walter Benjamin’s “aurocity” for a post scarcity literati
Art schools, of which I am only too pleased to disclose that I have never belonged, would have us believe that there is great value to be had in hashing and rehashing age-old arguments about the superiority of the classical art and artist. It is a practice in which I have never put much stock. Because I have never been to art school. Like I said.
I prefer to take my cues on the navel-gazing consideration of “what is art?” from the delightful and frenetic Amanda Fucking Palmer.
Art is so simple just ask andy warhol if he weren’t dead he would tell you truth / call it a masterpiece call it a urinal it does not matter it’s art so there’s nothing to prove
And yet, if we were to simply, as Amanda suggests, “stop pretending art is hard” we have to give up a lot of the claptrap that many art-makers cling to desperately as they pander to their need for external validation of their work.
The fact is, in today’s day and age, the costs of creating and reproducing art have dropped to nigh-negligible levels.
This, I am certain, makes many bourgeois artists angry. It’s a natural reaction to a statement that would seem to be reflected in a world where their entire model of self-worth is crumbling around them.
Even Benjamin himself would seem to agree on this point, as he writes in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”
Theses about the art of the proletariat after its assumption of power or about the art of a classless society would have less bearing on these demands than theses about the developmental tendencies of art under present conditions of production
If art is easy and cheap, what value is it to be an artist then? Has not the professional sneering at post-scarcity creators and publishers like Flickr, YouTube, and, yes, even RedLemona.de, proof enough of the prevailing opinion that art made cheaply and given away freely is somehow an inauthentic practice? If you disagree, you simply don’t know enough “pro” photographers. Check your own gut reaction the next time you find out someone you know is “self-publishing” their novel.
However, Benjamin’s thesis would hold that at work’s aura, or authenticity is lost in act of reproduction.
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. This includes the changes which it may have suffered in physical condition over the years as well as the various changes in its ownership. The traces of the first can be revealed only by chemical or physical analyses which it is impossible to perform on a reproduction; changes of ownership are subject to a tradition which must be traced from the situation of the original.
However, if I am to argue that the death of scarcity has led to the dearth of authenticity, then I cannot argue. Because to argue such a thing is tomfoolery and hogwash.
And yet, I can’t seem to pinpoint what, exactly, it is that Benjamin wants me to think about works of art that are easily reproducible and of which there is little-to-know appreciable production cost. Because that’s not the perspective his world-view tries to comprehend. In Benjamin’s world, reproduction is costly and inaccurate.
The whole sphere of authenticity is outside technical – and, of course, not only technical – reproducibility. Confronted with its manual reproduction, which was usually branded as a forgery, the original preserved all its authority; not so vis-à-vis technical reproduction.
Frankly, this is why I’ve never really been into marxism. Everything is so damn preachy for those people. Blah blah blah the proletariat. One has to wonder what a World War I era Marxist like Benjamin would think of today’s information age, what with the Facebook ousting religion as the opiate of the masses and all.
Let us, with that in mind, in a maneuver that would certainly chafe him, strip the context of Benjamin’s thoughts on the “aura” of a work from the context of his being a Marxist. Since we are a people reading and writing in a place now more than 70 years beyond the development of Benjamin’s ideas, let us assume that everything he has to say about politicizing art as a way of putting the tools of art’s creation in the hand of the proletariat as the necessary prattle of a man who lent his currant context too much credence and the infinite possibilities of all other contexts too little.
And so we’re left with Benjamin’s concept of “aura,” stripped naked of the claptrap of class and politick, as only a simple description of a work’s “authenticity.”
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.
Doing so deftly brings us back to the mother ship, RedLemona.de. Here exists then, at RedLemona.de an entire community of artists and creators generating many hundreds of pages of art– with and without context– across all ranges of social standing, publication history, political leaning, race, creed, and ego.
And I am willing to argue that each of these works is, at its very heart, an authentic expression. I dare any art-critic to come away from an honest reading of Vanessa Veleska’s ZaZen without feeling the very authenticity of her words roiling in their lower chakras.
ZaZen’s aura spills from the electronic page, across the published works, and sprinkles all across RedLemona.de, not in spite of the work’s easy reproducibility, but exactly because of it.
I could fill this essay with hundreds of examples of authentic artwork sampled (freely and easily) from the pages of RedLemona.de. But I don’t need to. You’re already soaking in it.
I’d rather, instead, encourage you to take the next step. Because I would suggest, with nothing more than my own personal experience as evidence, that the post mechanical reproduction era of art-making is one that embraces greater authenticity than ever.
Cory Doctorow says it better than I ever could hope to:
"Blogs encourage their authors to publish in small, partially formed chunks, … Previously, such jottings might have been kept in the author’s notebook but something amazing happens when you post them online: readers help you connect them, flesh them out and grow them into fully-fledged books.”
It’s not a big leap to move from blogging into the kind of mass alternative publishing practiced at RedLemona.de. This is publishing in the context of abundance. This is the complete protonic reversal of Benjamin’s schema of authenticity.
This is the work of art in the age of digital reproduction.
Gabe Wollenburg is a recovering journalist and [writer-for-hire] http://prettygoodcontent.com . He first fell in love with the Internet in 1994 by whistling into the campus VAX at 2400 baud. Today he lives in Milwaukee with his best friend, their child and far too many animals. You can read more of his work at http://writelarge.com .