Real or Fake?

What Groĭs writes about digital reproduction and the way in which “digitization turns visual arts into performing arts” [1] describes how I feel about the way in which digital art is different from physical artworks. With the shift of art from the physical realm to the digital, the line between the artwork itself and its copies becomes blurred and this distinction loses its value and relevance. The display of the artwork, its context and the environment in which it is consumed – its performance – is what makes it a piece of art, not its singularity or “originality”.

From Benjamin’s point of view [2], it could be argued that the “Nozze di Cana” in its current state – having been crudely torn apart and then reassembled away from the location it was conceived for – has a “presence in time” and “unique existence” which no reproduction could replicate.

It seems to me as if the concept of an aura, as proposed by Benjamin, embraces the history of the work of art, which leads to its unique existence. According to Benjamin, the aura of the artwork is threatened and even destroyed by the act of making reproductions of it, because the reproductions reduce the artwork to one among many copies and take away its uniqueness. Benjamin connects the notion of an aura with tradition and history, which is threatened by new inventions and possibilities of (mechanical) reproduction, leading to “a tremendous shattering of tradition”.

Furthermore, Benjamin defines the concept of the aura “as the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be”. He argues that the desire of people to overcome this distance threatens the concept of the aura and that this threat therefore has social causes.

I understand that Benjamin sees the artwork with its unique history and tradition as always in a certain distance from the observer, who was not part of this history and tradition. It is a mental distance, which people hope to overcome by the creation of reproductions of which they know the history and tradition and which are thus closer, less distanced to them. Benjamin attributes the authenticity and uniqueness of a work of art to its traditional context, which cannot be replicated by a reproduction, created at a later stage. This authenticity springs from the “original use value” of the artwork, described by Benjamin as ritual or ritual function. The replacement of this original use value with the intent of simply exhibiting the artwork gives art a new function which diminishes its aura by taking away the ritual function and separating it from its basis in cult.

Benjamin parallels this with the development of cinematography, insisting that, as the actors are not physically present on a stage, but merely projected onto a screen, there can be no aura to films.

Although “aura” sounds like a transcendental concept, I read it as a social construct that is grounded upon the belief that tradition and history are more valuable than innovation and progress. It seems to me that Benjamin is rooted in the elitist concept of “high culture”, proposed by Matthew Arnold in Culture and Anarchy (1869).

I think that the aura in exactly the way Benjamin could not be found in digital artworks, as they do not involve a physical presence and are very easily reproducible without being able to discern a difference between the reproductions and the artwork. However, if we define aura in a broader sense, looking at it as the (his)story of the artwork, I can definitely see how the concept can also be applied to digital art.

Reading Baudrillard [3] and thinking about his claim if art has lost its subversive force, I do not think that this is the case, as it is still thought provoking and rebellious. While it might be harder nowadays to provoke and stimulate strong reactions with art, due to the fact that there are less taboos, art still has, and will continue to have, great power. One could argue that art has become more subversive and has increased its potential to initiate changes and be persuasive, as it tends to be less constrained by rigid norms and rules (at least in the liberal West).

The idea of simulacra suggests a substitute for reality:  hyperreality or “second-hand truth”, which is subjected to certain changes and loses some of its truthful components in the transformation process. I think that the theory of the simulacrum can assist in understanding the perception of digital objects as opposed to non-digital reality. Often times, the physical world or “reality” is perceived as more truthful than the digital “hyperreality”, which is said to be flatter and have less texture and other qualities of the physical world. Understanding this view on the digital plays an important part in bringing the digital world and its objects closer to people. Digital art is often conceptualized as a performance which involves the senses and gives a feeling of physical presence in order to appeal to people’s love of the physical world and the “truth” of reality.

In regards to digital art or art in the digital world, the case of Richard Prince and his installation New Portraits [4] shines an interesting light on the fluid boundary between digital and physical as well as art and no art. Selling instagram pictures, which are freely available online as printed versions for hundreds of thousands, simply by rebranding it with the name of a famous artist, shows the desire that people to bring the digital world into the physical reality. Is Prince’s art real or fake? I think this is in the eye of the beholder, and the people who buy his art for a staggering sum must believe that it is real.

[1] Groĭs, B. (2016) ‘Chapter 9: Modernity and Contemporaneity: Mechanical vs. Digital Reproduction’, in In The Flow. London ; New York: Verso, p.262.

[2] Benjamin, W. (1969) ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, in Arendt, H. (ed.), Zohn, H. (tran.) Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books, p. 26.

[3] Baudrillard, J. (1988) ‘Simulacra and Simulations’, in Poster, M. (ed.) Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings. Stanford: Stanford University Press, pp. 166–184.

[4] https://www.theverge.com/2015/5/30/8691257/richard-prince-instagram-photos-copyright-law-fair-use (accessed 25.01.2019).

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