When considering the current state of our world-at-large, especially amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, advances in digital communication have proven to be vital for anyone attempting to increase awareness and access information. But how is this digital paradigm affecting the art we produce and consume?
Although still regarded as prestigious, visual artists are no longer required to utilize traditional institutions such as museums and galleries to have their work showcased and validated. When an artist uploads their work online, multiple people at multiple locations can view their content all at the same time. Which in turn, can facilitate opportunities to further their career and ways to connect with legitimate members of the artistic community. In the age of the hyper-digital, does digital technology contribute to a depreciation of the intrinsic value of art?
Critical theorist Walter Benjamin believes that art has historically always been reproducible. In one of his most famous essays, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, the scholar examines reproducibility and the negative effects it engenders within the spectator. According to Benjamin, visual works have an aura that he defines as: “a strange tissue of space and time: the unique appearance of a distance, however near it may be…” adding, “what withers in the age of technological reproducibility of the work of art is the latter’s aura.”
More straightforwardly, the aura of a work of art is the authenticity and authority felt while in its presence. To Benjamin’s standards, the aura in modern society has declined due to both technology’s ability to reproduce ad infinitum and the resulting precedence that reproducibility and representation take over reality. However, the phenomenon of viewing artwork online is one that is not new. For the past few decades, art that is reproduced online has served as a creative and social space for people to discuss and view artworks that would otherwise be inaccessible. Artists such as Romeo Britto and Michelle Vella are examples of individuals who are known for posting an assortment of their works online while starting an important discourse on aesthetics and exhibition methodologies.
Contemporary artists who upload their artworks online subvert our traditional habits of cultural consumption. Prior to the mass use of social networking sites, an aesthete or art collector would be required to view art in its tangible presentation. Contrary to today where a large number of people can view an artwork when it appears on their timeline, in many cases, resulting in an artist receiving just as much, if not more recognition than a person who solely relies on traditional exhibitions. By taking advantage of social media and the platform it offers, the artist is able to curate their own work and engage directly with their audience who concurrently become their critics and collectors.
Other online platforms and institutions have also come to realize the importance of exhibiting galleries online. For example, Google Arts & Culture has partnered with over 2,500 museums around the world to present thematic slideshows, detailed information on single works, and museum walk-throughs for anyone who has access to the internet. Virtual tours speak to the importance of people being able to view significant and historical pieces. Regardless of the two unique experiences of seeing an artwork online or in-person, the spectator is still witness to the artistry and impact the artwork had during the course of its existence.
Overall, arts accessibility on the internet is beneficial because it allows an artist to create authentically while reaching a large audience. Benjamin would argue that reproduced art lacks the uniqueness, historical context, and authenticity that is in the original. Furthermore, critics of art digitally displayed see the lack of regulations regarding intellectual property on social networking sites as the downfall of art’s intrinsic value. Yes, many artists will forfeit the absolute control over the content they produce, because it is readily available to share and disseminate without their consent, however, skeptics of accessible art do not consider the digital aura the develops and the ways it benefits the artist.
Despite the fact that the virtual world differs from real space, art remains a manifestation of an artist’s unique ideas and inspirations regardless of where it is displayed. When art is posted on social media it is digitally time-stamped and released in conjunction with events happening all around the world. If a piece of art garners enough attention, it can reach a level of authority that influences others online and in some cases can affect change in real life. Not only does this fall in line with Benjamin’s definition of an aura (in a dimension that is parallel to our own), but it also broadens the artists’ reach for opportunities, and encourages others to utilize classical techniques in an increasingly digital age.
In spite of the fact that some view the reproductive process on social media as diminishing to the sublimity of a work of art, it is worthwhile to recognize that art is a constant evolution of creative skill and imagination. To today’s standards, an Instagram feed can be perceived as a modern gallery that cultivates a group of people who have a shared interest in art and the essence behind it. As technology becomes increasingly accessible, the next generation of creators and consumers of art prove that an image seen online can hold nearly the same significance as the physical object. Contrary to Benjamin’s beliefs, authenticity is not lost in the age of digital reproduction but is instead, evolved, overcoming any limitations on human creativity.