Sunday, March 20, 2011

Lost In Translation... Reflections on an e-card...OR... The Christmas Card in the age of Mechancial Reproduction

I received an electronic christmas card (back in December). The e-card I received showed a horse drawn sleigh full of Christmas presents being drawn down the street of a (presumably) olde-english townscape, while snowflakes fell and a traditional Christmas carol (the holly and the ivy) played in the background.

As I watched, I had a strong emotional response to it...which was, I felt deeply how absurd it was. I hadn’t felt this way about an e-card before. This is not a put-down of the person who sent it to me. Everyone sends e-cards these days, and up until today I had never considered them absurd. They’re not as nice as a traditional card, I supposed... but hey, it’s the thought that counts.

The sense of the absurdity that I felt was no doubt due to some readings I have done in the past few years... readings in “art theory”. The first one that comes to mind is Walter Benjamin’s well known essay from 1936, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. In this essay Benjamin discusses how, with the advent of photographic reproduction of art, that the work of art thus reproduced loses it’s aura, and it’s authority. Aura and authority are derived from it’s singularity and uniqueness of the object, and both of these qualities are lost in reproduction.

Benjamin goes on to consider the implications of this shift away from the original to a copy. Being a Marxist type of social critic, he seems intrigued by the “democratization” of the image... of how reproduction allows it to been consumed by “the masses”... and of the loss of the singular authority of the artist and art object. Etc, etc. His conclusions are less interesting at this point than the observation about loss of aura and authority.

The other reading I had done was this book that I am just reading now, called “The End of Art”, by this art critic Donald Kuspit. In this book, he argues that art has entered a phase that he refers to as post-art. He sees contemporary art as no longer being concerned with any of the issues that previous art (both modern art and more traditional art) had been occupied with. He traces the nature of this shift from Duchamp to the present day.

Part of his argument involves the aforementioned democratization of art that occurs due to photographic reproduction. The stripping away of the aura and authority of the original is consistent (in his view) with other factors that had been delivering art to the masses in order to legitimize it. He sees art as having lost it’s authority in general, due to conceptual attacks on it by (originally) Duchamp, and later by conceptual artists starting in the 1960s. Having lost it’s authority as a meaningful individual experience, the art object is forced to be “relevant” in some social or political way.

The issue of mechanical reproduction of art comes up all the time in readings on art, and they always cite Benjamin’s original essay. Having come upon this issue times in readings, I have thought about it a lot, and was convinced of the truth of it. However, I have never had a strong, visceral reaction against photographic reproduction. Sure, I’ve had moments where I was aware of the disconnect between the original and the copy, but I’ve never had the break-through moment of deep realization of what it truly means to rob something of it’s aura, originality, and uniqueness.

Perhaps it’s because I was raised in a culture of mechanical reproduction, and an age of technology. I am not at the plugged-in level of today's youth.. not by a long shot. But still, things like television shows, commercials, billboards, magazines, digital photography, internet, computer graphics, and art history books filled with little tiny pictures... these all seem normal and above suspicion to me. As did e-cards.. until today.

As I watched the e-card dance across the screen, I was struck (as I said) with the absurdity. It is not absurd in terms of what it is, but in what it pretends to be. It pretends to be the original. But it is not an actual card. What is lost in the translation?

A real Christmas card can be held and felt and occupy real space in your world. A real card comes to the house in an envelope, delivered by the postal worker. The real card was chosen by the sender, and required physical effort to locate, select, and purchase. The real card has handwriting in it that comes from the tip of pen that had to be pressed into the paper, which gives evidence of the person sending it. The real card has an address on the front written by an actual hand, and a stamp that was licked. The real card was processed at the post office, and bears evidence of the machines and processes that deliver it to your door. A real card has to be opened, removed from it’s envelope, and read... then set down somewhere to observe. At some point you are forced to consider what to do with the card. Presuming you throw it out after the holidays, you can see the real card as having a life span of several weeks, and as having passed through the hands of many people on it’s way to you.

The e-card has none of these qualities. The e-card is a phantom projection of a real card... a projection of the mind, based on memories of real cards. The e-card has only two properties... the first is that it is symbolic of a real card, and can thus function to put us in mind of a real card.... the second is that it is convenient to send and receive.

If we imagine a time in the future where real cards are made obsolete by e-cards, so much so that people stop having actual experiences with real cards... then we can see that the symbolic property referred to above (the invoking of a memory of a real card) will be lost. At that point, all that will be left is convenience. But convenience is not a property unto itself, but a property of something. When the “something” is gone... the convenience loses it’s meaning.

So I was feeling very directly that the e-card had no meaning other than what I projected... which was a dim memory (at best) of the tangible meaning of a real card. I could see (also) how this is true of mechanical reproduction of art. Such reproduction is a terrible necessity if the objective is to make viewing of art convenient, but which trains the mind to see art as a photographic image, and in that sense no different from the countless images we see every day. Art loses it’s singularity, it’s uniqueness, and it’s authority. It becomes subject to the laws of mass distribution and mass consumption, which change the nature of the art object.. changing it from “art object” to “image of art object” to eventually simply “image”... then “bitmap”... to “digitial information”... to “information”.

And so on, and so on.... until POOF... it's gone. Then the world has to be reborn and recreated by primitives, in the real world.

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