3 points on the role of authenticity in the commodified culture of today (and where’s art is all of this?)
The Illusion of Authenticity: Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction at John Cabot University (JCU) was a panel organized as a part of the JCU Alumni Reunion on September 20th.
Starting at the beginning: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
The discussion was based on the iconic 1935 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction by Walter Benjamin. In short, Benjamin’s essay is a dense set of arguments on the concept of aura in art in relation to photography, film, and that the dissemination of images on the mass scale is the death of artistic aura. Benjamin emphasized that reproductions lack the physical conditions of space, time, and ownership. These physical features establish authenticity, as well as provide historical contextualization of an object.
The phenomenon of aura is a feeling of distance between a viewer and the object. The viewer perceives an object as seemingly out of reach, both historically and physically. Benjamin argues that art originated as a form of cultic worship, first related to magic, then religion, and then beauty. Hence aura carries a spiritual value. Benjamin points out that art has always been reproducible, what has changed is the scale of reproducibility. He argues that mass reproduction is the “emancipation of artworks from ritual.” Viewers shifted from being absorbed by art to absorbing art.
Distorting the appearance of authenticity in three points.
1. What you see is what you get. Maybe?
Before judging art through the lens of authenticity, we should ask what is authentic to us today.
A good start is with a look at some of the major establishers of today’s iconography, namely corporations, for instance, Apple. As Professor Lopez pointed out, on Apple products you find the bold statement “Designed in California.” This statement diverts attention from where the products are actually built.
A logo is a mask for authenticity. Behind Apple, there is a barrel full of rotten apples. Is it authentic that Apple promotes “their” product by taking away attention from those who really make it (iPhone Workers Are 25 Times More Exploited Than 19th-Century Textile Workers)?
If Banksy were to de-authorize his artwork, asked Professor Lopez, would it still be as valuable in art auctions as it is today?
Is Banksy like Apple, fully commodified and dependant on the market? If the value of an object is its authenticity, then no matter if the authorship belongs to Banksy or not. Artworks can be out of not only the artist’s power, but also out of time, even out of the political and economic system, without losing its value.
2. Benjamin and hype
Let’s focus on music. An increasingly common practice in the music industry is to “plant” musicians. As Professor Sarram explained, “planting” means to shape musicians’ careers in a certain manner or style, crafting their personality and history to manufacture authenticity for a targeted audience. A good example, said Professor Sarram, is Lana Del Rey, who had her story and style reinvented to appeal to the expectations of the music industry.
The question remains whether we enjoy music less if we know that it is a part of an industry-planned strategy of increasing commodification and income. Even the well-established artists follow marketing paths in order to keep their image iconic. Does it matter for us that Elvis Presley, The Beatles, and the Rolling Stones would probably never have happened had they not had the ‘support’ and guidance from industry professionals?
Professor Sarram pointed out that Benjamin’s notion of aura is often misunderstood. Benjamin claimed that mass culture is erasing aura from artworks. However, as Professor Sarram explained, Benjamin saw this aura as a human-made concept which adds fake value to objects. As Professor Sarram said, it is technology that might allow us to see through it.
3. Goodbye, Authenticity (we will see you soon)
Does technology destroy authenticity? According to Professor Automarini, discussions about authenticity often rely on a Romanticized notion of nature as authentic. We see nature as authentic and good, consequently viewing technology as its binary opposite. Professor Automarini maintains that technology is neutral. It depends on us how we use it.
…but can technology be authentic? Ai-Da is a good example of how neutral technology becomes authentic through the addition of aura. Ai-Da, which I talked about here, is the first humanoid robot-artist that depends on artificial intelligence to create original, authentic art. Or rather, this is what the PR narration and wants us to believe.
If what is human belongs to what is natural, then anything made or manipulated by a human. Even if mediated by technology, art can be turned into natural and therefore be authentic.
So can a human-made algorithm make art? Can an algorithm, that is selected by a human or is based on a human-selected sample, be authenticly AI-made? I don’t think so. What we so far achieved with the capacity of technology in art can constitute a collaboration between what is human and what is technological. It can extend the human capacity to imagine and experiment. But the product of technology cannot be authentic in itself because it has a human intervening in its creation process. It’s a human who adds the aura to what is promoted to be “autonomously” AI-created.
With capitalism as a driving force, Professor Automarini added, it seems unlikely that we can escape the vicious cycle of why and how we value certain artworks and artists, and how authenticity is being used.
Fiamma shared her thoughts on the authenticity of recordings. She brought up an example of recording vintage train sounds. She argued that through hearing steam trains we are provided with an authentic experience of the past, which can stimulate our imagination. Elisabetta asked what is it that makes us value Picasso’s painting more than a reproduction. She argued that there is something in the original, authentic artwork which makes them special, and one can see it with their own eyes, no labels are needed.
Once relics, now artworks. Thoughts on authentic art
No matter whether we look at the 17,000 B.C. stencil-made cave paintings at Lascaux, the Augustus of Prima Porta statue from ancient Rome, the Shroud of Turin in the Medieval Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, or Monet’s Impression. Sunrise (1892-1973) in Paris, artworks force a different relation of the viewers to the time. Contemporary viewers necessarily have a different relation to these works than did viewers of a different historical context. Artworks themselves can provide a different view of the world and time. Similarly to photographs, any art object preserves a subjective view of the past. The authenticity of art provides the viewer with a synthesis of thought and feeling.
Authenticity is the art’s greatest treasure and threat. Since the 18-century, technology, like art, has aimed to transcribe nature. The paradox of photography added another layer to the discussion on authenticity. Photography both seeks the truth and, through documenting it, reveals that truth is as subjective as the photographer’s eye or process. Each photograph is a snapshot of a selective moment of reality framed by the lenses.
Artworks, labeled as ‘authentic,’ have been used to create narratives in public spaces, museums, and galleries. With the rise of art dealers in 19th-century France, artists, critics, and dealers started to view art as both sacred and commodified. Photographs were disregarded as inauthentic to the real or doomed as transcribing the real. Artworks were disseminated through photographs and soon became an artifact of mass tourism.
The complexity of what is authentic was simplified to a true-or-fake constraint. Appreciation of the authentic art object reached the level of exaggeration, often indistinguishable from fetishism.
When you think about it, department stores are kind of like museums
said Andy Warhol.
The question of authenticity seems to be either vanished or fetishized in the consumer culture of today.
I think that one of many ways in which we can define authenticity in art is through the intent of the artist and the physical characteristics of the objecthood while considering what we lose and what we get by a technology-driven detachment of aura.
Having all those reproduction, including the Google Art&Culture Museum archive online, we still go to see what objects look like in the museums. We still take our own photos. Digital copies can show more of a texture, line, structure, and details. But it seems that looking at an object in real life cannot compare to the best reproduction, printed or digital. Objecthood, at least so far, is irreducible and untranslatable in its physical particularities.
In the end, what’s more authentic than seeing things as they are, though our biased eyes and fixed brain in a given space, at a given time?
“this is not a pipe.”
Featured image: “Expansión CEO – Equipo / El reclutador eficiente” by Orbeh Studio is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0