August 7, 2012KR BlogBlogEnthusiams

A Humument in the age of mechanical reproduction (iv)

(This post is a continuation of a series. Italicized lines in this piece are sourced from Walter Benjamin’s essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, and each corresponds to the section of the original essay in which it appears. This second segment continues to respond to Tom Phillips’s A Humument in light of the ninth through twelfth sections of Benjamin’s piece.)


The situation might also be characterized as follows: for the first time—and this is the effect of the film—man has to operate with his whole living person, yet forgoing its aura. We are, in other words, faced with the ghosts of ourselves, or at least the shells. Governed so extensively by our relationship with the objects of the world, our progress—our evolution, or our devolution—in some sense mimics theirs; there is change by osmosis, by absorption. In a milieu of mass reproduction, of the ultimate and institutionalized “other”-ization of the original work, the sense of distance (even, as Benjamin points out, from the self) becomes a stand-in for the old aura, the aura we are losing touch with. This stand-in does not replace it, at least not fully, but becomes the new norm with which we engage. The notion of original manuscripts, not to mention anything handwritten, seems almost fantastical; most poetry and short story collections, for instance, are representations of some intangible and ineffable “original” thing that might as well be the very act of its creation. It is harder, in some superficial ways, to talk about “original” things in the age of digitalism, when works are being conceived of and executed within the circumference of the electronic; is there such a thing as a “first” Word document, a “first” PDF? Would a duplication of this document have more or less of the “aura” of the original, especially if it is identical in both exterior (aesthetic) and substantial (genetic, as in code) ways? The question is an ornery one, one not easily resolvable—but one that, I think, shows how far we have moved toward embedding distance in art-objects of a certain sort, namely written ones. A claim like this could easily turn into a form of Ludditism, with a call to “return” to the pen and paper, to the clay and spinning wheel, to scissors and glue, to pastel and cardstock. But it need not: we can still function, as anyone who has written a novel start to finish inside a Word document can tell you, and understand the embedded-ness of this distance. The process of engagement, more than creation, is affected. And even this observation isn’t enough to imply a value judgment: it only notes, in agreement with Benjamin, that something both fundamental and inextricable about how we encounter the art-object in the world has changed with the privatization and mechanization of art-object (re)production. What we end up holding in our hands has less history than we imagine it having; or, if it has history, it is because we have appended such a history to it.

Just as the straight line (if there ever was once) between the act of the creation of an original work of art and the viewing of it has been interrupted, so has the composition of the work itself: more avenues for editing, modification, revision, alteration, and affect have all been made available. In any given version of A Humument, there are numerous plates that have been excluded; each edition is an insight into a process, but a curated insight, one that presents itself as the result of a process that never actually happened. The plates, though they have a chronology, are not the product of chronological creation. We can look to film for an analog. Nothing [but cutting and splicing in film] more strikingly shows that art has left the realm of the ‘beautiful semblance’ which, so far, had been taken to be the only sphere where art could thrive. There has been, in other words, a departure from the notion of such a “beautiful semblance” and a transition toward a notion of function, even if that function takes its form as aesthetic function: a frame must be cut a certain way, and juxtaposed with another in a different way, and then re-cut and re-juxtaposed, and so on, etc. The recording of semblances on film is subjected to the authority of the editor, whose manipulation of them is mechanical in two senses: a) as relying on machines for its facilitation, and b) with a mechanistic goal; that is, to ensure the “production”—or, we should say, the reproduction—of a certain aesthetic. The final product, if successful on its own terms, is a collage with a surface so slick it resists any attempts to locate the sutures where it was sewn together. Once the film has taken on the sheen of a “whole” object, tracing its lineage on the timeline of thought about art becomes difficult; it appears with an aura of its own, which is in this case a quality of finished-ness. But any concern about this should be assuaged by the fact of film’s reliance on mechanisms to exist before audiences: the steps necessary to conjure a film still, by and large, constitute a sort of industrial ritual similar in many ways to the assembly line, or the organs of any factory. The printed editions of A Humument are collages that proceed under the ruse of linearity, spliced-together wholes that make reference to their parts. With a good, close look we can see the glue, but just barely: the work of the machines, and the people who run them, has been thorough.


The “original” work of art, as a material thing, has a material location: it cannot be in more than one place at any given time, and therefore has—as part of its ontology as the “original”—a sort of scarcity inherent in it. The reproductions of a work of art, however, are more like reflected images in that they lack the “real” character of the thing being reflected, but can be reflected on various surfaces indefinitely without any of the reflections themselves being diluted. Certain conditions must be met for this to occur, i.e. the reproduction of the image must be possible, but in a crucial way the reproduction of the work of art severs its ties with geography. …Now the reflected image has become separable, transportable. And where is it transported? Before the public. “The public”: another entity unable to be defined or spoken about in terms of location, except in special instances of qualification, i.e. the public of the United States, or the public of [city]. The reproduction, then, comes into a sort of “direct contact” (at least, each reproduction does) with a public, though in an important—and, as Benjamin seems to argue, tragic—way the human beings whose performances are reproduced in these reproductions, the actors, are strictly deprived of it. This market [the audience], where he offers not only his labour but also his whole self, his heart and soul, is beyond his reach. It would seem that, following this observation, a defense of the theater would be in place. And in some ways, the film is the theater, only denied the aura of that initial, minimal distance the performance would have had if acted out on a stage and not projected onto a silver screen where it has the phony spell of a commodity. The relationship between author (meant in the broadest sense; a creator of art) and audience has always been a complex one, dictated by both intention and means and the intersection of intention and means, but here its resolution is finalized in the stark denial of access to the creating party: he or she is not able to observe, with any reasonable level of scrutiny, the audience that will observe and scrutinize him, nonetheless have access to “his heart and soul.” For centuries a small number of writers were confronted by many thousands of readers, but “confronted” in a different manner than the confrontation one has with a person in a film, which is really more a confrontation with a reproduction of the image of a human being (though films capitalize on their ability to transcend this illusion and convince us that what we’re witnessing is authentically human, and therefore desirable). But the multiplication of “genuine-ness” that reproduction insinuates also transgresses against the audience as well: it presupposes its uniformity and addresses not any particularly conscious viewer of art but whoever can afford the price of a ticket. This observation isn’t one motivated by an elitism, or an urge to say who can enjoy art, or who can’t—it is motivated instead by an observation of the effects of commodification. Thus, the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character. Phillips’s project already challenges notions of what counts as “public” via its usage of Mallock’s novel, but further questions it by engaging in the sort of reproduction that supposes an audience so amorphous it is almost, in virtue of its looseness and geographic ambiguity, invisible. A work of art made for all and seen by none.


Here the question is: How does the cameraman compare with the painter? And it is an important question, I think, both with respect to A Humument and in general. Both have a responsibility to their subject matter, to be sure, but perhaps the best way to ascertain precisely what these responsibilities involve is to discuss what the affinities and divergences of making a photograph and a painting. Are we to set up a deep division between the cameraman, or photographer, and the painter—with one (the photographer) working as someone who captures reality and then reproduces it, and another one (the painter) who engages with the whole of some mystical process of artistic creation? Our contemporary sense of photography, more fine-tuned in the last half of the last century toward an understanding of the photograph as art, is sophisticated enough to recognize and acknowledge the amount of artifice that goes into the construction of a photograph. It is not enough, as it might have been for Benjamin, to point to the sheer fact of its dependence on gears and cogs to prove its difference; there is a level of craft that goes into both. But though the history of the craft of painting is doubtlessly older, in a technical sense, than that of photography, does it derive itself from a different impulse? Is it merely the means of an age that sculpt some timeless human inclination, producing a broad spectrum of incarnations of essentially the same urge? An even larger question might be what constitutes a mechanism, and what reproduction: it is clear that the handmade sculpture or painting is exempt from being termed a “reproduction” in the more vulgar, capitalistic sense of the word; but where, exactly, did one mode slide into the other? At what point were so many non-human elements introduced into the process of the creation of the object-as-made that it resembled the object-as-remade almost immediately? Considering A Humument in light of these questions invites a dizzying series of investigations: was the printing of Mallock’s text, for instance, far enough removed from the “original” handwritten version (assuming, after all, this was how it came into being) to avoid the implications of its reproduction? Is Phillips, in authorizing his books to be mass-marketed in such a way that necessitates photographs of his paintings, a photographer or a painter? Which takes prevalence—the state of the object-as-made, or the state of the object-as-remade? The artwork, or the reproduction through which that artwork reaches its public?

Then again, maybe the issue here is one of honesty, of whether or not a work of art is addressing distance in a way that insures it against misunderstanding. The painter maintains in his work a natural distance from reality, the cameraman penetrates deeply into its web. There is a tremendous difference between the pictures they obtain. That of the painter is a total one, that of the cameraman consists of multiple fragments which are assembled under a new law. Benjamin’s vision of the photograph as being made up of “multiple fragments” would seem nonsensical to those who would think a photograph a more reliable interpretation (as I maintain it is, in keeping with what seems to be the general mood of criticism about photography) of subject matter than painting. That which penetrates into the “web” of reality, it seems, has access to its structural components, which can then be rearranged for aesthetic purposes (though doing such has perceptual consequences beyond the merely aesthetic). The painter, in maintaining an appropriate distance with reality, is able to capture it as a “total”—if not of reality itself than of the human view that is aware of its parameters and limitations. Perhaps the photograph more readily does away with the idea that such distance is importance, even while it manufactures its own brand of distance; it is more willing to either pretend to reality or create its own hyperreal landscape. The painter’s is a “natural” distance, while the cameraman’s is not. Film disregards this recognition of distance as superfluous or irrelevant, choosing to ignore it. The distance, however, is still there; and it is less an original aura than the painting, even as it presumes to be more so. But so much of what goes into a painting is not “of” one geographic place as a photograph is of one geographic place; the painting, in defense of Benjamin’s analysis of it, might make more of human reality visible, as opposed to the raw material reality that the eye of the lens is so attuned to. A Humument straddles this line: its birth is in the associativity of the painting, but then it hardens into photography. At one point, the two become indiscernible—both being attempts, after all, to see both through and past the materials of their orchestration.


It would seem a given, then, that mechanical reproduction of art changes the reaction of the masses toward art. The presentation of a mechanical reproduction of a work of art cannot help but be different from the presentation of an “original”: its nature as commodity consigns its consideration to the realm of the functional; as I mentioned above, not even aesthetic function is immune to this sort of commercialization, by which it becomes a goal and not an experience. Any mystical sort of “aura” it takes on is overshadowed by the plurality of its existence: each individual reproduction might have an aura, but it is not the same sort of aura that one experiences with an object-as-made—a artwork that exists as the culmination of the collisions of human effort, location, and time itself, not as a reference to such a culmination. But the simple question of exposure must also be asked, as the audience for an original work of art is vastly outnumbered by the audience that might hypothetically exist for its reproductions. Painting simply is in no position to present an object for simultaneous collective experience, as it was possible for architects at all times, for the epic poem in the past, and for the movie today. A painting, being an art-object of the sort that depends on its materials in a way different from how the epic poem relies on its materials, presents a specific quandary. If a given painting could be reproduced atom-for-atom, molecule-for-molecule, and then distributed, would it still retain the aura of the first painting? What would be different about it—would it be necessary that we know which painting was actually made by hand, and which not, if the material fact of the painting we encounter in either case is identical? Would not the psychological intricacies, the finer flourishes, be preserved? This is not a case where we can easily point to ways that the industrialization of art has flattened it or reduced its quality. We must, instead, ask ourselves whether or not there is anything absolutely inextricable and valuable about the first production of any work of art—the creation that precedes all reproductions. The question at stake is one of representation—and it is complicated, in Phillip’s case, by the fact that the commercially-available versions of his work are so obviously different in presentation, in texture, and in chronology from the original project itself. The exploration takes on two tacks: one interesting in determining the faithfulness of reproductions to an “original,” and another in delineating the “original”—especially in an age where this blog post will reproduce itself with little to no change on whatever number of web browsers that summon it.