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Leigh Ofer – Response to Walter Benjamin

October 21, 2009

Walter Benjamin, in his piece “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” discusses the issue of replication and the value of art. Mechanical reproduction was a new process being introduced, and with it came numerous cultural changes. Modern art, for example photography or film, with its ability to be easily replicated, is free from the experience of authenticity and the ritual of the cult of beauty. Instead, mechanical reproduction values “exhibition”– Benjamin states, “From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the “authentic” print makes no sense.” Also, mechanical reproduction introduces another element previously devoid from the appreciation of art: the reaction of the masses. Now, even the distracted and uneducated masses can absorb art, therefore making the audience “take the position of the critic” when talking about the film. I feel he is basically saying that the loss of aura is made up by the increased exhibition value of art. With reproduction, art is now judged on cult value rather than, for example, art in prehistoric times which was used “as an instrument of magic.”

Yet there is a contradiction to what he is saying: something is lost when a work of art is reproduced. An authentic work of art is linked with a specific time and place, with a history, and the reproduction takes it out of this situation. Therefore the “aura” of an authentic object becomes lost through reproduction. A few questions came into my head when reading this article. First of all, what constitutes the value of art? Who says an original Picasso is worth more than a Cezanne or Lautrec? Didn’t Picasso copy, or make a replica, of Cezanne’s cubism? Does reproduction, as Benjamin believes, destroy the value of a work of art? 

For example, there was an exhibition of Picasso at the Whitney Museum in 2006. It showed paintings by artists heavily influenced by Picasso. I posted a picture below, a side-by-side painting of an American artist, Stuart Davis, and a Picasso. Which one is more valuable, and why? The convential answer would be the Stuart Davis… Why is that? Because he was influenced by Picasso, the same way Picasso was influenced by Cezanne?


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