A Technological Revolution in Perception
In the movement from classical art to modern art, new values arose including perceptual, formal and exhibition. A technological revolution in perception occurred. Walter Benjamin in his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction provides a general history of how art changed as the world moved into modernity.
With the introduction of mechanical reproduction, Benjamin argues, art breaks away from ritual and religion. Mechanical reproduction, unlike manual reproduction such as forgery, works to destroy the aura of the artwork causing a loss of originality, authority and authenticity that could only be maintained by the original. The works also lose their history and thus, can be inserted “into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself” (Benjamin, 3). This loss of history and uniqueness changes the perception of the subject. Benjamin argues that sensory perspectives are not only natural but also historical. As economic and historical transitions in society take place, so do transitions in works of art and the way people perceive them.
The advent of film and photography indicate effects of modernity on works of art. While an original painting contains an aura, a photograph, which is an image of an image, lacks an aura entirely. Technological intervention in art changes a person’s distance to the perceived world. Technology engages the spectator differently, thereby producing new kinds of perception. The aura is only upheld as long as a proper distance is kept from the object. The distractions that Benjamin refers to, the fragmentation of the world, destroys the stable distance. Further, the spectator no longer contemplates art but rather art contemplates the spectator.
Distractions present constant interruption to the point where we live “in a row of nows” without history or time, not linear movement toward a destination. The liquidation of the past fragments the symbolic value of art. The large increase in the mass of participants has changed the way they participate with the art. Contemplation of art has been replaced by distraction. Entering a museum became the same as walking through a city aimlessly. We are confronted with a multiplicity of things that are meaningful but at the same time have no value other than exhibition value. We perceive the world as fragmented where everything has an exhibition value but we can never perceive the totality of it all nor its full meaning. We, as spectators, have an apperception of oneself in the world. We are, at the same time, aware of the falseness of the world and emotionally involved with it. Our distractedness allows this multi-tasking, developed ability of simultaneity. These new historical conditions force us to adjust and change perception.
The art historian was made possible by mechanical reproduction. Works of art can be accessed and studied from anywhere by anyone at anytime and even simultaneously. Enormous amounts of people can be unified by witnessing the same works, but this destroys the tradition and meaning. Anyone can create the context in which a work of art is perceived and therefore reinterpret it freely, detached from history. The irrelevance of the physical presence of a work of art changes perception because it decreases in social and cultural value. Individual perception of art is now formed by an organized mass response. The social cannot absorb the history of a work or the systems within which it exists. Rather, it has a relative value depending on how it is exhibited. The spectator’s job becomes more active in order to reinterpret meaning.
Today we see, through the study of art history, what they didn’t see when the art was being produced. New values reconfigure traditions. Baroque, for example, requires a cinematic perception. We see Baroque through the lens of today’s perceptions influence by technology. Cinematic perception involves perceiving motions from different sides — multi-perspective. When looking at a work of art from the Baroque tradition we are invited inside of it the same as we feel inside of a film we are watching. Space, which was central in classical art, was replaced with time in the Baroque tradition. The space we enter in Baroque is highly artificial because the works deal with events, movement and action. Baroque “tend[s] to invade space in every direction” (qtd. in Ndalianis 360). A Baroque painting looks more like a photograph, a still taken from a sequence of other stills. We perceive a story and interpret the existence of things happening. The work of art makes sense in terms of what we perceived happened before and after that particular moment. Similar to attending the theater where we are completely immersed, perceiving the overabundance of elements in a work of Baroque art is for an audience.
The conceptual theory of perception has undergone a radical change since the middle of the 19th century. The avant-garde tradition emerged from the progressive developments of art away from classical aesthetics. It is, by definition, aiming to attack the tradition and redefine the limits of art. Artists began to refuse the task of representing beauty. As Barnett Newman writes in The Sublime is Now,
“the Impressionists, disgusted with its [classical art] inadequacy, began the movement to destroy the established rhetoric of beauty by the Impressionist insistence on a surface of ugly strokes” (Newman, 1).
While European artists continued to hold the burden of beauty on their shoulders because the classical inspiration and history was so strong, American artists were free from the classical tradition or canon constraining inspiration. Avant-garde artists work to challenge the perception of the viewer. “The image we produce is the self-evident one of revelation, real and concrete, that can be understood by anyone who will look at it without the nostalgic glasses of history” (Newman, 4). Art requires its own space, and asks for its own perception. The aim of art became giving an impression or a sensation that exists only within the work and no where else.
Benjamin, Walter , “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt ed., Illuminations (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World,1968).
Ndalianis, Angela. “Architectures of the Senses.” Rethinking Media Change: The Aesthetics of Transition. By David Thorburn, Henry Jenkins, and Brad Seawell. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2003. 355-74. Google Books. Web. 18 Apr. 2016.
Newman, Barnett. “The Sublime is Now” Excerpt from “The Ides of Art, Six Opinions on What is Sublime in Art?”, Tiger’s Eye (New York), No.6 (15 December 1948), pp. 52-53.