The Work of Art in the Phygital Age
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. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence. This includes the changes which it may have suffered in physical condition over the years as well as the various changes in its ownership.
– Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction; ILLUMINATIONS; Edited by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn, from the 1935 essay New York: Schocken Books, 1969
German Jewish philosopher and cultural icon, Walter Benjamin, wrote about societal progress and technological advances and how their collision (and inevitable collusion) irrevocably change the way we appreciate and consume art.
For Benjamin, each reproduction of the original rapidly diminishes the very essence of the artwork. He refers to a painting’s “aura” as an integral element that could never be present in a photograph of the same work. The same way looking at mountains on the horizon or feeling the shadow of a tree overhead carries a specific aura, an irreplicable essence with which a pictorial representation (photographic, painted, or drawn) of the same scenery could never be imbued. Benjamin observed all this in 1935.
Fast forward to 2022, when for a while now, we all have been feeling we are really on the cusp of the next big thing. Technology greatly galloped pre-pandemic and it accelerated in a frenetic pace mid-Covid. We are all now semi-literate when it comes to NFT’s or Crypto; We use the word “phygital” with more ease when we try to describe this bold, new and supremely exciting world at the very intersection of the physical and the virtual, the tangible and intangible. We casually chat with friends and colleagues about the Metaverse and voice our concerns about identity and representation in this new uncharted universe, the ethics and morality of anything and everything data-oriented, data-driven and of all things mined. We seem slightly scared but also slightly excited with our newly acquired status of Meta-Netizenship. We want to boldly go where previous generations couldn’t. And why not? We now have the means and the way to be cast as futuristic argonauts and this utopic or dystopic future (depending on the way once chooses to perceive it) is nothing less than the here and now.
How would Walter Benjamin process and critique the current proliferation of digital and physical artwork, modern collectibles and the endless, mindless reproduction of works of art on any surface or on any consumer product imaginable? (Do we really need umbrellas with Van Gogh’s Starry Night?)
In a world where imitation trumps rarity, is there any value (intrinsic or otherwise) in anything anymore? Why bother to look for an original when you can get a copy for cheap? What spot in the art stratosphere is occupied by antiques today? And do antique rugs matter at all?
Personally speaking, I always viewed reproductions as parasites that aimed to eat away at the essence of the original. This viral plethora of copies (ominous, omnipresent, from fashion to decorative interiors/furniture, to jewelry, to books, to documents and really everything else we consume) threatens but never quite succeeds to replace the authentic object. I may only be able to afford a reproduction of something, but will wasting money on a copy quench my thirst for the real thing? Far from it.
Blame the polarizing tendency of human nature, but while each one of us wants to be different and unique, we all flock to the same e-tailers for generic purchases, we all celebrate our inimitable, authentic, snowflake selves with a toast from similar mass-produced glassware. We dress our homes in generic furnishings and fixtures. It’s easier, cost-effective and it doesn’t require any taste or research at all. We can’t afford to waste time, so we convince ourselves that a reproduction is almost the same thing as the original. That the mechanically-produced copy still has a tiny bit of the soul or the gravitas of the object it desperately tries to replace.
Naturally, this assumption is incorrect. Lack of the genuine object’s “aura” in the piece that is mechanically replicated, simply means there could be no genuine emotional connection to the reproduction of an original.
My affection and affinity towards antiques is partly because of the fact they are singular entities that were crafted at a specific moment in time by an expert artisan. Nobody can revisit the coordinates of their creation. Often their provenance can be confirmed. Always, each piece has its own history. There is a strong sense of heritage. And in Benjamin’s words, there is (you guessed it) an aura. Antique rugs are especially steeped in history. They come from world regions with a rich past, are crafted with the utmost expertise and are themselves permeated with the weaver’s own history. Some are incredibly rare, some are even “museum quality”, uncommon, with a character and a temperament that remain untamed, elusive. Many are aged by time and their own singular historical weight, but still immensely coveted. What we look for in an antique rug is a mixture of breathtaking beauty and a sliver of history. Armed with a Proustian sensibility, we are searching for time, for glory, for a memory that is now lost, except in the fibers of these extraordinary pieces that are part of our collective human experience.
This incomparable blend of peerless heritage, distinctive history, quality craftsmanship, the strong connection between weaver and creation, and of course breathtaking beauty, lends antique rugs an aura that is unrivaled by any reproduction. I know Walter Benjamin would agree. Wouldn’t you?