In “The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Recombination,” (2010), philosopher Joe de Mul examines the present-day relevance of Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” (1936).
|Jos de Mul|
de Mul’s goal is to analyze the way the computer interface constitutes and structures aesthetic experience. He believes that in the current age of digital recombination, the database is the work of art and that through this transformation of model, the exhibition value of the artwork is being replaced by manipulation value.
First, de Mul discusses Benjamin’s terminology, cult value and exhibition value. In his 1936 essay, Benjamin determines that cult value, which has survived in art for art’s sake, is being replaced by exhibition value. Mechanical reproductions, like photographs, function as copies or simulacra that no longer contain an aura or authenticity of presence in time and space. Auratic art possesses a cult value as its meaning is associated with its unique location in time and space. Along with the loss of aura, according to Benjamin, artworks lose their cult value. The shift to technologies of mechanical reproduction changes the availability of art and allows these images to be viewed by the masses. This, the exhibition value has emerged as more significant than cult value.
de Mul departs from Benjamin here to theorize that in a new age of digital recombination, artworks’ exhibition value is giving way to manipulation value. The databases of today’s technology allows for searches, organization, and reformatting, all types of manipulation which was not easily possible in Benjamin’s mechanical age. Because the number of recombinations of a database is almost infinite, de Mul argues that the work of art in the age of digital recombination brings about a return of the aura. He claims that the authenticity no longer resides in the history of a work but in its virtuality.
The thesis proposed by de Mul is plausible. Perhaps the aura of art does exist in these new media but is just not located where it has traditionally been found. Technology is changing and so is art, it cannot be denied. Along with art’s evolution so too must art history and ways of looking at art progress. In “Precepts for Digital Artwork,” author Sean Cubitt suggests that art is not what we see when we look at an object. Technology now requires that we acknowledge that art is the process of creation, a notion discussed by Marshall McLuhan in “The Medium is the Message,” (1964). To use Cubitt’s terminology, we can no longer see anything by looking at a processor. The work, and thus the value of art, is in the process, not the interface. Cubitt’s digital artwork theory corroborates Jean Beaudrillard’s thought that humans are constructing a reality of simulacra and, hence, losing a sense of true, physical reality. It certainly seems to be accurate, as we watch our lives move from our homes into the cyber realms of the internet. If art and the human experience are changing in such a drastic manner as de Mul and Cubitt suggest then it is essential that art history and ways of critiquing, thinking about, and looking at art transform as well. Otherwise our methods of comprehending art will be outmoded, and we will be unable to understand that which surrounds us.
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