Thoughts on Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
Fair warning, this dialogue will vaguely ramble through a series of thoughts that have arisen concerning concepts of value, digital replication, and generative artificial intelligence. I do not intend to present polished or thorough ideas. If you are open to spontaneous musings, fantastic! But if not, please bear with me.
There are a few key ideas that I have extracted from Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction which relate uniquely to the Doppelgänger Project. These concepts include the impact of technological progress on art and its evaluation, the drift away from cult value, and how the viewer responds to all of this change.
The Impact of Technological Progress on Art and its Evaluation
Changes in forms of art production remain predominantly invisible to most viewers, since the viewer is not always confronted with the need to adapt to new technologies outside of their unique spheres of experience. We all undergo these transformations, whether it be learning to use a computer for the first time or transitioning from using a fax machine to relying on email.
But it is often believed that artists are in some way confined to the standards of the past, when in truth we press on as the technologies that we are afforded progress. As Paul Valéry stated, “We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art” (iv).
Our understanding of reality is shifting as virtual worlds overtake the boundaries of an existence we once thought we comprehensively knew. Benjamin explains that, “The history of every art form shows critical epochs in which a certain art form aspires to effects which could be fully obtained only with a changed technical standard, that is to say, in a new art form” (31).
We have arrived at yet another epoch, the seamless transition into a dependency on AI. Before our very eyes, AI is metamorphosing into a powerful tool for contemporary artists. With that transition, however, come a number of somewhat outdated obstacles that artists in particular must overcome.
The Drift from Cult Value
Before I delve into this concept, I want to clarify that Benjamin never states that the cult value of art objects is now entirely absent or is intrinsically damaging. He does specify that, “for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual” (15). That is to say, the value of an art piece is not entirely reliant upon its link to or use within mystical, religious, or cult practices.
As Benjamin suggests, “Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics” (15). Perhaps that is a product of the expansive and overwhelming nature of globalization, its power to consume our attention in new and exciting ways. But in a world that is so comprehensible, there is little space for the suspension of disbelief or reliance upon the unknown.
For thousands of years, art has been uniquely intertwined with belief and the embodiment of those beliefs. Mechanical reproduction has interrupted that cycle in both beneficial and disconcerting ways. To quote Benjamin, “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” (9).
When applied to a greater extent, specifically within the context of non-human made art, this schism expands. What about an art piece that exists as a phantom, barely attached to the physical world except through light and the hardware that ties it down, and is also a product of non-human intelligence? This creation would be both uniquely human and entirely not, both shockingly mystical and mathematically comprehendible. Its authenticity, however, is certainly at risk of criticism.
Benjamin explains that, “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” (10). But that history is hidden from human eyes, obscured by the veil of algorithms and hard drives that mask its origins and animate a ‘computer’ with perceived consciousness.
With these transitions and adaptations, authenticity is exposed as the fragile standard that it is. Human perception fails more frequently than we are willing to admit and art has always been at the forefront of this play with deception, fluctuating between the malicious and generous.
Proximity and Relevance to the Viewer
A highly specific but theoretical issue arises at this point. Art that is made entirely within digital realms by digital agents is stripped of the physical presence that other forms possess. It does not need to be printed, projected, or hung on a wall. It simply is and can be disseminated through any number of mediums and forums.
The work of an AI, such as our Doppelgänger, becomes a sort of wormhole that spans two disparate planes, connecting to the viewer at an extremely close range while remaining light years away. We know that mechanical reproduction “enables the original to meet the beholder halfway” (10). But what constitutes the “original” in this case?
Unless there is a version of the image that possesses a unique signature or a superior quality, for example a higher resolution, there is nothing that differentiates the “original” image from any other copy of it that may be floating around within our highly advanced digital network.
Thus, a problem arises with the way in which the artwork is valued. Scarcity has been effectively eliminated both because each image can be spread easily and rapidly without any constraint and because it originates from an infinite supply of images that the GAN can produce. This flood of production eviscerates any established metric for economic evaluation.
All this to say, there are benefits and downsides to mechanical reproduction and its connection to a community of viewers. But generative production of this kind may possess great destructive power in an economically driven society. This format has become inherently political, driving at the very roots of capitalism and art’s dependency upon it.
The issue at heart, though, is that most viewers want to be able to look at an art piece and intuitively assess some level of value or meaning. Over the course of the past several centuries we have seen that, “Mechanical reproduction of art changes the reaction of the masses toward art” (27). But this can often become a deterrent from engaging with new art forms.
As Benjamin so aptly describes, “The conventional is uncritically enjoyed, and the truly new is criticized with aversion” (28). An art form such a this, without limits to its iterations and without contextual and physical grounding in this comfortable reality will likely be perceived as a lesser art form and maybe even as valueless altogether.
Oddly enough, however, my hope is that the novelty and intrigue of non-human made art will bridge the gap between traditional art forms and the art of the future, laying a foundation for coexistence between an ever-expanding range of art forms.
Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: An Influential Essay of Cultural Criticism; The History and Theory of Art. Translated by Harry Zohn, Adansonia Press, 2018.