Cultural critic Walter Benjamin wrote in 1936 an essay called “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (or Reproducibility)” (German: Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit), which was first published in the “Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung” (“Magazine for Social Sciences”). The piece has been highly influential across the world of humanities, especially in the fields of cultural studies, media theory, architectural theory and art history.
This is a text that many students in art colleges and academies meet in their curriculum.
The essay discusses the concept of an “original” work of art and of its value, in the context in which works of art can be more and more easily reproduced. The text is quite relevant today as well, maybe even more than it was when it was published, given that now we “mechanical reproduction” has increased by incomparable amounts compared to the first part of the 20th century.
Walter Benjamin brings in discussion the concept of authenticity and its relation to the concept of reproduction, saying that “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.” He argues that the “sphere of authenticity is outside the technical”, implying that the original work of art is independent of the copy. However, through the act of reproduction, something is still taken from the original, as its context is changed. Thus, Benjamin introduces the concept of the “aura” of a work and claims that in reproductions this is not present. This concept was borrowed from ideas Ludwig Klages had developed before him.
While there can be a lot of discussion and debate created around this text, one issue can be discussed in today’s context, where digital photography and print or online magazines are a big part of the cultural and artistic landscape.
Basically, what can be argued is that in the 21st century, an original work of art can be at the same time a copy.
When a photographer shoots a picture, the original is the digital file present in the camera’s memory card. Afterwards, that file, maybe a RAW file, is transferred to the computer. However, if the photograph is processed in Photoshop or a similar application, by cropping, making color corrections, masking imperfections, the result is a new original. That new original, digital file is then set in a processing program such as InDesign and could be cropped again to let room for the so-called ‘bleed’ – the margins a magazine needs to have in order to be printed properly. The file is then exported into a pdf file for example, which is then printed in say a hundred thousand copies, thus creating a hundred thousand new originals, given that the medium of the photograph has changed and that it is likely that the photograph has undergone a new, even though slight, cropping.
In short, if you take a photograph, even from the camera and print it out in numerous copies, isn’t each copy an original?
Looking at things from this angle, it can be said that there’s a different type of “original” when we talk about paintings or sculptures for example, compared to when we talk about photography or film.
Also speaking of this matter, we can also ask similar questions in regards to other mediums: for example, if someone is recording something, which is a work of art, with their webcam directly on a video streaming website and then publishes it, can we even speak of an original?
In other words, if in a thousand years, someone wants to buy the original version of the video at an auction, what will they be buying?
The same applies to literature: if you publish on a blog, is there still such thing as a “first edition”?
These are things that are definitely worth thinking about. The reason why they are important is because in the long run, they might redefine our relationship with works of art, which is something that has been very much the same for the last few thousands of years.