The survival of Art in an image-saturated era
The advent of Photography and Film undoubtedly changed our perception of Art forever. What was once static representation, secluded within the walls of the museum, became motion and action in front of the eyes of TV and cinema´s massive audiences. At the time, art theorists had heated arguments about the prospect of classing film among the Arts. Now that nobody doubts the artistic nature of cinematography any longer, we face new dilemmas.
When virtually anybody with a working computer and a basic camera can make a film and put it up online for the world to see; the line between the ramblings of the hobbyist and the work of the artist has become increasingly blurry, and Walter Benjamin´s (1936: 243) idea of the public as an “absent-minded examiner” might be becoming a more patent reality than ever before. By exploring the evolution of visual art theories over the last century, this paper proposes to find out whether we can still speak of such a line, and what that entails for our modern notion of Art in relation to the media.
Henry Moore sculpture on the site of his former home in Perry Green
The mechanical reproduction revolution
As early as 1896, the renowned French philosopher Henri Bergson theorized about the concept of perception, by identifying it with the idea of images, as the inherent nature of everything that we perceive (Bergson, 1911: p.7). Later on, when the projection of moving images became a common practice, he would identify human perception with the mechanism of cinematography:
“Such is the contrivance of the cinematograph. And such is also that of our knowledge. Instead of attaching ourselves to the inner becoming of things, we place ourselves outside them in order to recompose their becoming artificially. We take snapshots, as it were, of the passing reality....We may therefore sum up...that the mechanism of our ordinary knowledge is of a cinematographical kind (Bergson, 1911: p.332)
While others were starting to accuse photography and film of destroying Art, Bergson was finding it parallel to the higher forms of human consciousness. It follows that acquiescing to Bergson´s ideas would mean that, as an art with mechanisms akin to those of human perception, cinematography would be in an ideal position to convey a representation of the human experience.
Walter Benjamin agreed with Bergson that the past was perceived in the form of images, but he disagreed with him in that he believed that it was capable of existing in the absence of representation (Meek, 2007). Bergson´s over-simplification in this respect would, in fact, soon become obsolete, notably through the advances of psychology and neurological studies.
Almost 30 years after Bergson published his theories on matter and memory, when Benjamin, a Jewish-German philosopher, wrote his groundbreaking manifest "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," many things had changed in the world. Films had become extremely popular, and newspapers and magazines were democratising writing in much the same way as Youtube and the like are democratising filmmaking today:
“the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character. The difference becomes merely functional; it may vary from case to case. At any moment the reader is ready to turn into a writer.” (Bergson, 1936: p.234 )
Of course, at the time, it was yet unthinkable that one day the same thing would happen with filmmakers and their audiences. Both photography and film were then relatively new disciplines, accessible to a limited number of individuals.
Angelus Novus by Paul Klee
Benjamin chose not to take the easy path of accusing Film and Photography of destroying true art. On the contrary, what he did was attempt at the creation of a new philosophical framework to adapt to the new media. Some of his contemporaries were not of the same mind, notably Duhamel, whose writings Benjamin extensively quoted.
When he first expressed them, Duhamel´s negative views on film may have seemed exaggerated. However, in the age of the Become-a-Star type shows such as American Idol and Dancing with the Stars, his views on film as a futile occupation for ignorants acquires new validity, when applied to the bulk of modern Television:
“a pastime for helots, a diversion for uneducated, wretched, worn-out creatures who are consumed by their worries, a spectacle which requires no concentration and presupposes no intelligence which kindles no light in the heart and awakens no hope other than the ridiculous one of someday becoming a ‘star’ in Los Angeles.” (Duhamel 1930, cited in Benjamin, 1936: p. 241)
After all, the most popular TV shows today are the ones that promise a chance at stardom. On the other hand, if we were to look at Duhamel´s idea of film from a Marxist point of view, the speed and invasion of images present in film might become a parallel to the “opium of the people” Marx (1843) found religion to be:
“I can no longer think what I want to think. My thoughts have been replaced by moving images.” (Duhamel 1930, cited in Benjamin, 1936: p.241)
From an Orwellian point of view, the same statement could be compared to the effect of the disintegration and loss of meaning of the English language during the first half of the XIXth century (Orwell, 1946: p.252-265). Much as Orwell might have said that people´s thoughts were being replaced by meaningless words, Duhamel rebelled against what he believed to be images rendered meaningless by the lack of time to process them.
Focusing more on the content, rather than the form, of the popular films of her time, in her feminist approach, Laura Mulvey contested the complaisant attitude of film towards its voyeuristic audiences:
“Playing on the tension between film as controlling the dimension of time (editing, narrative) and film as controlling the dimension of space (changes in distance, editing), cinematic codes create a gaze, a world, and an object, thereby producing an illusion of desire. It is these cinematic codes and their relationship to formative external structures that must be broken down before mainstream film and the pleasure it provides can be challenged.” (Mulvey, 1975: p.18)
In a way, in Mulvey´s vision, cinema, with the manipulation of camera movements and montage, not only turns us into the passive viewers of Duhanel, it also tells us what to desire, and quite persuasively, for that matter. While Mulvey is mainly referring to the female object and its cinematic representation, we could apply her ideas to both sexes. As opposed to art before the era of film, the new medium has surely pushed the boundaries of the voyeuristic qualities of traditional visual arts.
When Benjamin wrote his seminal essay, it was too early to address content, as philosophers and common people alike were still at pains trying to understand the medium. In fact, he argued that much worthless debate had been wasted pondering about the question of whether photography was an art, while nobody was asking what he thought to be the central question: whether photography had not “transformed the entire nature of art,” (Benjamin, 1936: p.229). His work succeeded in raising the right questions about both the transformation of art by photography and the transformation of art by film, which he perceived to be an infinitely more complex issue (Benjamin, 1936: p.229).
Benjamin´s conclusion about these transformations, though not as pessimistic as Duhamel´s–or Orwell´s for that matter–has an aura of gloom; to use a favorite word of his:
“The film makes the cult value recede into the background not only by putting the public in the position of the critic, but also by the fact that at the movies this position requires no attention. The public is an examiner, but an absent-minded one.” (Benjamin, 1936: p. 243)
The political power of audiovisual media
It is partly this absent-mindedness of audiences, as seen by Benjamin, which allows for the political power of the media. Benjamin traces the political role of film and photography back to the invalidation of the concept of authenticity:
“the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice—politics,” (Benjamin, 1936: p.226)
These oppositions between ritual and politics, between the aura of physical presence and the coldness of the mechanical replica, are part of what makes Benjamin´s work unique. Even when discussing the political nature of the new media, he is dealing in the realm of the spiritual, and he wants us to give art what he believes to be its truly spiritual value.
Many years after him, when the relation between politics and the media was already well established, Eduardo Cardava made a rather un-spiritual assertion on the matter, which has often been viewed as a sweeping statement:
"Politics and history are now to be understood as secondary derivative forms of telecommunications." (Cardava, 1997: p. xxiii)
However controversial the idea may seem, the decisive role played by the media during the Iraq war, and its prefiguring events, has shed new light on these matters. If we think of the atrocities of Abu Ghraib, and how dramatically the media reports on them influenced the decisions of world leaders; or if we shift our attention to the many messages attributed to Osama Bin Laden that circulated on the Internet since the conflict started, we can conclude that today, much like in Orwell´s Nineteen Eighty Four, he who controls telecommunications, controls politics.
Moreover, it is the possibility to assemble new “realities” by rearranging the sequences of images in montage, which Sergei Eisenstein (1942) first theorised about (extensively analysing its political significance), that gives control, in the sense that the appearance of reality of film and TV has surpassed what could have ever been possible with paintings, the written word, or even photography. When one looks at Picasso´s Guernica, one gets a profound impression of the atrocities of the war, as seen by the artist. With film and editing, one could take the same images of that very war and edit them in different ways which could potentially accuse both bands of being guilty of the war crimes. With a painting, the public would immediately be aware of the artist´s subjectivity, with moving images, the appearance of reality is so powerful, that, many times, seeing is believing. Such is the power and the danger of the cinematographic medium.
Should we focus on the more artistic type of moving images, namely, feature films; the film by Michael Winterbottom “The Road to Guantanamo Bay” (about the American government´s human rights violations in their Cuban-territory prison camp) must have had some degree of influence over world politics and the so-called war on terrorism. The same can be said of the films of Michael Moore, with their best-selling hardcore criticism of the Bush administration.
Interestingly enough, the more remarkable phenomenon related to the evolution of the political power of the media has nothing to do with blockbusters and award-winning films by recognised directors. I am referring to the films with strong political content put together by amateurs and uploaded on the Internet that have achieved millions of viewers all over the world. We are talking here about Benjamin´s readers who are becoming writers, spectators who are becoming producers and performers.
The empowering of the individual by means of the popularisation of digital media and the Internet is something that can´t be underestimated. A film like “Loose change,” a home-made movie, with its persuasive conspiracy theories about 9/11, not only got millions of viewers, it also made a fortune, and influenced the political views of people around the world.
We have come a long way since Benjamin´s times. Long after he published his diatribe on the dramatic effects of mechanical reproduction on Art, media philosophy guru Marshall MacLuhan went much further in his affirmation that not only was art being transformed, but that the content or message of any form of communication was not as essential as the medium used in that communication:
“Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication.” (MACLUHAN, 1967: p.8)
In fact, MacLuhan´s views coincide with Benjamin, in the sense that they both attribute a great deal of political significance to the media of reference, mechanical reproduction in Benjamin´s case, and both mechanical and digital reproduction in MacLuhan´s.
What the digital era has done to art is perfectly describable by the parameters used by Benjamin to discuss what photography and film were causing in his time. At the same time, we have gained the freedom to express our opinions and our visions and share them with the global world with just one click; but we could also say that the aura of the artwork, as Benjamin (1936: p. 229) put it, is being lost.
If we think that Benjamin worried about the loss of solemnity of watching films as opposed to looking at a painting; imagine what he might think of people watching feature films on a little square on a computer screen, sometimes with poor quality, and combining the activity with a chat, scrolling through Facebook, etc.
Now, we can look back at the times when films belonged in movie theatres, as at a time of reverence for the film as a work of art, much in the same way as Benjamin looked at the reverence for paintings that reigned up to the XIXth century.
The philosophical question that ensues is whether Art, as we know it today, will survive the trivialisation of digital media and the Internet. The question of speed as mentioned by Benjamin when he quoted Duhamel in his essay is also essential here. With so many feeds, videos, online books, poems, digital artworks, will anybody continue to have the time to weed out things that have no value as art, in order to select what is really worth our attention?
My personal view of technological advances is quite pessimistic sometimes. I believe that the alienation that excess information and stimuli are causing in today´s worldwide consumers of artistic products and their derivations is perhaps a greater evil than the quality of the art (or non-art) itself.
There is a beautiful passage by Benjamin, wonderfully translated by Harry Zohn, which he wrote –fittingly–regarding an example of traditional form of art, a painting by Paul Klee, which he owned for twenty years. I believe it very well sums up my ideas on the matters of art´s transformation in the face of progress:
‘There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. It shows an angel who seems about to move away from something he stares at. His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how the angel of history must look. His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees on single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise and has got caught in his wings; it is so strong that the angel can no longer close them. This storm drives him irresistibly into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. What we call progress is this storm. ’ (Benjamin, 1942: p.392)
The author's website is:
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