Walter Benjamin’s essay sparked varying opinions in our café discussion group this week. While the three of us agreed that Benjamin makes valid points in regards to the reproduction of art, Ben and Rochi clashed in opinion, as the former saw only positive light with the phenomenon while the latter saw the negative. Réka was in between the two, regarding the reproduction of art serving both sides equally. Thus, we concluded our opinions as follows:
For Ben’s opinion, he takes on that the reproduction of art is actually a positive contribution to culture. He thinks that the globalization of cultures can increase cultural sensitivity and awareness, with art or visual culture being a large factor. During a class freshman year, he took a course with professor Laura Desmond titled “Religion and Visual Culture,” where they discussed Benjamin at great length, and Ben affirms that although different cultures may not fully understand contextualized meanings of all art, visual representations will ALWAYS be a part of culture and art was meant to be viewed, regardless of the viewer. He draws on the example of Tibetan Prayer flags, an object largely regarded as symbolic of the culture. Prayer flags were originally hand sewn and hand printed, but with modern textiles and printing, these flags are mass-produced.
From mountain climbers to students, people use the prayer flags to represent different meanings, such as peace, equality, hope, or good fortune. Even though the flags have a religious or cultural significance, the mechanical reproduction of art allows people to attach their own meanings to forms of art while still appreciating the culture, and perhaps even learning at the same time.
Rochi believes that with the mechanical reproduction of art, the meaning of the work of art changes a great deal. While some may argue that it makes the work of art more available to the public and therefore increases its value, I believe that more often than not this distorts and depreciates the value of the piece of art. Walter Benjamin writes that “…work of art has its basis in ritual.” This is very true when it comes to the images of the Buddha. The very first images were created with a lot of respect and belief in Buddhist philosophy. However with the age of mechanical reproduction has come the popularization of the image of the Buddha. Especially in the Western world the statue of the Buddha has become just a decoration that is put up next to every yoga studio and spa. It has come to be associated with words such as “Zen” and “Nirvana.” Bars and clubs have massive statues of the Buddha amongst countless bottles of alcohol. Mechanical reproduction has indeed, freed the image of the Buddha from its dependence on ritual. However, in Asia and other parts of the world that are more aware of Buddhist philosophy this “emancipation of the work of art” is viewed as the depreciation of the value of the statue, and all that it stands for. Thus the statue of the Buddha is received and valued on different planes in different parts of the world. There is more of a cult value to the Buddha statue in Asia while in the West and other parts of the globe where Buddhism is not widespread it has a largely exhibitional value. Especially in the case of religious art this depreciation of value is not only disrespectful to a group of people, but also endangers the integrity of the religion as well.
Réka was decidedly on the fence regarding Benjamin’s argument regarding the mechanical reproduction of art. While both Ben and Rochi’s arguments are strong, Réka concluded that the reproductions of art are both positive and negative all at once. This idea adheres to the globalization of cultures around the world, in which music, paintings, and other forms of art become readily accessible to the human eye.
Consider Van Gogh’s masterpiece, The Starry Night. Arguably one of his most famous paintings, the painting is located in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The painting has since been reproduced for the masses—one can find the image on posters at the Brewer Bookstore, on the background image on a phone, and even as pop art on the street. While this generates mass appeal and, moreover, financial success, it diminishes its ORIGINAL intent, i.e. an artistic impression of a nocturnal sky in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France. Rather, people have internalized the painting’s visual imagery and have reappropriated meaning according to their age, time in which they live, culture, and so forth. Thus, on one side of the argument, not so much the value has been lost as its previously intended message. On the other hand, the painting’s intrinsic meaning will lose face as the world becomes increasingly interconnected. In this regard, Réka affirms Rochi’s argument. All in all, the masterpiece will continue to represent a beautiful and artistically skilled artwork by Van Gogh. It is the meanings that come along with the painting that will be shaped by today’s globalization of cultures. Whether one views this in positive or negative light will vary, as we concluded in our café discussion group, by the individual.
(images retrieved from www.lonelyplanet.com; www.guardian.co.uk; www.moma.org)