Before visiting the Uffizi and the Accademia in Florence, our culture class professor asked us to read an essay by Walter Benjamin titled “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936). It made me consider the notion that viewing art in person is a superior experience than viewing a reproduction. Until reading Benjamin’s essay, I had accepted the former as true with little consideration. I had visited art galleries in America from a young age and been taught to marvel at the presence of something original. More so during my time in Italy than ever in my life, however, I was confronted by art in its original form, if not in its original condition of presentation, and I began to consider why our society values originality and why I had never bothered to consider the questions Benjamin raises. While I don’t, perhaps, understand his underlying commentary on Fascism, Capitalism, and Marxism, I do have these reflections in light of one trip to Florence:
Despite the advent of exact reproducibility, art suffers from a secondhand experience. Whether the casual observer appreciates what Walter Benjamin called the unique condition of its presence in time and space, or they are merely drawn to famous works such as Michelangelo’s David by their rarity and popularity, most people today recognize the value of viewing art in person. The advent of modern technology including reproducibility does, however, provide new and profound ways to experience art.
There are two main reasons for which modern observers journey and pay to see art. One is to appreciate the work’s unique presence in time and space, and the other is to participate in the ritual of observing something rare – and in the modern style, share this experience with others through social media. Though one reason might be seen as more valid or noble than the other, the necessity of a first hand experience and an understanding of the work’s historical and artistic significance underlies both rationales.
The masses that Benjamin references desire “to bring things ‘closer’ spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction” (Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction). The masses of his time desired to overcome the privileged uniqueness of art by participating in an exciting and new estimation of it, namely photographical reproduction. The masses of the current time, however, are familiar with reproduction to the point of disillusionment; they seek out authenticity because today it is something rare (there are, of course, people of Benjamin’s and the current time who would view the firsthand experience of art as an unnecessary privilege). Anyone with Internet access can see any work of art, but only the privileged few are able to see the same in person. In a culture that values the portrayal of only the grandest moments in one’s life, through social media, viewing The David in Florence is much akin to having court side seats at Wimbledon; it is the rarity that counts more than the content.
In Benjamin’s framework, The David can be thought of as created with explicit exhibition value rather than ritual value. Though David is an important Christian figure from the Old Testament, the statue was not meant to be reverenced, but rather admired as he gazed out over the Florentine skyline (possibly aiming his sling at Siena). Today, the statue has gained something of a ritual value. Tourists stream into the Academia, rush past the Prisoners, and make a lap around The David to photograph him from every angle.
The other main reason for viewing art in person is to appreciate its unique condition of presentation. Benjamin writes that with a mechanical reproduction of art, “the quality of its presence is always depreciated”. “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, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction). Benjamin elaborates that the unique condition of art includes its changes in physical appearance and changes in ownership – both create a “testimony to the history which it has experienced”. Each great work of art has an aura constituted by and exists in the domain of tradition. Michelangelo’s David provides an interesting case because it was originally meant to be displayed atop the Duomo and was subsequently displayed in Palazzo della Signora. Today, its aura has evolved and its placement under a skylight in a well-lit room, flanked by the Prisoner sculptures, has become authentic. For this reason, the same tourists who flock to Florence to see The David are less likely to stop and photograph the replica in Palazzo della Signora.
While the firsthand experience of art is vital, modern technology – including reproduction – offers some viewing benefits. When discussing mechanical reproduction, specifically photography, Benjamin writes, “process reproduction can bring out those aspects of the original that are unattainable to the naked eye yet accessible to the lens”. Later in his discussion of film, Benjamin observes, “the enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject” (Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction). For this reason, art is able to be experienced in new and profound ways with the amplification of technical reproduction.
In the example of The David, a wise professor was able to show me the details of the veins on his right hand and explain the reason for his distinct proportions before I ever set foot in the Academia. Similarly, I saw close up images of David’s hair and learned Michelangelo’s reason for leaving it relatively unfinished; had I seen the statue only in the Academia, I would not have fully appreciated the contrast between David’s detailed sideburns and stony hair – due to his height. While modern technology cannot replace the human experience, its conscientious use can enhance the latter.
Walter Benjamin, translated by Harry Zohn, edited by Hannah Arendt. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Schocken/Random House. https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm