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Greg Young – Response to Benjamin

October 21, 2009

“To an even greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility.”

This line was what struck me most about the Benjamin essay. Though Benjamin discusses film and photography in relation to painting, I found it quite odd that another important medium of art was conspicuously absent: music. All of the reproducible qualities of film and photography that set them apart from painting are even more inherent to music, especially in today’s industry. Pieces of music are now composed primarily for mass consumption in the form of compact discs or even digital media, so every song we hear is a copy of the original. But what is intriguing about the application of Benjamin’s theory to the realm of music is the confusion as to what the original actually is. In film, the artist records and edits video to make a product that is then reproduced. Most music, however, is rehearsed multiple times and then recorded in the studio. But what is the original work of art in this case? Is it the written song? Is it its first performance? Or is it the first recording of it that is made? Even live performances of a song can be considered reproductions. On the other hand, no two live renditions of a piece of music can be exactly the same, so is each successive performance an original work of art? It seems that music is even further detached from the concept of originality because the original no longer matters, the reproduction is the only form with importance.

Benjamin also mentions that “painting is in no position to present an object for simultaneous collective experience” and goes on to explain that this collective experience is indeed a property of modern film, as films are initially viewed in the group settings of theaters. Despite the fact that music was initially only live performances to a mass audience, in today’s world it is primarily consumed alone. Similar to the way a painting invites a spectator to contemplate in solitude, music invites a listener to deeply focus on what he or she is hearing in a private setting. So even though music is more about its reproducibility than film, it echoes the qualities of a painting in that it lacks a collective experience, demonstrating the complications of Benjamin’s theory on the reproduction of art in the modern world.

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