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The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction

BY ROBERT LUXEMBURG

»Our fine arts were developed, their types and uses were established, in times very different from the present, by men whose power of action upon things was insignificant in comparison with ours. But the amazing growth of our techniques, the adaptability and precision they have attained, the ideas and habits they are creating, make it a certainty that profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the Beautiful. In all the arts there is a physical component which can no longer be considered or treated as it used to be, which cannot remain unaffected by our modern knowledge and power. For the last twenty years neither matter nor space nor time has been what it was from time immemorial. We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art.« (Steve Jobs, Keynote, MacWorld San Francisco 2004)

Preface

When Marx undertook his critique of the capitalistic mode of production, this mode was in its infancy. Marx directed his efforts in such a way as to give them prognostic value. He went back to the basic conditions underlying capitalistic production and through his presentation showed what could be expected of capitalism in the future. The result was that one could expect it not only to exploit the proletariat with increasing intensity, but ultimately to create conditions which would make it possible to abolish capitalism itself. The transformation of the superstructure, which takes place far more slowly than that of the substructure, has taken more than one and a half centuries to manifest in all areas of culture the change in the conditions of production. Only today can it be indicated what form this has taken. Certain prognostic requirements should be met by these statements. However, theses about the art of the new 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. Their dialectic is no less noticeable in the superstructure than in the economy. It would therefore be wrong to underestimate the value of such theses as a weapon. They brush aside a number of outmoded concepts, such as creativity and genius, shareholder value and copyright — concepts whose uncontrolled (and at present almost uncontrollable) application would lead to a processing of data in the Fascist sense. The concepts which are introduced into the theory of art in what follows differ from the more familiar terms in that they are completely useless for the purposes of Fascism. They are, on the other hand, useful for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art.

I

In principle a work of art has always been reproducible. Man-made artifacts could always be imitated by men. Replicas were made by pupils in practice of their craft, by masters for diffusing their works, and, finally, by third parties in the pursuit of gain. Digital reproduction of a work of art, however, represents something new. Historically, it advanced intermittently and in leaps at long intervals, but with accelerated intensity. These convergent endeavors made predictable a situation which Steve Jobs pointed up in this sentence: »Just as water, gas, and electricity are brought into our houses from far off to satisfy our needs in response to a minimal effort, so we shall be supplied with cultural commodities, which will appear and disappear at a simple movement of the hand, hardly more than a sign.« Around 2000, technical reproduction has reached a standard that not only permits it to reproduce all transmitted works of art and thus to cause the most profound change in their impact upon the public; it also has captured a place of its own among the artistic processes. For the study of this standard nothing is more revealing than the nature of the repercussions that these two different manifestations — the reproduction of works of art and the art of reproduction — have had on art in its traditional form.

II

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. One might subsume the eliminated element in the term »aura« and go on to say: that which withers in the age of digital reproduction is the aura of the work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art. One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the reader or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced. These two processes lead to a tremendous shattering of tradition which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind. Both processes are intimately connected with the contemporary mass movements. Their most powerful agent is the Internet. Its social significance, particularly in its most positive form, is inconceivable without its destructive, cathartic aspect, that is, the liquidation of the traditional value of »intellectual property«. This phenomenon is most palpable in the great file sharing networks. It extends to ever new positions. In 1999 Shawn Fanning exclaimed enthusiastically: »Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Beethoven will be on Napster... all legends, all mythologies and all myths, all founders of religion, and the very religions... await their exposed resurrection, and the heroes crowd each other at the gate.« Presumably without intending it, he issued an invitation to a far-reaching liquidation.

III

During long periods of history, the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity's entire mode of existence. The manner in which human sense perception is organized, the medium in which it is accomplished, is determined not only by nature but by historical circumstances as well. And if changes in the medium of contemporary perception can be comprehended as decay of the aura, it is possible to show its social causes. Namely, the desire of contemporary masses to bring things »closer« spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction. Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction. To pry an object from its shell, to destroy its aura, is the mark of a perception whose »sense of the universal equality of things« has increased to such a degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of reproduction. Thus is manifested in the field of perception what in the theoretical sphere is noticeable in the increasing importance of statistics. The adjustment of reality to the masses and of the masses to reality is a process of unlimited scope, as much for thinking as for perception.

IV

The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition. This tradition itself is thoroughly alive and extremely changeable. It is significant that the existence of the work of art with reference to its aura is never entirely separated from its ritual function. In other words, the unique value of the »authentic« work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original use value. This ritualistic basis, however remote, is still recognizable as secularized ritual even in the most profane forms of the cult of »intellectual property«. An analysis of art in the age of digital reproduction must do justice to these relationships, for they lead us to an all-important insight: For the first time in world history, digital reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. From a digital text, for example, one can make any number of copies; to ask for the »authentic« copy makes no sense. But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice — politics.

V

Works of art are received and valued on different planes. Two polar types stand out; with one, the accent is on the cult value; with the other, on the distribution of the work. With the different methods of technical reproduction of a work of art, its fitness for distribution increased to such an extent that the quantitative shift between its two poles turned into a qualitative transformation of its nature. This is comparable to the situation of the work of art in prehistoric times when, by the absolute emphasis on its cult value, it was, first and foremost, an instrument of magic. Only later did it come to be recognized as a work of art. In the same way today, by the absolute emphasis on its distribution the work of art becomes a creation with entirely new functions, among which the one we are conscious of, the artistic function, later may be recognized as incidental. This much is certain: today file sharing and the Internet are the most serviceable exemplifications of this new function.

VI

The twentieth-century dispute as to the economic value of Television versus the Internet today seems devious and confused. This does not diminish its importance, however; if anything, it underlines it. The dispute was in fact the symptom of a historical transformation the universal impact of which was not realized by either of the rivals. When the age of digital reproduction separated business from its basis in copyright, the semblance of its authority disappeared forever. The resulting change in the function of the Internet transcended the perspective of the century; for a long time it will even escape that of the twenty-first century, which experienced the development of file sharing. Earlier much futile thought had been devoted to the question of whether the Internet is an economy. The primary question — whether the very invention of the Internet had not transformed the entire economy — was not raised. Soon the Internet theoreticians asked the same ill-considered question with regard to file sharing. But the difficulties which the Internet caused traditional economies were mere child's play as compared to those raised by file sharing.

VII

For centuries a small number of writers were confronted by many thousands of readers. This changed toward the end of the nineteenth century. With the increasing extension of the press, which kept placing new political, religious, scientific, professional, and local organs before the readers, an increasing number of readers became writers - at first, occasional ones. It began with the daily press opening to its readers space for »letters to the editor.« In the twentieth century, there was hardly a gainfully employed European who could not, in principle, find an opportunity to publish somewhere or other comments on his work, grievances, documentary reports, or that sort of thing. Thus, the distinction between author and public was about to lose its basic character. The difference became merely functional; it began to vary from case to case. At any moment the reader was ready to turn into a writer. As expert, which he had to become willy-nilly in an extremely specialized work process, even if only in some minor respect, the reader gained access to authorship. Literary license was now founded on polytechnic rather than specialized training and thus became common property. All this can easily be applied to the Internet, where transitions that in literature took centuries have come about in a decade. In digital practice, particularly in Asia, this change-over has partially become established reality. In North America and Western Europe the capitalistic exploitation of the Internet denies consideration to modern man's legitimate claim to being reproduced. Under these circumstances the culture industry is trying hard to spur the interest of the masses through illusion-promoting spectacles and dubious speculations.

Epilogue

The growing proletarianization of postmodern man and the increasing formation of masses are two aspects of the same process. Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. All efforts to render »rights management« effective culminate in one thing: war. War and war only can set a goal for mass movements on the largest scale while respecting the traditional property system. This is the political formula for the situation. The technological formula may be stated as follows: Only war makes it possible to mobilize all of today's technical resources while maintaining the property system.

this is walter benjamin (1936)

i didn't read the entire article, yet the first few paragraphs are clearly and definitely from Walter Benjamin's 1936 "the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction". Indded, the opening paragraph-quote us not Steve Jobs but Paul Valery (pieces sur l'art, le conquete de l'ubiquite). is somehting eluding me here? or just another case of digital misprint?

george dafermos