This a response to the video Ways of Seeing by John Berger, which is itself inspired by the essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction by philosopher Walter Benjamin.
Artwork – images and objects tied to place and general context. As a familiar smell, feeling or sound might signal and signify a particular context, (original) works are the signifiers of the context out of which they are born. Copies are also signifiers of their own context, but this is mostly hidden from view, as copies are often presented in the same light as originals – when an artwork is set up to be copied the context is omitted; we don’t want to see the oil painting under bright lights in a studio, we just want to see the painting, or as much of it as possible, which means as little as possible evidence of context, as little as possible evidence that it is in fact a copy, and not an original itself.
This veiling of original context is aided by technology while simultaneously leaving its own footprint – typewriters, printing presses and computers all remove evidence of the hand of the creator. On the face of it, such copies could come from anywhere and from any time, because the word (or image) in its homogenised form bears no resemblance to the mark of the author, and instead displays evidence of the machine or technique that produced it. Instead of strictly referencing the author, any text published in the Times New Roman font also becomes a reference to Stanley Morison and Victor Lardent; the creators of that typeface.
As an artwork passes from original to copy status, the shift in context leaves its mark.
Graffiti on canvas, although it may be original, is really just an example of transplanting an idea into an alien context. The form has remained the same – it is still spray-painted letters in a particular style, but it is no longer tied to the immobile and illegal world of the outdoor, on-the-run artist. By severing the link between the context and the artwork, or as in this case, by attempting to graft the whole genre onto a new context, the origins and meaning are lost in translation.
Everything becomes bastardised in some way by experiencing it in your own preferred and habitual context, which is often at home and on your computer. This is domestication in brief: rounding up untamed elements and bringing them into the home for the pleasure of convenient experiences. The desire to make art that fits inside gallery walls, music studios and television channels, only serves to benefit those particular structures and the people hiding behind their favourite and most profitable contexts. Instead of a bio-diverse art community, we have work that is invested in and created simply to fit into the moulds that may accommodate them with open wallets. Instead of artists that produce work that is true to its own, and to their own specific context, we have work whose origins are hidden, whose would-be destiny is the featureless and naked gallery wall, the tv, cinema or computer screen. Artists are willingly giving up identity and context to the demands of technology and consumerism.
Each musical style is embedded not just in time but place as well, despite music being a non-physical medium. There is something uniquely bizarre about listening to hip hop at home in your bedroom when you live in Finland. This couldn’t have happened without the physical act of mechanically copying music onto disks, and without the removal of a whole culture from its context. The role of technology in creating convenience in its many forms is at the heart of the worldwide spread of ideas, art and imagery. If everything had to be experienced in its rightful place; in its birthplace, then it would severely limit what would be shared, and by whom. In a sense, experience itself is the unshareable artwork: we can only gaze upon the aftermath through art-produce and its reproductions.
If you believe that everything can, and should be shared for reasons of equality, then you consequently endorse the continuation and spread of domestication, because to make everything equally available ultimately means to make it effortless and contextless, and thus meaningless. By turning Mount Everest into a guided tour, it stops becoming the feat it once was; it is de-feated. Accessibility for all, while on the surface appears like a noble ideal, is actually counterproductive, and seems to spring from the philosophy that all hard work should be replaced by convenience at our earliest convenience.
I experience other people’s art as if I don’t understand it, i.e. as alien and as incomprehensible as it really is. My reactions are mostly gut reactions and a projection of my own ideas: I cannot ultimately see the world without my own biases or perspective, and so instead of understanding we must satisfy ourselves with the feeling of having understood, or at the very least, the idea that we tried. The work exists as it is, but there is no perspective-less perspective from which to view it. Restoring context goes some way to remedying this problem, but cannot overcome it completely.
Misunderstanding is the basis for many a creation, and could be seen as a form of memetic mutation. By failing to re-create the original meaning or context we veer off in a new direction, using religious icons as placemats, and wartime propaganda as wall hangings.
Just as objects signify contexts, images themselves become symbols of particular ideas and associated, inferred contexts and characteristics. It is these implicit associations that advertising uses to hijack our experiences. Products themselves come to signify desirable contexts and experiences as they are consistently shown to us in unison, and certain colours, shapes or fonts come to signify brand markings.
If reproduction destroys original meaning and gives rise to multiple interpretations, then we could say that copying processes delete objectivity and replace it with infinite subjectivity. But if context is also time-specific, then by virtue of them being old, we can never experience the true meaning of an artwork, even if it hangs in its right place. It’s not that reproduction in the mechanical sense destroys meaning, but it is reproduction from one mind to another where meaning is lost, irrespective of spacial and temporal context. Mechanical reproduction simply aided this realisation. This becomes immediately evident when you publicly display your work. No amount of showing it in the context of your studio, or wherever else you created it will help change the fact that the meaning people derive from the work is a product of the work itself and their own minds. Since there cannot be an experience without one or the other it becomes the destiny of any idea or artwork to be misunderstood, misinterpreted and remixed, both purposefully and accidentally.
Meaning, if any is present in an artwork, is only ever loosely attached, in the experiential sense – there is no universal, transmittable meaning (no universally convincing arguments).