The Digital Reproduction of Art

Benjamin’s article considers the effect of mechanical reproduction on paintings. Benjamin examines at length the relationship between original works and their reproductions, noting that “even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be” (Benjamin 220). Benjamin made this assessment in an analog age where computers as we know them today could be found only in science fiction, and as such grappled with the sole method of reproduction available at the time, mechanical. Humanity no longer resides in an analog era, however. The twin marches of time and technological progress have thrust humanity into a digital age and radically transformed the methods of reproduction available to society.

Benjamin asks the reader to consider the implications of mechanical reproduction of art, but due to the limits of the time in which he lived he is entirely unable to address the impact of digital reproduction. I found myself very curious as to how the existence of digital reproduction impacts Benjamin’s arguments. With modern software, many artists can and do create works of art using computers. Art created in such a manner is entirely digital, and stored within a computer file rather than a museum. Can such digital works of art be said to have a “unique existence”, or a particular “presence in time and space” (Benjamin 220)? If so, what do we consider that existence to be? It seems at first that the original file stored on the artist’s computer becomes the unique version of the work, but in fact another peculiarity of digital reproduction presents us with an obstacle to this line of thinking.

Should the original file be considered as the unique incarnation of a digital work, what should happen if the artist replicates the file? Works created digitally can be copied perfectly down to the very last pixel simply by copy + pasting a single file. Such a copy will be an exact match for the original down to the very last pixel. Mechanical reproduction can make a very accurate copy of a work of art, but cannot duplicate the original in this fashion. If a copy is an exact match for the original file, the unique existence of the original file is then called into question. Without the ability to designate a single incarnation of a digital work as unique due to it being the only version directly produced by the artist, can we apply Benjamin’s understanding of “presence in time and space” to digital reproduction?

CITATIONS

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Edited by Hannah Arendt. Translated by Harry Zohn. New York: Schoken Books, 1968.

Image taken from Wikimedia Commons. Uploaded by user PMATAS on 3 January 2013.

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One thought on “The Digital Reproduction of Art

  1. You raise some really great issues and ask some important questions in this post, John. In terms of what the way digital reproduction confronts us with the absence of an original, I think Benjamin might argue that there are, in fact, analog precursors to this. For instance, while there is most definitely an original piece of art when we are dealing with the mechanical reproduction of a painting, this is not really true of work in other mediums such as print or film (not to mention the notoriously fugitive medium of music).

    It’s interesting to think about the various reasons why first editions of certain novels become extremely valuable. Certainly questions of taste, authorship and canon formation enter into this, but if one were to apply Benjamin to this phenomenon, one might argue that first editions are valuable, in part, because they reflect the print equivalent of an ‘original’, and are thus the likeliest to still bear the marks of the author — e.g., errata that slipped past the editors or that were the result of a typesetting mistake, and that are usually corrected in subsequent print runs.

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