The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction

I’ve decided I’m going to try to blog at least once a week about something (hopefully relevant to subscribed readers) even if it isn’t strictly about metal. Blogging is probably somewhat like playing an instrument: less frequent but high quality practice is better than lots of low quality, but you still have to practice with some regularity if you want to maintain a certain quality!

Walter Benjamin was a famous cultural/critical theorist in the early 20th century. One of his most well-known works was called “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” and was published in 1936. I thought I was being clever with my altered title until I just googled it and found that Douglas Davis had already discovered this title in the early ’90’s.

The essay begins by tracing how mechanical reproduction has changed art due to ease and availability of these tools. In ancient times, a work of art took a lot of time and skill to produce and reproduce. Even with books it was clear what the original was and what the copies were, because they had to be copied by hand.

This distinction blurred as reproductions became closer to perfect, but he points out that the original still had some special status by nature of its physical presence in space and time. I’d add at this point that as a society we value the “original copy” even if we haven’t thought through why we do this or if this is even a desirable or reasonable thing to do. For example, we value first edition printings of books and original album pressings higher than subsequent printings or pressings. The artistic content is obviously unchanged, but these “originals” have special status.

Benjamin then moves on to a discussion of the original having an “aura” about it. I’ll skip that discussion, since it isn’t really relevant to the rest of this post. The last bit in the essay I want to bring up is his discussion of exhibition. The exhibition of art used to be much more special. A limited number of people could view a work of art for a limited amount of time. The notion of an “original copy” is particularly problematic for photography, but at least through exhibition there could be an original that had some semblance of specialness.

This problem becomes even harder in the digital age where a struggling musician or writer puts out a digital copy of their work as the only copy. There are no editions or exhibitions in this case to count as a special original. This brings me to the publicity stunt I wanted to talk about. This has been circling standard news outlets, but I haven’t actually seen it come across any metal blogs, so I’m not sure how well-known it is to my readers.

The Wu-Tang Clan has decided to release an album that will only have one copy. In light of the above discussion, the album will have exhibitions all over the world. It will tour so that people can listen to it. They will not be performing it live, but rather people will sit in a room and it will play through once sort of like going to a museum to see an exhibit. The album will then be auctioned off. That one person will own it just like works of art that only have one original are owned by one person.

Is this just a publicity stunt? Maybe, but they really are hitting on the exact issues that Benjamin brought up. That essay has all but disappeared from public conversation, so part of the artistic content of this album is to get us to talk about these types of issues.

Since this is a blog, I guess I’ll give my opinion on the whole thing now. I personally think it is kind of silly. In the age of digital reproduction there seems to be a lot of really important artistic issues like piracy, leaking, pricing, models of distribution, the role of live shows, and lots more. Trying to preserve a notion of an original copy seems kind of low in importance and basically useless. Getting people to talk about the issue is an interesting academic exercise, but it doesn’t seem to go very far. That’s why it seems more like a publicity stunt than a real statement of anything to me.

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2 thoughts on “The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction

  1. david says:

    Thanks for bringing this essay to my attention. It is very interesting and I am still pondering upon its implications. Trying to relate it to works of music may be kind of tricky as photography and music are not exactly the same. Also, both photography AND music recording have come a long way since this essay was written. The idea of aura is and the uniqueness of experiencing a visage in person or a live music performance does seem to be unique and beyond any practical reproduction at this point.

    • hilbertthm90 says:

      Thanks for the reply. I was worried no one would care about non-metal topics. I’m glad you got something from it.

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