“Power of Action”
The essay’s lead in is a great quotation by French philosopher Paul Veléry. And so it’s only fair that I also lead in with it. It’s as relevant now as it was when it was written. Uncannily so. Which is, I think, one of the prerequisites for a quote to be great.
“Our fine arts were developed…in times very different from the present, by men whose power of action upon things was insignificant in comparison with ours.”
I find it encouraging. Because it’s true. And the cycles between the advent of tools that advance our “power of action up things” are shorter and shorter. Just after its invention, the pixel leapfrogged the paintbrush. And we haven’t looked back since. We’ve been given something more powerful than a simple tool. We’ve been given a tool that makes tools. We’ve exponentially increased that power of action. I hesitate to say we can manipulate our world in ways that Mr. Veléry never dreamt of (mostly because I don’t know what he dreamt, but also because I think it sounds cliché) but I will say that we can manipulate the world in ways that would probably make Mr. Veléry very very confused.
Almost immediately I’ve got questions about Benjamin’s perspective. It seems the essay assumes some working knowledge/an educated opinion on Marxism. Neither of which I could honestly say I have. In any case, the phrase “the art of a classless society” struck me as odd. Calling on the very little I know about Marxism, I imagine that a “classless society” is a good thing. End capitalism, demolish the proletariat, end class struggle. That’s the plan, right?
It sounds like a terrible idea. “The art of a classless society?” What art? Where is this “art” coming from? There’s no us vs. them in Utopia. There’s no tension when the culture is spread equal and thin across society like smooth peanut butter on stale white bread. For better or worse, cultural tension is where most art and the most interesting art comes from. Otherwise, what happens? We revert to idyllic farm landscapes? Society kicks Art into neutral and costs for the next couple hundred years on the naked human form in marble? Boring. Dull. More of a suck on the human spirit that being bound within the confines of the working class. Benjamin doesn’t say what he wants. But he can’t want that. No body wants that. (Except maybe the bourgeoisie. And that starts to cause issues with the logic of the whole thing.)
The Experience of a Work
“Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.”
Oh boy. Is there a lesson here related to ITP, or what? When we create something we are creating an experience: “unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” The experience of a work of art. The experience of a motion graphic. The experience of a wall of penises. We’re creating the thing, itself, too. But, and here’s what Benjamin gets at and uses as the crux of a lot of this essay, we’re also creating the “aura” of the thing.
I think its fashionable now to do or be in “experience design.” The same way its fashionable to be a “creative director.” But that doesn’t take anything away from the importance of it. The idea of designing experiences has been cleaved from other disciplines that it once (and is still probably) part of. Architecture. Lighting design. Product design. Being a flight attendant. Jobs that understood that the experience was one aspect of the work. Doing the actual work was the other aspect.
I think this quote begs the question: does it matter? I.e Does it matter that a reproduction lacks the element of unique existence? I think not. I think that if a copy of a work elicits some reaction from the viewer (or experience-er. Experience designers need experience-ers, right?), no matter the magnitude, it has accomplished it’s intrinsic <i>raison -d’être</>. (Benjamin makes this very same point not too much later.)
Today it’s more difficult to make this argument that a reproduction automatically devalues a piece of art, in the aesthetic sense. Especially with something like works of art in code, something that is by definition reproducible. (Sol LeWitt works for this example too.) The point is that the experience matters most. As long as it doesn’t turn you into a Fascist, apparently.
- Benjamin posits that the desire of the “contemporary masses” is to “overcome the uniqueness of every reality by accepting is reproduction.” I don’t think I can agree with that. I think he’s mistaking the welcoming of convenience (e.g. film doing a poor job of reproducing theater) for this desire to overcome uniqueness. That would mean that the masses prefer the same old whatever to a new experience. Whatever the facsimile of a sunset is rather than a sunset. I think it’s a ridiculous statement to make.
- Benjamin is pretty upset that talking pictures are removing the “aura” from the actor. Why? Has anyone ever complained that a portrait removes the “aura” of the person who sat for it? Aside from that one of Dorian Gray, I think not.
- By far, my favorite part of this essay was his comparison of slow motion film to psychoanalysis. I think it’s an incredibly interesting idea. Although, I don’t think it really holds up all that well.
- If “one requirement [of Dadaism] was foremost: to outrage the public…” is it possible that most of today’s pop culture is unintentionally Dadaist?
- All this talk about the reproduction of art and what it means reminded me that I’ve been wanting to watch Tim’s Vermeer.