The Work of Art in the Age of Digitalization

It is the year 2013. I am 15 years old. I tell my friend the band My Chemical Romance has split up. She runs out of the classroom, crying. 

In his phenomenal essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin describes how Art has changed with the increasing ability to reproduce it. He lays out the concept of authenticity, the aura of the artwork, as well as the potential of artworks whose nature is to be reproduced. For example, a painting – like the Mona Lisa – could be reproduced, imitated through paint, but it would lack the authenticity of the original. Photography, on the other hand, allows for the reproduction of the artwork without losing its authenticity, as it’s not necessarily a question that pertains to it. There is the negative, which is technically the “original,” but a photograph is rarely displayed in this way. The first and last photograph developed from the negative should essentially be the same, and thus the question of “authenticity,” which came before, takes on a different shape.

According to Benjamin, works of art are either valued by their cultic or exhibition value. Although there have been many reproductions of the Mona Lisa, the original has something which Benjamin describes as aura. While in the past, pieces of art might hold a special religious function which gives them a cultic value, this aura has also extended to arts without an explicit religious function – such as the Mona Lisa. Most people will have seen a reproduction of the Mona Lisa before they have seen the painting itself – yet they will still push through the crowd in order to catch a glimpse of it in the Louvre. A photograph does not have the same pull, yet it can hold the same level of recognition as the Mona Lisa. As it’s easier to exhibit a photograph, the value does not come from its rarity but rather from its accessibility.

Benjamin wrote this essay in 1936 when these reproductive arts were a relatively new thing. While painting and sculpture had been around for millennia, photography and film were only invented in the 19th century. But how relevant are these observations in the 21st century? Well…………. due to the COVID-19, most of our access to culture has been cut off. Attempts have been made to make culture more accessible, but I’m rather sceptical to what extent these digital experiences live up to actually visiting the museum. Part of the appeal of visiting the museum is exactly due to the cultic value that Benjamin describes – which is lost through the digital reproduction.

When MCR split up, their music continued to exist in reproduction, but the experience of music was lost. The cultic element of their music ceased to exist. Although Benjamin does not extend his analysis to music, there are parallels to be made. With the proliferation of recordings, music has become less of an event and more of background noise. Although recordings have greatly increased the exhibition value of music (it has become easier than ever to discover artists that you might never see perform life), the listening experience has become more passive. Listening to music at home, even if it’s a very curated experience with vinyl records and high-quality sound systems, does not compare to the experience of a concert. Perhaps one is not necessarily better than the other, as the recording allows you to appreciate the finer details, but the enjoyment of a concert comes from more than just the music. It is authentic, in the sense that it is impossible for two concerts to be exactly the same.

I know people like to make fun of the over-emotionality of teenage girls, I believe my friend’s reaction was absolutely justified. She lost the ability to see her favourite band, and through that, an experience to express her own identity. Furthermore, it is not as if this experience is limited to young women: when a great musician dies, they will not only mourn the passing of a person, but also the ability to experience their music. People will not only recount the quality of the music, merely commenting on the listening, but will also commemorate the concerts, the experiences. But most importantly, they mourn. They have lost something, and it is only human to be upset by that.

The museums have closed again, for 5 weeks. We will be able to visit them again, but I think it is important to acknowledge we have lost an experience and that we’re allowed to be upset because of that. However, I do also believe that music can offer us ways to cope with the loss of museums. When I first started writing this piece, I thought I had found a way to criticize the digital musea through music, through the difference between concerts and recordings. The idea that digital concerts could not contain the “spectacle” of a physical concert, and thus the same could be said about digital musea compared to physical ones. However, this also made me realize that we could experience art, similarly to how reproduced music is enjoyed. 

In fact, I was already doing so, before the whole COVID-19 pandemic: I have my aesthetics blog, where I’m probably not “experiences” the pieces of art as I much as I would in a museum, but still enjoyed nonetheless. A similar experience to a curated music playlist. In fact, these forms of media have a benefit that could not be matched by the curated arts, be it a museum or a concert: everything is my choice. I’m not forced to look at a Marlene Dumas, and can rather highlight an unknown artist. The digital can transform the curation of arts into a more democratic practice. Hopefully, this democratization will translate to the actual museums, so all artworks can exude the full experience that is contained within them.  

My Chemical Romance reunited in 2019. Hope is still left in this world.


Translation of The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Shameless plug of my aesthethics blog

Just to clarify, I’m not a particular fan My Chemical Romance(MCR). I was an edgy teen once though.