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Art in the Era of the Internet and the Digital Reproduction
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2008-12-26 10:36:01
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“The work of art in the age of digital reproduction is physically and formally chameleon. There is no clear conceptual distinction now between original reproduction in virtually any medium based in film, electronics, or telecommunications. As for the fine arts, the distinction is eroding, if not finally collapsed. The fictions of “master” and “copy” are now so entwined with each other that it is impossible to say where one begins and the other ends. In one sense, Walter Benjamin’s proclamation of doom for the aura of originality, authored early in the century, is finally confirmed by these events. In another sense, the aura, supple and elastic, has stretched far beyond the boundaries of Benjamin’s prophecy into the rich realm of reproduction itself. Here in this realm, often mislabeled “virtual” (it is actually a realer reality, or RR), both originality and traditional truth (symbolized by the unadorned photographic “fact”) are being enhanced, not betrayed…we reach through the electronic field of ease that cushions us, like amniotic fluid, through the field that allows us to order, reform, and transmit almost any sound, idea, or word, toward what lies beyond, toward the transient and ineffable—a breath, for example, a pause in conversation, even the twisted grain of a xeroxed photograph or videotape. Here is where the aura resides—not in the thing itself but in the originality of the moment when we see, hear, read, repeat, revise.”

                   --Douglas Davis (“The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction”)

Where Walter Benjamin ended, Douglas Davis takes off. As the reader will recall, Benjamin’s classic discussion revolved around the idea that technological processes, which allow art objects to be reproduced mechanically, would undermine art’s auratic nature. In his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction (An Evolving Thesis: 1991-1995), the conceptual artist and educator Douglas Davis brings Benjamin’s astute analysis into the present, but he also criticizes Benjamin for failing to envision the liberating potential of modern technology.

Basically, Davis’ thesis is that far from threatening the aura of art, virtual reality enhances it. This is so because, in Davis’ view, the dichotomy between an original and its mechanical copy has been replaced by a new relationship. While agreeing with Benjamin that the aura of the original decays through the possibility of reproduction, Davis argues that, nevertheless, rapidly evolving digital techniques endow every copy with its own unique aura. Rather than destroying aura, digital technology replicates it ad infinitum. It allows each of us not merely to reproduce the original exactly but also to enhance it in accord with our individual preferences. For example, instead of one Mona Lisa and its plethora of identical reproductions, each one of us can alter it on screen as we see fit. The resulting products are not mere mechanical reproductions but have the vitality of original works.

We have all seen reproductions of the Mona Lisa with mustaches on, or a winking Mona Lisa, a la Sarah Palin. We have seen man as depicted in Michelangelo’s “creation of man” panel in the Sistine Chapel that instead of extending his middle finger horizontally to touch that of God, extends it upward vertically to express defiance and contempt. This is one enhancement very dear to assorted atheists and agnostics and juveniles of all persuasions. What remains to be asked, however, is this question: is this still Da Vinci or Michelangelo, or rather, is this an opportunistic manipulation of those famous artists to promote one’s own ideology or belief-system or twisted sense of humor? How exactly the aura, or the reverence if you will, surrounding the works of those two famous artists is enhanced by the millions of less than genial and irreverent and juvenile individuals out to merely attract attention to themselves with an abysmal ignorance of the history and theories of art? In this attempt to attract attention at any cost, isn’t the ultimate act of defiance that of destroying Michelangelo’s Pietà with a hammer, in a sort of performance-art act? That too has been attempted, albeit unsuccessfully. To fine tune the question further: aren’t those barbaric acts of vandalism and destruction a sure sign of cultural philistinism, rather than enhancement of Michelangelo and Da Vinci?

Be that as it may, Davis does not seem to be too concerned with such questions but presses on with his critique of Walter Benjamin’s pessimistic assessment of a technological development that lie behind the claims of his theory of art. Davis speculates that while Benjamin saw only the possibility of increasing social control and regimentation, we ought to be considering the potential for educated elites to contest such control for liberating purposes. Here again the question needs to be asked: which liberating purposes and who decides which are liberating and which are enslaving purposes? To a vandal, the destruction of a statue by Michelangelo intimating eternal Beauty, which the vandal rejects and or does not understand, may be liberating indeed, even cathartic.

In any case, there is no doubt that, willy-nilly, we find ourselves “plugged in” in many aspects of our lives and to refuse to be plugged in is the equivalent of becoming an anachronism. One runs the risk of being labeled “a medieval man” by ignoramuses that make no distinction between Medieval times and the Dark Ages. Indeed, the digital future of art cannot be ignored as one explores its nature and essence. It may be indeed worth considering with Davis that, rather than denying us the potential for creativity, the Internet and its ancillary technological innovations inaugurate the era of the post-original original; the idea, that is, that when each of us, independent of his/her innate talents, is free to bestow aura, the correlative concepts of the original and its mechanical reproduction will have to be consigned to the dustbin of history; for after all, Hegel teaches us that history is progressive and what arrives at the end is always the best of all possible world. But Hegel might have rethought his philosophy had he lived in the era of Nazism (only sixty years ago) where books were burned (1933) as a sort of art-event and performance, and eventually people too were burned. So, the crucial question that remains to be courageously confronted is this: Is what arrives at the end of an era necessarily the best? Another way to frame the question is: Is progress inevitable or is there such a thing as regression at the end of an historical process; is enhancement always improvement?  That question, try as one may, cannot be answered by mere science or mere art without the aid of philosophy. Philosophy, in turn, will not be able to answer it either if it conceives of itself as mere rationalism. Somehow a synthesis of rational reason and imagination is urgently needed in the brave new world in which we live and have our being.

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Sand2008-12-26 10:47:03
In his standard distortion of reality Paparella strikes again. In the altered Michelangelo portrayal of God's finger endowing life to Adam it is not Adam's middle finger raised, as Paparella claims, in contempt of God, but God's middle finger raised in disapproval of human misbehavior. Thus Paparella blatantly lies again to distort reality and destroy the meaning of a graphic symbol.

Alan2008-12-26 11:08:36
A lot of things to think about

Sand2008-12-26 11:28:32
In this instance I apologize to Paparella. The graphic he describes can be found at http://www.worth1000.com/entries/242000/242054GLOK_w.jpg But that image seems to show Adam with a knife blade upraised.

Apparently the Michelangelo image has been the source of many graphic comments.

The image I saw many years ago was a large poster duplicating the Michelangelo creation of Adam and (now as I remember it) God's thumb was extended downward as a comment on humanity.

rene davila2008-12-26 16:52:44
I don't think the act of defacing an original work of art is in itself a work of art. i agree with you that nowdays there is a rampant abysmal ignorance of the history and theories of art.

Sand2008-12-26 17:09:08
Art is a form of communication like writing and if defacing a work of art communicates something worth thinking about I, at least, accept it as art. Whether it can be judged as good or bad art is another matter.

Emanuel Paparella2008-12-26 17:25:15
True to form, the self-proclaimed Grand Inquisitor, defender and protector of misguided political correctness, has promptly jumped on his horse with sword drawn out shouting accusations and putting forth another argumentum ad hominem, the only one he seems to be familiar with in discussing an issue. All that is needed now is a conviction and a verdict accompanied by a few foul-mouthed insults. But, had he bothered to search more thoroughly he would have found the enhanced picture I alluded to and would not have had to proffer a pseudo-apology. I have repeatedly shown such a picture in to my students in class to discuss Davies insights on the digital revolution, showing a modified Michelangelo’s man giving the middle finger to God. Unfortunately his instant slash and burn and slander intellectual tactics do not allow for that much prudence. Those tactics include also the distracting from the essence of the issue at hand. While we discuss whether it is a knife or a finger or a sword, or whether it is man’s hand or God’s hand that has been enhanced, the crucial questions raised by an expert in digital art (Davies) and put on the table in the article are simply ignored, for clearly, the real purpose of the comment was never to search for the truth wherever it is found and wherever it leads, but to cast aspersion on anybody or anything that dares not conform and appease one’s mind-set. It is the way of the bully and the bigoted anti-religion fanatic that wields the pen as a sword of sort. It would be funny indeed, if it wasn’t so reprehensible. I make an easy prediction, this comment will promptly be followed by another one searching for the last word (the got you point) and exhibiting all the above mentioned characteristics valued as virtues of sort of which to be proud. For shame.

Emanuel Paparella2008-12-26 17:28:33
Errata: Davis, not Davies.

Emanuel Paparella2008-12-26 17:40:18
To Mr. Renee Davila: of course what those “enhancer” say is that they are not defacing an original, for the original is still there in the Sistine chapel protected by the Swiss guards ready to arrest defacers and barbarians and cultural Philistines with a hammer in hand, but they are enhancing an original and creating a better original. That is what they say overtly. What may be the hidden agenda, perhaps unbeknown to themselves too, is that by picking outstanding artists to enhance (Da Vinci, Michelangelo) they stand out too, if nothing else by shocking the viewer. Edouard Manet’s “Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe” had that initial effect on 19th century viewers but that was an original, not an enhancement. One would have to suspect an inferiority complex or sheer incompetence at work on the part of the modern “enhancers.” Why not create one’s own originals? One wonders how a Da Vinci or a Michelangelo would have enhanced modern abstract art with a computer had they been transposed to the 21st century. Food for speculation.

AP2008-12-26 18:09:16
"Edouard Manet’s “Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe” had that initial effect on 19th century viewers but that was an original, not an enhancement."
Wrong. Manet's "Le Dejeuner sur L'Herbe" was inspired by previous works by Titian and Raphael, who was inspired too: by an italian high relief with river tritons and nymphs.

Sand2008-12-26 18:15:19
Actually "defacing" is an incorrect term since the original remains untouched. In literature nobody complains if someone makes a caricature or a satire of a well known piece of writing. Why should a graphic satire be so offensive?

AP2008-12-26 18:17:17
Also inspired by Giorgione’s Concert Champêtre (Pastoral Symphony):

Emanuel Paparella2008-12-26 18:30:10
Yes, yes, Ms. Pereira, Giorgione, of course, but you see the lady in Giorgione was a goddess from Olympus, the lady in Manet was a common prostitute, or as they say today, a sex worker, or perhaps a fantasy of the two dirty old men (since Manet also painted one with the lady clothed), and therefore, you are comparing apples and oranges in your eagerness to simply prove your interlocutor wrong. That is what stirred all the fuss among the Victorian prim and proper bourgeosie, not the naked goddesses that had been around since the Renaissance.

Emanuel Paparella2008-12-26 18:38:16
P.S. At best one can say that the theme or the subject matter was enhanced or "modernized," or more outrageously "romanticized" (since it was the romantic era) but the content is new and original because sex workers had not been put into paintings till then.

AP2008-12-26 21:55:06
First of all, Ingres had painted the Odalisque already in 1814, not to mention for example some plates by Hogarth (1735,1747).
Second, here's Lena, a well known prostitute of those times as Mary, by Caravaggio (1605):
and a Madonna inspired by a prostitute too (Caravaggio, 1606):
Third, the mistress of Praxiteles was the model for the Venus of Knidos, and Simonetta, de Medici's mistress, was the model for Boticelli's Venus and Spring.
Then there's this article for you (ancient greek vases and representations of prostitutes):
The content was not new and original, it just didn't burn then. :)

AP2008-12-26 22:04:15
Of course, for a long time, as they could not be represented directly and as earthly beings, they were represented "disguised" and in deep connection with the divine (as they were considered more "physically perfect beings", serving as models).

AP2008-12-26 22:06:23
And the pleasures they would propitiate were considered divine too, of course.

Emanuel Paparella2008-12-26 23:29:20
That word "disguised" is operative here, for after all if one looks closely at Boticelli's Venus or Spring one can claim that they too were disguised Madonnas. Surely you know about the outrage by Victorian society, which pullulated with brothels, at a painting which dared show a prostitute with no disguise; not a repentant Mary Magdalene but a true to life prostitute. If you look into the face of the lady having lunch with the two clothed men, you will soon realize that this is no Mary Magdalene or Madonna for that matter, but a true to life prostitute. That is the mirror Manet put before that kind of society which of course revealed their hypocrisy. In more banal and superficial times, our times, it is the equivalent of the woman who challenged Hugh Hefner of Playboy fame, who surely is celebrating the Saturnalia at this time, to place his naked body in the centerfold of his magazine, since he was selling it as "art." As we know, the great artist Hugh Hefner declined the honor thus revealing his hypocrisy and real agenda.

AP2008-12-27 02:05:45
Well I never met a Madonna, so I don't know if they were disguised, but it seems that the prostitutes were real.

Sand2008-12-27 05:16:42
The concept that female beauty can only be acceptable in the form of goddesses is pointed evidence of the naive and raging hypocrisy of someone afraid of the basic instincts of his physiology. A woman is a woman and goddesses are just overblown idiocies of twisted minds. That a woman cannot be beautiful and attractive because she is a prostitute is a form of Victorian insanity.

Emanuel Paparella2008-12-27 13:40:35
Here we go: back to the only argument one knows: those ad hominem.

And of course a man can be attractive too, worthy of a David by Michelangelo despite the fact that he may be a pimp on the physical or intellectual level. Some, narcisistically inclined, have even taken credit for the natural beauty of their bodies as if they had created themselves. One is left to wonder why Hugh Hefner never picked up the challenge of the woman who feld degraded by the degradation of women in his magazine and, for art's sake, never put his own body in the centerfold of Playboy, he remains clothed like the two men in Manet painting or in Giorgione's for that matter.

Sand2008-12-27 16:22:15
Hefner made his reputation and fortune selling pictures of beautiful women. Perhaps he analyzed the market and decided men's bodies were not as profitable. There are many possibilities. But, Paparella, I'm sure there are plenty of beefcake magazines available if your taste runs that way.

Emanuel Paparella2008-12-27 18:35:01
Indeed, birds of a feather always admire each other's misguided views. No surprises there.

Sand2008-12-27 18:53:08
Well, Paparella, I assume you meant to say something. Children are more concise with:"Nyaah, Nyaah, Nyaah!"

Emanuel Paparella2008-12-27 19:07:34
Whatever you meant to say, it fits quite well with your previous slanderous insinuations. No surprised there either.

Sand2008-12-30 05:16:56
Another mere exercise of academic bile.

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