Participant Review: Alexandra Hammond (MFA AP15)
AP Participant Review is a new feature of the AP Blog. It is an ongoing archive of selected work produced by the AP Participants drawn from their online courses. Each week faculty members select a work (from a production course) or a post (from a criticism course) and ask the student to re-edit it for the blog.
Alexandra Hammond wrote the following entry for the session on Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” for Thyrza Goodeve’s “Foundations of Criticism” course. As this essay is assigned again and again in graduate programs, it is of particular interest how the meaning of the essay changes with each reading. Here Alex discusses the difference between her first reading of the essay and her reading for the AP course. She ties her reactions to the very concept of “aura” that is so crucial to Benjamin’s argument. She also discusses Benjamin’s "On Hashish in Marseilles" which was also assigned.
The “pearl diving” reference with which she begins refers to Hannah Arendt’s outstanding description of Walter Benjamin in her introduction to Illuminations:
Like a pearl diver who descends to the bottom of the sea, not to excavate the bottom and bring it to light but to pry loose the rich and the strange, the pearls and the coral in the depths, and to carry them to the surface, this thinking delves into the depths of the past – but not in order to resuscitate it the way [it] sic was and contribute to the renewal of extinct ages. What guides this thinking is the conviction that although the living is subject to the ruin of the time, the process of decay is at the same time a process of crystallization, that in the depth of the sea, into which it sinks and is dissolved what once was alive, some things ‘suffer a sea-change’ and survive in new crystallized forms and shapes that remain immune to the elements, as though they waited only for the pearl diver who one day will come down to them and bring them up into the world of the living (…).
I guess it is because of the pearl-diving, cross-disciplinary nature of Benjamin’s writing that there is SO much contained within it. I’ve read The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction a few times, but this time around, I’m finding newly personalized gems. For instance, does the aura of an inherently reproducible form of art (such as a text) reside then, in the reader? Clearly it is my location in time and space, e.g., my state of mind at this very moment that brings me to this renewed experience of the essay. In other words, this particular reading is inspired by my location now, in the present—an entirely ephemeral and irreproducible moment.
I’m thinking so much about our “Autobiography of Place” course in relation to reading “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” again, for a second time. The whole premise of the Autobiography class has to do with “aura,” the unique presence of a work and its creator, in time and space. And yet, it is an online course, so we are seeing only reproductions of works, and yet we’re trying to gain insight and the ability to describe their “aura” in some way. This week we’ve been hearing about performance art, and performance is certainly almost all aura. It’s about the experience of a work, which may or may not be reproduced or represented through video or photographic documentation. There may be physical objects that remain after the performance, or there may not be. So it is the aura of the performance, its unique occurrence in time and space that comprises its “artness.”
In the past I have read Benjamin’s essay as more of a condemnation of our age of mechanical (now digital) reproduction. I also had trouble understanding what the big deal about the aura was, since there were many works that I had seen and come to love first in reproduction, and then been almost disappointed by viewing in the flesh. It’s like developing a minor crush on a friend of a friend on Facebook and then meeting him at a party and realizing he’s not so cute in person.
But in my current reading, the essay is not so much about let down, but about the creation of new possibilities. The analogy about the surgeon / cameraman and painter / magician is so rich. (It also reminds me of the quote from Lautréamont: “He was as beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella.”) The cameraman’s “thorough going permeation of reality with mechanical equipment” is expansive to consciousness, not just documentary. It offers us contemporary folks “an aspect of reality that is free of all equipment,” e.g. a space of thought and perception that extends beyond our current bodily and technological confines of reality.
Related to this is the reproduction’s ability to meet the viewer where she is. I remember scenes in the film version of Ways of Seeing where kids’s drawings hang on the wall of the house alongside reproductions of paintings from the old masters. This is the utopic aspect of the postmodern condition: Josef Beuys’s,
My objects are to be seen as stimulants for the transformation of the idea of sculpture.. ..or of art in general. They should provoke thoughts about what sculpture can be and how the concept of sculpting can be extended to the invisible materials used by everyone. THINKING FORMS – how we mold our thoughts or SPOKEN FORMS – how we shape our thoughts into words or SOCIAL SCULPTURE – how we mold and shape the world in which we live: SCULPTURE AS AN EVOLUTIONARY PROCESS; EVERYONE AN ARTIST. (1979) (Introduction, as quoted in Energy Plan for the Western Man - Joseph Beuys in America, compiled by Carin Kuoni, New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1993, p. 19 )
Or, the notion of the empowerment of ordinary people by their ideas, voice and agency in a democratic society. The Internet provides artists with this vast orchard of digital media and artistic reproductions that we can forage through, pick, and remix into our own recipes. In some ways, reproductions are now our media and inspiration, whether we are directly appropriating, or just riffing.
And then I think of the rise of installation art as a strategy to reinstate the aura. Though an installation can be documented through video and photography, it is tied to the architecture where it is installed. The work is experienced by viewers as biological beings moving, observing and participating in time and space. Unlike a painting or a sculpture, which can more or less be documented photographically, and consumed visually, Installation art is meant to be inhabited by the viewer/participant. It rebels against reproduction.
As capitalist enterprises have been appropriating the methods of art since the Industrial Revolution, and corporations, too, feel the dustiness and impotence of the faded brand and typical ad campaign, they take up the surprise tactics of performance art and installation: planning flash-mobs, planting new technologies in the hands of human “early adopters” and offering fully-branded experiences in retail locations and points (both physical and virtual) where customers “interact” with their brands.
This was my first reading of Benjamin on Chaplin. It is so typical of Benjamin’s prescience that he describes Charlie Chaplin as a “walking trademark, just like the company trademark.” He is describing our present state of celebrity worship or the realm of the “personal brand,” where each of us might successfully communicate our essential characteristics, goals and beliefs within the few smooth lines of an “elevator pitch.” Everyone[ is] an artist turns to Everyone is an entrepreneur.
Benjamin’s description of getting stoned in Marseilles is sensitive and anti-spectacle. I found this bit of reading extremely pleasurable. It was delightful to think of this scholar taking himself on a well-considered nocturnal adventure. His attentiveness and care allowed him to think wildly and describe his experience with a lushness that makes the reader feel high. This is the opposite journey of the callous and thrill-seeking partier. Benjamin’s is an introspective, personal party, a date with one’s own brain.
…Suddenly, the amorous joy dispensed by the contemplation of some fringes blown by the wind had convinced me that the hashish had begun its work. And when I recall this state, I would like to believe that hashish persuades our nature to permit us – for less egoistic purposes – that squandering of our own existence that we know in love. For if, when we love, our existence runs through Nature’s fingers like golden coins that she cannot hold and lets fall so that they can thus purchase new birth, she now throws us, without hoping or expecting anything, in ample handfuls toward existence. (Benjamin, p. 678)
Somehow this links up with the transformative power of art in the face of war, spectacle, and multinational capital. Each technological advance, each new “arm for the eye” (google glass!) has enabled expansions of perception and consciousness, as well as new ways to control people and sell commodities. In the same way, drugs of all kinds can be used either for numbing or for enlightenment. I’m thinking of the current touristic craze for Ayahuasca and a renewed interest in psychedelia a few decades after the rise of prescription antidepressants and Ritalin. As shallow and trendy as these collective interests often are, they are also scraps of history that can be mined later.
We will be reading parts of Avital Ronell’s Crack Wars: Literature, Mania, and Schizophrenia later in the course.
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