In 1936 the German cultural critic Walter Benjamin wrote The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. He argued that a piece of Art has a unique aura, and if reproduced many times this uniqueness is lost. In the age of the mechanical reproduction, the original leaves its static place and travels further away in order to meet a greater audience. However, the copy cannot match the original in its traditional value: the time and place it was created.
Contrary to the mechanical reproduction, the work of Art in the digital age doesn’t only lack of traditional value, there is not original as a reference. The artwork is made of various elements which would be almost impossible to trace back. For example, a picture taken from the internet, then modified using a specific program, then shared on a social network which also allows more modifications, at this point there is not reference of the original. The” original” as such doesn’t exist. The number of contributors of a piece of art, is as great as its modifications. The piece of Art is a hybrid of many different people and places.
The work of Art in the age of the mechanical reproduction is physical and allows more time for contemplation. Unlike the digital copy which could be consumed on the go through various electronic devices. If time and place give soul to a piece of art in a traditional context, in the digital age it’s all about the software that has been used to create the piece and the different platforms that support its display.
Perception changes from paper, ceramics and canvas to pixels, layers and codes. Therefore, the historical context in which a piece of art was created disappears, digital art has no memory. It has neither past nor physical environment to relate.
Walter Benjamin tells, ” during long periods of history, the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity’s entire mode of existence”. According to Walter Benjamin, every time there is a shift in humanity, values and organisation, perception changes. Digital art was born from the rising of the internet and greater accessibility to electronic devices. Reproduction is organised and delivered through faster methods for greater audiences. Yet, the velocity this Art is consumed matches the pace in which is discarded. The digital reproduction gains its momentum in a fraction of time unlike the copy in the age of the mechanical reproduction.
The digital reproduction is more adaptable. This is a great advantage since electronic devices are widely available, the public is able to curate works they find more interesting . However, digital Art mirrors the times we are living, in which the need for visual gratification is so great that Art is more a reflection of our own personal quest for identity within a context so saturated with images, than an expression of beauty or emotional power. Walter Benjamin tells that if in previous times Art was about cult and the magic, then in the age of the mechanical reproduction, Art was heading towards political revolution.
We could not agree more, from the 60’s until the end of the century making Art and reproducing it was a political statement in its own right. Art meant change and liberation.
The millennium brought a new perspective, digital reproductions are breaking boundaries, enabling anyone to participate. Still, Art is extremely vulnerable given the fact that is made for and within the predominant system. Quite often digital reproductions enhance corporate values.
In spite of all that, a vast amount of independent digital art is reproduced and shared endless times on a daily basics. The work of Art in times of digital reproduction is a mixture of views and techniques, blending together in a stream of pixels, shared and retouched in order to fit millions of digital screens. The challenges Art faces in the age of the digital reproduction is in terms of its meaning and its ability to ignite emotion. Hopefully it won’t be deleted if it dares to raise consciousness in a seemingly brave new world.