The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction



Many aspects of Walter Benjamin’s famous thesis can now be reconsidered in light of the even greater reproducibility of works of art in the digital age. The ‘sense perception’ that Benjamin refers to in his essay has evolved once again, as the production and distribution of art has changed. The ‘use value’ of art has moved further away from ritual in some respects, closer in others. The ‘aura’ has been almost entirely diminished, but there are new efforts (not coincidentally) to try to restore it.

The aura that Benjamin talks about is the ‘location in time and space’ of a work of art, its ‘authenticity’, which is not reproducible.

 And of course one of the things he would have commented on immediately is the different means by which information is recorded and stored digitally and in analogue. The bit by bit binary nature of digital recording means that some elements of an analogue original are necessarily lost in the process of reproduction. It’s hard to define exactly what has gone missing and what it means, but a digital reproduction of an analogue work is different from the original in this fundamental way. Every subsequent copy is identical of the first, assuming no errors in transcription. But the first and most important digital reproduction misses something of the qualities of the original.

 For example, recording music digitally means that each note is divided into a number of ‘bits’ of information which are then stored on a disk. These bits can be in one of only two states – 0  or 1 – ‘on’ or ‘off’. Depending on the number of bits and the rate of sampling, this means that the digital sound inevitably loses some of the complexity and fullness of the original.

Another good way to see this difference is in digital images and especially text. Handwriting in ink allows the writer to form letters in an almost infinite variety of ways, and the outer edges of the letters form a continuous and contiguous curve. Compare this with the jagged edges of letters in a word processor when you zoom in to see them up close.

In the end, when the pixel density and resolution is high enough, so that each bit corresponds to an individual atom, the difference may become a purely ontological one. But there is still a distinction that Benjamin would recognise and point to as a diminution of the aura of the original work.

 The ‘tradition’ in Benjamin’s essay is a tradition in the way we perceive art’s place and function in society. We go through periods of consensus about what to make of art, how to view it, what its role should be in our lives. In the late Twentieth Century there developed two broad strands in this tradition – the exclusive, private appreciation and ‘ownership’ of individual great works, the increasing hitching of artists to the hurdy-gurdy of the jet set and the international market, art that fulfilled the function of a status symbol and a demarcation of powers and fortunes.

In this world, the aura and the authenticity of work was prized because it was supposedly conferred on the owner, along with the rank of patron, and because it was deemed the ultimate mark of exclusivity. By ‘collecting’ a work, the owner could exclude everybody else from enjoying it, or, in an even more refined process of self-distinction and self-aggrandization, could loan the work for public exhibition. This emphasized their ownership of it while seeming to share it with the public. And they could tell themselves, mysteriously, that they had some greater claim to knowledge about the work, or some greater love of it, than anybody else because it hung in their living room or bedroom, or their elevator. The type of esteem that this activity bestowed became a sought-after commodity and was cleverly traded and speculated in by market makers.

The other strand, a somewhat countervailing one, emphasised the role art could play in enriching the lives of the many, not the few, and the supposedly educational, civilising, democratic influence of art. It arranged exhibitions for mass audiences, large performances and vast installations designed to capture the public imagination and imbue them with the healthy benefits of earnest appreciation.

This tradition in some sense replaced, or recreated, the religious use of art that had been so heavily undermined in the early and middle parts of the century. Instead of believing that art had some place in helping audiences to achieve a transcendent contemplation of the divine, now art’s religious function, properly understood, was to encourage a spiritual development that had no (or in fact a cryptic) relationship with religion.

And it could be said that the encouragement of the religious, public contemplation/appreciation of art was devoted to the worship of art itself, rather than any theological object, and thereby the cultivation of a more elevated sense of self in the individual, and at the same time an awareness of his or her place in a hierarchy or web of cultural sophistication. Art worked as a kind of sublimated religion and at the same time a conservative and normative force for the production of social awareness and order.

This idea, that art could occupy such a role, based on an optimistic notion of human perfectibility, can be seen as an extension of early Victorian ideas about the progress of the human spirit through education and exposure to (man-made) beauty.

Interestingly (but hardly surprisingly), artists themselves (by and large) neither shaped nor particularly attached themselves to either of these developments. They ironised them and often criticised them, but rarely made any profession of faith in one or the other. In any case, the relationship of artists to their patrons and their critics is of course a well understood and much studied subject. Both ‘traditions’ are the result of different shaping forces on the production and development of works of art. Patronage had been in some sense institutionalised, both in the private and public spheres, so that artists became reliant on two different languages, one of truculence, accessibility and availability, and one of ironic self-awareness, difficulty and the nouvelle coterie.

These developments themselves mirror the post-war balance in the West between the power of private capital in a few hands and the ‘public goods’ constructed by the enlightened state. In recent years, as the power of the wealthy individual has grown, the ability of the State to act as patron and collector has, correspondingly, diminished. There is nothing especially ‘digital’ about this. It’s just background.

This is all far too neat and simplistic, but I think it helps to give an outline of the broad position.


 But from the late 1990s onwards, the widespread penetration of broadband (ADSL) internet access and the emergence of many new platforms for viewing, sharing and distributing art work started to change these two traditions, and to change our ‘sense perception’ of the status of a work of art, especially because reproductions of work, of a sufficiently high quality to be almost indistinguishable from the original, could now be found at the touch of a button (or screen).

A factor which has not been commented on enough is the extent to which the World Wide Web, and its daily use by hundreds of millions of people, is shaping their expectations of culture and artistic work. We currently have only the barest understanding of the ways in which the web is changing not just our behaviours but our attitudes to art, our expectations of stories, characters, performances and visual aesthetics.

And at the same time, due to an increase in the ‘illegal’ downloading of these copies, companies that had made profits from distributing recorded music, for instance, started to revert to an older model of making money from live performances. The ‘aura’ of these performances was something that could not be captured and reproduced with current technology. Instead of the reproduction of an individual song being the work of art, attention shifted to the performance itself.

This model was not available to the film industry, for obvious reasons, and so they were forced to adopt a number of different tactics in order to maintain their profits –by clamping down on downloaders/filesharers, by advertising the ‘cinema experience’ and emphasizing the quality of the ‘real thing’ (in fact, the studio licensed and distributed DVD recording), and by exploring the use of new technologies such as 3-D and Blu-ray (high definition) to make it more difficult for downloaders to enjoy the same quality of experience as those who purchased the official products. Belatedly, they also adopted much more successful licensing arrangements with ‘legal’ online distributors such as iTunes, NetFlix and Amazon.

These various types of copy do not differ essentially from the reels of film projected in cinemas at the time when Benjamin wrote his essay. To talk about a film is almost inevitably to talk about a reproduction. Original prints used to degrade and disappear, but now that films are made digitally, the copy has a longer life span. But the original film is almost never exhibited. It is hard to talk about a film having an ‘aura’ because any version that is exhibited is a copy. What has changed, or been largely replaced, is the communal experience of watching films together in a cinema. Although this is still popular, it is much less so than it was in Benjamin’s day. Now, by far the most prevalent way of watching films is at home, on the television screen or the computer.

The cinema experience (that is, the frisson of watching a film together with a large crowd of strangers and being united with them by the experience) has largely gone as more and more people choose to watch by themselves, in the comfort and privacy of their homes.

Streaming video introduces another type of reproduction – a continuous one that goes on for as long as the film is being downloaded. The copy does not persist, except in the form of a cookie from the webpage. What does this mean to the viewer? Streaming technologies are still limited, and so the experience is often marred by artefacts, slow buffering or unexpected pauses. Pixel density and quality of the image are not as high as from a DVD, and much less good than in High Definition. Viewers have sacrificed quality for convenience – the ability to watch what they want, when they want, and where they want. In this case, what is the ‘use value’ of the film as art? What role does it occupy? And is it altered by the fact of the film being transmitted and received and stored so widely?

 (to be continued…)


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