Walter Benjamin and The Effects of Reproduction

While reading The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, I wondered if Andy Warhol ever read Walter Benjamin. Warhol’s screen printed and highly reproduced portraits of Marilyn Monroe were certainly produced at a viral rate by the artist alone. Over the years this production has only increased with the advent of professional and home printers. Of course, with each mode of reproduction, it’s as if Warhol’s works of art are diluted.

The first print possessed the most impact and the soul of the artist himself. Once the images were reproduced as poster-sized prints for financial gain, the work lost its original essence, but still got the point across in order to solely portray the visual properties of the work. Once the image of Marilyn can be reproduced on a home printer, even more of the work’s aura is lost. The piece has now been reduced to a small, shriveled blot of brightly colored ink on flimsy printer paper. To take the concept even further, we can now reproduce Warhol’s images on computer screens, or even mobile screens, downsizing the images and reducing them to intangible representations of what they once were. In reducing an image through reproduction, are we denying the art the respect it would deserve if left only in its original form? Are we somehow cheapening the experience of art by making a reproduction readily available? Clearly we do not derive the same enjoyment from the reduced reproduction, but do we instead pay these images an equal but separate homage.

“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” (Benjamin). This quote from Benjamin’s text leads me to believe that reproduction does diminish our respect and understanding of a work of art. As we venture further from the original work, our understanding of the initial intent disintegrates like a message passed around in a game of telephone. I’m led to wonder if many pieces of modern art, from Warhol’s screenprinting, to Mondrian’s Neoplasticism, to Rothko’s abstract expressionism would be better understood today if presented in their original context. Unfortunately we will never be able to see these artists’ pieces in the same context of time and space in which they were created because, as Benjamin quotes, nothing “has been what it was from time immemorial”, including our social and aesthetic perception.

*Note that the first link to Warhol’s work also allows you to adjust his Marilyn painting as you see fit. It’s like a form of instant, interactive reproduction that Benjamin never saw coming.

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2 responses

  1. I whole-heartily agree with you on your interpretation of Benjamin and his views on aura. Reproduction is not and will never be equal to the original. That being said however, it does afford us a bit more of a freedom to the work itself. the word “homage” you used to describe the reproduction is very fitting. You will never see the original Matisse’s “The Dance” hanging in a random dorm room in, say, Ohio Stat University, (and not just because the original painting is twelve bloody feet long) you may only see a printed reproduction. Some may say it will never do the original justice, but this method allows us to enjoy a “shell” of the original, and not worrying if a bit of ravioli sauce splashes on it.
    I personally have an original painting by an autistic artist living on the streets of Ramoon in the Palestinian territories of Israel. It is a beautiful portrait of a Bedouin woman wearing a proper headdress and gazing at the viewer. A reproduction does not exist of this painting and if it ever is destroyed, the world will never see it again. So, reproductions also allow that original piece of art a sense of immortality. the Mona Lisa may be slowly falling apart, but digital and physical reproductions of it will allow her gaze to never truly leave this world.

    November 8, 2011 at 1:52 am

  2. I hear ya and agree on the value of artistic reproduction. Then again I’m also a fan of remixing and adaptation as a form of reproduction. I can see both sides though, that of replication as a means of creating permanence, and as a detriment to the quality of artistic experience.

    I think “shell” is also a very apt term to describe some reproductions, particularly as quality degenerates. However I wouldn’t use this word to describe some digital reproductions like those we’ve seen in the case studies featured in class. It seems some replications of memes are variable and can be much better or much worse than the originals as far as production, effort, and overall concept are concerned.

    November 23, 2011 at 4:16 pm

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