Contemporary European Aesthetics
Prof. Hugh J. Silverman
TAs Thomas Was and Madiha Hamdi
In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), Walter Benjamin discusses the effects of the technology of reproduction on art. He uses a few key terms in his discussion. The Authenticity of the work of art has to do with its originality. Its uniqueness gives it a special authority (cult value). The aura of a work is something particular to the original work of art, which is lost in its reproduction (exhibition value). A work of art possesses a singularity, a uniqueness, in its original form.
Cult value has to do with the celebration of the work of art in its cultural context. Art works with cult value originate as ritual pieces, to be worshipped and appreciated. These works of art are often inaccessible or available to the populace with highly restricted access. For example, the Mona Lisa was once only available to those who were able to visit the Louvre. Hence its cult value. Now, it is mechanically reproduced the world over, and the entire public is able to familiarize themselves with it (its exhibition value). The cult value of a work can change; it is affected by social, political, and financial circumstances of the era.
With the advent of mechanical reproduction, the value has shifted from a cult value to an exhibition value. That is, how well something is able to be reproduced and marketed or made available for a mass culture. The movie Pulp Fiction, although is commonly referred to as a “cult classic” possesses exhibition value because of its availability to the public and its ready reproducibility without an original. It can be shown in theatres at the same time, or on DVDs in millions of homes. A work with cult value can’t be widely distributed and received. It is meant to be experienced only in its original form. Viewing the Mona Lisa in a classroom or personal setting detracts from its aura. Pulp Fiction, however, does not lose anything by being experienced in one’s own situation. In fact, therein rests its exhibition value. In the age of mechanical reproduction, the film and photograph have no original, therefore no aura. There is no original copy of Pulp Fiction—the original would be equivalent to the experience the camera has when shooting the film. A movie is not a self-contained piece of art that is restricted to one and only one context as a painting would be. It has been shot and re-shot numerous times, at different points in time, and then edited to form the sequence of scenes that we see in its completion. In a film, the aura of the film and the actor vanish, and are instead replaced by the “spell of the personality,” a commodification of the celebrity persona outside the studio.