Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction poses to the reader interesting ideas about how a work of art can be manipulated and changed through issues such as reproduction, distribution and audience.
Benjamin attributes to these artworks an ‘aura’ stating that “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art” (p. 223). The implication here is that as the mechanical reproduction of art increases, the aura, the authenticity of art will decrease and perhaps even disappear.
Technology has advanced a great deal since the article was published in the 1930s. The invention of digital technology poses a particularly interesting question in regards to Benjamin’s theories surrounding the authenticity of the work being largely attributed to the ability to trace a reproduction to an original artwork. In the age of digital artwork, for example, digital photography, one could argue that no original exists. While there is a copy of a photo on a camera which can be transferred onto a computer or USB, who can say which is the original? Film photography has an original, tangible artefact in the negative which is produced when the photo is taken.
According to Benjamin, would digital art thus be deemed void or unauthentic due to the lack of an original, tangible source for much of the content that is used? Do these new artworks lack in the aura that traditional artworks like the Mona Lisa were so abundant in?
Perhaps in the time of Benjamin, the mechanical reproduction of an artwork would indeed cause it to lose some of the aura that was attached to it. However, in the age of digital technology, one must concede that the nature of art is rapidly changing and no longer incorporates only the tangible, but the digital as well. While there may not be an original artwork as there once was, the legitimacy of this type of art and the artists who create it cannot be undermined or dismissed.
Benjamin, W., 1973 ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Illuminations, London: Fontana 1973: 219-53.