art in the age of mechanical reproduction: aura reshaped

Mechanical reproduction has long existed in human history as a technique enabling mass distribution by multiplying copies of original objects. One of the features of mechanical reproduction is that it frees human hands from manual writing and painting. Woodcut technologies date back to the 3rd century in Asia, and the printing press was invented in Europe in the 15th century. Despite this long history and the wide range of copying methods, reproductions depended on the content of the original for their meanings. Copies mainly served to transmit the information from the originals that were not otherwise accessible to the public. Therefore, it could be argued that any copy is not significantly different from its original. Reproductions did not stand by themselves until the early 19th century with the invention of photography—a practice that was further advanced in 20th century with the appearance of technological reproduction.

In his now-canonical essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936), Walter Benjamin raised the concern that technological reproductions would diminish or destroy the authenticity of the original objects.1 According to Benjamin, these reproductions are more independent and more active in the way they are received. They not only capture the information of the original objects, but they can also drastically transform our appreciation of the original once it has been reproduced. In contrast, traditional methods of reproduction, such as woodcuts or lithographs, retain the same material form as the original print–a form that is quite distinct from technological reproductions that appear in illusionistic forms, like photographs or sound tracks.  The aura, defined by Benjamin as the uniqueness of the original, experienced in a single, distinct time and space, is weakened every time a technological reproduction is made.

Based upon Benjamin’s definition, it is inevitable that the aura would encounter any change when an object or image is reproduced multiple times. However, instead of being diminished, the aura is readdressed and reconsidered when the reproduction is reused in a new context. Modern artists utilized technological reproductions through multiple methods. They not only reuse the content of the original objects and images, but also make use of the prevalence–their circulation–of those reproductions as well.

At around the same time Benjamin published his essay, Marcel Duchamp emerged as an artist who took advantage of technological reproductions.2 While Benjamin considered the relationship between the perceiving subject and the perceived object in terms of time and space,3 Duchamp used “readymades” to challenge formulaic methods of art making. Rather than making something by his own hand exclusively, he relied on something already made and thereby undid the notion of the individual artistic genius. Yet, in this process of reusing objects and images, the viewer inevitably encounters the aura that conflates the original and the reproduction. Duchamp paid attention to the information conveyed in the reproductions. For instance, when Duchamp was creating L.H.O.O.Q in 1919, he chose a postcard of Mona Lisa because the image was so popular that it represented the most well known example of what we consider fine art. Despite its disentanglement from the time and space of the original creation, this reproduction bears the subsequent popularity of the original object. Because the image of Mona Lisa was reproduced so widely due to its renown, a new aura was generated, an aura reconciled with the viewer’s time and space. Thus, when Duchamp was signing the postcard, he created an instance that led to a new aura.

Suzanne Bloom and Edward J. Hill go a step further in rebuilding the aura of Mona Lisa’s image in their photograph Mona Lisa Postcard, from Mona Lisa’s White Rice Casserole (1979). In this picture, a postcard of Mona Lisa is held in an anonymous hand and is raised into a higher position. Instead of framing the postcard as the focal point, the artists blur the image of the Mona Lisa. Nevertheless, audiences are still able to recognize the portrait at first glance as her image is so well-known. The cult of Mona Lisa is conveyed in this picture even though it merely includes a copy of the original painting. In this case, the double reproduction of the original work further strengthens the power of the original by extending its aura.

Shen Shaomin’s “Handle with Care” series is another example which reuses extant images and bestows the original’s extended aura. However, Shen takes a different approach as he bases his creation on the well-known pop art of Andy Warhol, who is known for rendering common objects into art. In Shen’s Handle With Care No.16 (2014), he copies the image of the beef soup can that was originally harvested from popular culture, and then silkscreened by Warhol. On top of the can’s image, Shen added a layer of bubble wrap and tape so as to imitate the situation when artworks are wrapped in order to be transported. The painting is deceptive at first sight as it is the under-image of the can that looks exactly like the Warhol one. The highly realistic layer of bubble wrap convince the audiences that they are looking at Warhol’s original work covered with a wrap. Nevertheless, the tag indicating the object as “oil on canvas” obstructs the audience from uncovering the bubble layer . Shen adopts the widely recognizable image of Warhol’s work and raises questions about the authenticity of all art works. Warhol appropriates the image of the also mass-produced Campbell soup can so as to comment on its lack of aura while Shen responds to Warhol’s comment by utilizing the renown of his pop art series. This doubling effect therefore gives the image of the soup can a stronger aura as it is now able to stand independently as a symbol of art. While mechanical reproduction necessarily touches upon the uniqueness of original time and space, the aura is more likely to be reshaped or stretched further, rather than destroyed.

-Mo Chen 2016

1. Walter Benjamin,  “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” in The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media. Ed. Michael William Jennings, Brigid Doherty, Thomas Y. Levin, and E. F. N. Jephcott, (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008), 19-55.

2. Francis M. Naumann and Marcel Duchamp. Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Making Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. (New York: Ludion Press, 1999), 15-21.

3. Antonio Somaini, “Walter Benjamin’s Media Theory: The Medium and the Apparat,” Grey Room, 62, (2016): 6-41.