Has the ability to mass-produce artwork led to a society that is more culturally conscious, or has it vulgarized artwork into something of mass media where the aura of the original artwork is lost?
In short, I believe that it has done both. Maybe that’s a paradox, but perhaps not. And, really, I don’t believe either is a bad thing. I am in full support of “new media” and the potential that technology holds.
In response to the idea of mechanical reproduction, German critic Walter Benjamin wrote an article entitled “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In this intellectual essay, Benjamin discusses what technical “reproduction of works of art and the art of film have had on art in its traditional form” (2).
According to Benjamin, the reproduction of a work of art lacks one important element. That element is “its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be” (3). In short, Benjamin believes that by mass-producing art, the concept of authenticity and traditional value is largely lost.
To some extent I agree with this. There is nothing quite like walking into The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore or the Museum of Modern Art in NYC and staring at an original painting. Looking, from just inches away, at an original piece of art, really is incredible. The brush strokes, the detail, the signature of the artist are all so close and tangible.
The mechanical reproductions of these same paintings takes this away. As Benjamin says, it “detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition” (Benjamin 3). It loses that aura, that quality of originality.
But what it does do is allow for people to experience culture and art from all over the globe in any place and at any time. Without the ability to mass-produce copies of paintings, photographs, and films, much of the world would be deprived of these cultural experiences. Not everyone is able to go see the original Mona Lisa everyday. It just isn’t feasible.
Our inability to travel to certain places should not inhibit us from cultural experiences. Mechanical reproduction has brought culture into our homes, our dorms, and our classrooms. To study a painting in class, there must be a mass-produced image to look at since not everyone can have the original of Starry Night.
So then, how can mass technical production also vulgarize artwork? I think it can do this by taking what was once a unique, original piece of art and making it kitschy. As a most pertinent example to college students, I feel that this often happens when decorating a dorm room. (And yes, I am guilty.) Target, poster sales, etc. all realize this and mass-produce what used to be “original “ pieces of artwork. They have turned them from something unique into something that eventually can become classified as tasteless.
So, mechanical reproduction is a “catch 22.” It can bring culture into homes, but it can also vulgarize the same artwork by doing so.