Response to Walter Benjamin

Starry Night

Starry Night

Oftentimes, when someone looks at technology news, they hear of something about patent infringements and poor university students being attacked by the RIAA for downloading music. In the Middle Ages, such disputes hardly arose, if ever, because things were much less easily reproducible.

According to Walter Benjamin’s historical analysis, it is inventions such as the printing press, and the camera (both still/video) that have changed the face of how art is produced, reproduced, and understood. Increasing methods of reproduction of art made originals highly valuable. Think of it this way: Vincent Van Gogh’s famous painting, ‘The Starry Night’ that hangs in MoMA is priceless to say the least, yet you can find a copy of it at Bed Bath and Beyond to hang above your headboard for about $20. Both are pleasing to the eye, but the original with its careful, intricate brush strokes laid by the hand of Van Gogh himself are what make it so valuable. To me, taking a mere photo of a painting or sculpture does little to replicate the original design, even if a photo or video covers every angle. It is just not the same. However, duplicating images and songs digitally is an entirely different ballgame.

I feel as though, despite DRM, and various protections, as soon as something is converted to zeros and ones, that it is everyone’s for better or worse. As I type this blog, my words can be cut and pasted to any number of devices, and if that is not enough, a screen capture or print screen could be made instantly. The same is true for photos, they can be copied, pasted, scanned, printed, replicated to no end. Music, contrary to what the RIAA would like you to believe, is quite similar. Even with DRM in place, someone could simply play the song, and re-record it live, or run a program to remove the DRM. Benjamin’s ideas on reproduction parallel those of Laura Mulvey and her writings on visual pleasure and scopophilia, wherein people derive great pleasure simply by looking, and that they will go to great lengths to see things, even if they are not meant to. However, things have changed much since the age of mechanical reproduction as we entered the age of digital reproduction, where we have an almost endless array of means to duplicate things.

On another note, Benjamin mentions an old argument as to whether or not photography is an art, like painting or not. In defense of the art of photography, I would like to say that photography, especially of the manual nature, is quite precise, like a science. Dealing with aperture, exposure, contrast, etc, etc, and all other minutiae make photography even more complex than say water coloring. The same goes for film. Both may present their data in a two dimensional format, and they both may be reproduced quite easily, just as with any other art form.

Benjamin’s theory of art and war being related is quite interesting to me. War does bring about new technology and innovation with each new skirmish, and it brings to light emotions in the masses that translate to new art forms in the aftermath of each war. There is creation hidden within all that destruction. However, the only artistic benefits of the war on terror that I have seen come to fruition are things such as Michael Moore’s ‘Farenheit 9/11’ and numerous political cartoons by JibJab.


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