10 December 2011

The Dematerialization of the Art Object

By now most everyone is familiar with Walter Benjamin's essay 1936 "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Especially with Benjamin's argument that photographic reproduction brings about a "withering" or diminishing of the art object's "aura" -- its value, authenticity, or "authority" as a singular, hand-crafted artifact in material culture. He explained:

"Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence. This includes the changes which it may have suffered in physical condition over the years as well as the various changes in its ownership. The traces of the first can be revealed only by chemical or physical analyses which it is impossible to perform on a reproduction; changes of ownership are subject to a tradition which must be traced from the situation of the original. [...]

The situations into which the product of mechanical reproduction can be brought may not touch the actual work of art, yet the quality of its presence is always depreciated. This holds not only for the art work but also, for instance, for a landscape which passes in review before the spectator in a movie. In the case of the art object, a most sensitive nucleus – namely, its authenticity – is interfered with whereas no natural object is vulnerable on that score. The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced. Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter. And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object."

André Malraux took this idea as the premise for his Le musée imaginaire (or Museum Without Walls), arguing that this process of reproduction and disconnection ultimately liberates art objects from their historical and physical origins, thereby making them available to circulate broadly throughout the public sphere.

And about specific some specific works of art: Above is Gustav Courbet's The Stone Breakers (aka, The Quarrymen), painted in 1849. In some ways it's an archetypal Courbet painting, in that it typifies certain elements of his work -- primarily its gritty and grubby portrayal of figures performing manual labor, a subject considered -- by the academic dictates concerning genre painting and the like -- controversial at the time on account of being too lowly and crude, and therefore unworthy of depiction. As such its an example of the "Realist" aesthetic that Courbet shared with his critical champion Emile Zola. It's also considered in many ways of the ethos that not only informed Courbet's Realism, but also his politics, as well.* While it's not as famous as his A Burial at Ornans or The Painter's Studio or a couple of his other works, it ranks highly enough to have frequently reproduced over the years, quite frequently as the sole of representative example of Courbet's work in survey-level art history textbooks.**

But the painting itself no longer exists, and hasn't since 1945 when it was destroyed during the ariel bombing of Dresden. At the time the painting was reputedly aboard a transport truck that was carting it and some 154 other works away from Dresden for safer territory, a truck which was quickly targeted and destroyed by an RAF bomber. Which is why it turns up, alongside works by Ruebens, Caravaggio, Cranach, Van Gogh and many others in this Flickr pool someone's assembled of "Lost Art: Masterpieces Destroyed in War," a collection of some 170 images that appears to be a subset of an online collection of images posted by the Clark Art Institute. With each, there is no longer an original from which all reproductions are taken, there are just the facsimiles.

Turning up in the pool are Otto Dix's Street Fight and War Cripples, each depicting various aspects of the political turmoil of post-WWI/Weimar Germany. Which draws our attention to the text that accompanies the pool, which states that the photos "represent the only remaining documentation of important works of art -- art that was destroyed before high quality color photography became the standard for documenting art." Leaving them, it seems, to carry on in their existence in diminished form --in an achromatic virtual half-life.

A number of works, particularly landscapes, by Gustav Klimt turn up due to the destruction of a private collection in Austria during the final days of WWII. among the many works lost was Music II, which I've seen many times before; and for some reason, I'm fairly certain I've seen it (on occasion) reproduced in color. Perhaps my memory's playing tricks on me? Or maybe there are colorized version of the photograph floating around. Or maybe a color lithograph version of the painting exists?***

But it seems that the biggest causality of the lot is Casper David Friedrich. It appears that many of the works included were lost in a pair of fires, the first of which (curiously) occurring when the Glaspalast in Munich burned down in 1931. While the fire was apparently deemed an act of arson, its unconnected to with any military actions; seeing how it wildly predated WII proper, and happened nearly a year in advance of Hilter's appointment as chancellor.

And curiously also, Kurt Schwitters's Dadaist Merzbau construction turns up in the collection. Which calls attention to the fact that it is (I believe) the sole entry in the collection that is not a painting. Surely there are plenty of sculpture that have lost to the ravages of war over the years?

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* Courbet having been quite chummy with Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and also having served a stint in the hoosegow for his own activities as a Communard.

** The painting also typifies a visual trope that occurs through a good many Courbet works -- that of a figure, often depicted performing some act of manual labor, facing away from the viewer. I believe it was the art historian Michael Fried who once offered the intriguing theory that this recurring figure serves as a "doubling" or a visual analog of the artist -- of the craftsman himself facing into the picture plane while he works.

*** And I actually have a book on Klimt that includes a color reproduction of Schubert at the Piano, so I'm inclined to say that the pool isn't entirely accurate in that respect.


Lutz Eitel said...

Now you’re clearly implying this here, but I wonder why you don’t spell it out: that the fact these have been destroyed and exist only in bad photographs today lends them a special lo-fi aura? Though maybe more than the mystery of bad image quality, the historical fact of being lost in a major historical catastrophe might add to the worth of the painting.

(Btw, I don’t have much use for the Benjamin, though it takes off from something most of us know, the elation in front of the original. For centuries before him, the reception of great art worked through engravings, copies, forgeries etc very well, and there’s no lack of purple prose on masterpieces known only from bad impressions passed on through hack artists. I guess only when picture books became too attractive did the need arise to differentiate the image from the art in this way. I suspect, though, the aura lies more in our knowledge than in something physical or spiritual emanating from the thing itself, and when I feel “it” I’m most often sort of star-struck, meeting something in the flesh I’ve hardwired myself to admire long ago, and feeling defenseless at the sudden irrefutable fact of its existence.)

Greyhoos said...

Definitely implied, if only because I thought spelling everything out too precisely would amount to stating the obvious for readers.

But yes -- the aura being the work's concrete existence as a unique object. And all the things that entails that a view can't get from a reproduction. Such as getting up close to look at it in detail, studying the artist's technique, the combination of material and its manipulation; noting application of paint and the brushstrokes; and how these things work/fall together amounts to some illusionistic or impressionist gestalt that forms the picture itself once you back away from it.

And yes about the "lo-fi" aspect, definitely. I figured readers would be able to draw that conclusion themselves. I kind of like how Tom Waits once claimed that he thought most music sounded best when it was heard issuing from a bad speaker from a block away. In a case such as this, we're dealing with a visual equivalent of that kind of state of degradation.

And funny that you bring the matter of forgeries into this. Years ago the matter of art forgery fascinated me, especially because of how it fell in relation to the considerations at hand. But the problem is that art forgery is seldom acknowledged or admitted to, so it's not like there's been a lot of tangible scholarship done on the topic.

Greyhoos said...

But while I was writing the above, I couldn't help thinking )perversely, of course) "Surely there are now ways of replacing some of the works...(?)"


* /close irony tag *

Anonymous said...

Thanks Greyhoos, this is a great post and I think that under the mess of reproduction mutants, ruin-fetishes and overall fog of capital we live in now there is something very interesting hidden in the story of "what we did with images".

In terms of Benjamin, I think the feared wilt of the aura comes when the method of reproduction is close enough to be convincing (this is not the same as illusionistic, but close enough for the brain to say that is has enough informaiton to confidently know this thing depicted). This would be the point when the brain is willing to believe in this reproduction on some level, despite knowing it not to be genuine. The thing lost is the thing one doesn't know is lost.

I also think that the point is one of awareness, if we know something is a multiple it does diminish its power in a way that is prior even to issues of value. There is a rationality to iconoclasm.

Mechanical reproduction is also massively different from previous methods. It's also the accelerated the decent toward a point of having access to all images to such a degree that this point would have imaginable even a hundred years ago.

I like the Tom Waits quote. I think that's actually a recognised studio technique for getting a sort of clarity about a recording actually. It was used in a studio I recorded at once anyway. Run the troubling take through a small stereo and walk down the hall to have a listen.

A strand of my MA thesis argued that the loss of aura was a trade-off which allowed, with the right sort of explosion, a transition into a Hauntolgical afterlife. The fuel for the explosion being the unburnt potential of a becoming that was cut short. I used Elvis as my model because his afterlife has been so obviously vivid and indeed plural, but the same thing applies to objects too.

perversely I think that knowing that a reproduction no longer has an original to anchor it actually makes it easier to engage with that (lost) original. More so through a process of reproduction which does not exude much false authority. Perhaps as technology advances the level of "lo-fi enough to see" will move up too.

Could "Music II" have been documented with an earlier colour process like Vivex?

Greyhoos said...

Thanks, Ralph. Very very interesting. Quite a few fascinating ideas here. The ones about there being "a rationality to iconoclasm" and a propulsion into a "hauntological afterlife" are ones that I'll definitely be giving some more thought to. As for the rest, not sure where to start, but a couple of things...

> "The thing lost is the thing one doesn't know is lost."

An idea that's akin to my own misgivings about mp3 compression, and all the sonic detail that's lost. I have a lot of friends younger than myself who've mostly only dealt with mp3s as far as their own listening habits are concerned, so talking about the crummy degraded sound quality means nothing to them. But then, my hearing is kind of weird when it comes to that sort of thing, and I gather I'm weird for being in that minority of people who pay a lot of attention to that aspect of music/sound. Which is why I find your studio recording example interesting.

> "Could 'Music II' have been documented with an earlier colour process like Vivex? "

No idea. I can't even remember how long it's been since I saw a color version. But I'm 90% certain that I have.

Lutz Eitel said...

From a very quick research, I think color version of Music II are later recreations (to make it possible to sell reproductions, colors are really awful, too), while Schubert at the Piano would indeed have been photographed in an early color process.

Greyhoos said...

Yeah, think I bumped into those as well while I was googling around last week. Clearly knockoff prints, I thought, because the choice of colors seems really unlikely (espec compared to those of Music I, of which I've seen nothing but color photos).

David K Wayne said...

Some of this extends to artefacts that are already mechanically reproduced. 'Primitive' recorded music like the kind collected by Harry Smith an obvious case, but also later stuff that was intended for vinyl that's 'loses' something on CD, MP3 etc (60s Motown is the first example that comes to mind, but arguably a lot of classic rock loses dimensions in its modern formats).

But I've also found this with old films, and even old TV. The snap 'n' crackle that you'd associate with 20s/30s/40s movies gets ironed out, to varying degrees of irrelevant fanfare. Or the blurring around the image that you'd get from repeats of 50s plays, sitcoms etc. (especially ones that were recorded live). They lose an element of 'history as mystery' in a vaguely perceptible way. It gets cleaned up to match modern hardware so much, it's as though its trying to synchronise its distinctive place in history with the transience of the present. especially considering today's speed of obsolescence. But I get that vibe when a publisher like Penguin rebrands its cover formats for the same books every few years.

Maybe the vogue for pastiching 'classic' designs (Penguin, heavy-vinyl reissues etc.), as an indulgent luxury, is a (vain) way to try and close this inarticulated sense of loss on the part of the consumer?

BTW This blog has been on damn good form lately.

Greyhoos said...

@ DW Kasper: At which point, I guess we have firmly arrived in the realm of the hauntological. A few things in response...

1. That first aspect you mention is something that endlessly fascinates me. It's something I touched on here before...the matter of the "glitch," or the precarity of the reproduction, due to the nature of the format's inherent frailties and artistic practices that foreground those qualities. The way any given medium has its own demise embroidered all up & down the length of its sleeve. And ultimately, I guess, we're talking about experiences that amount to (or are supposed to amount to) something transcendent of the vagaries of material existence and the mundane, yet they are often carried to us or we often consume them by way of the most material of channels. (and yes, that goes for digital culture, too.) Volumes to go on about from that first part, but...

2. Yeah, designers' recent fetishistic collecting and regurgitating certain "classic" styles from the bygone -- vintage Penguin paperbacks and Blue Note sleeve designs, and Croatian children's-books illustration from the 1930s, and etc, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc. It's been all of the design end of the blogworld for years now; which seemed to me to run uncannily parallel to a lot of recent hauntological/era-spec retromantic recyclings in other parts of the cultural spectrum.

3. Thanks for the remarks. I'm not used to getting feedback. And of course it's great to receive compliments, but even better to generate discussion. Been enjoying the comments on this post. People not only fleshing out what I left unstated, but also bringing speaking for myself) a lot of other strong ideas to consider.

David K Wayne said...

The obvious example is the Ghost Box 'aesthetic' which was all the rage not long ago, but already feels incredibly dated (even on its own terms, the sound failed to deliver what the packaging suggested IMO). A different kind of '1970s' has captured the 'public imagination' in the past couple of years. And it's a much less comforting version - very material, crowded, divided, uncertain. Haunted by adult anxiety, not childhood memory.

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