Monday, July 27, 2009

Science and Art: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, by Walter Benjamin

"One of the foremost tasks of art has always been the creation of a demand which could be fully satisfied only later. The history of every art form shows critical epochs in which a certain art form aspires to effects which could be fully obtained only with a changed technical standard, that is to say, in a new art form. The extravagances and crudities of art which thus appear, particularly in the so-called decadent epochs, actually arise from the nucleus of its richest historical energies."

While I first read "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" in an incredibly intense History of Literary Theory class at UCLA, it has since stuck with me as being both interesting and relevant despite the fact that seventy years have passed since Benjamin (pronounced "ben-ha-meen") wrote it. His theory is this: scientific progress in the form of new technology has had a profound impact on the history of art.

To my mind, this relationship between art and science is most pronounced if one traces the history of photography and compares the art that was produced pre-photography and art that is produced now. For example, painters were once commissioned to produce portraits, the most lucrative field of art for many generations. Once photography became widely available (and affordable), however, the need for artists to capture what is disappeared. (Do you know anyone who has his portrait painted now, other than the President? Me neither.) Art changed to accomodate this growth in technology, with Benjamin citing the Dadaist movement as an example of this--now artists were charged with exploring ideas in their work rather than capturing reality as they saw it. (Even fairly-early photography was not exempt from this experimentation, as seen below.)

Le Violin de Ingres, Man Ray, 1924.

This shift has become even more pronounced in the digital age. The average digital camera takes such good shots that, combined with the invent of Photoshop, it has caused photography-as-art to move away from capturing "reality" that has been only subtly arranged by the photographer(a la Dorothea Lange or Walker Evans) and moved into blatantly-touched up exhibits and carefully staged productions (such as the photo below).

Untitled photo from Gregory Crewdson's Beneath the Roses (2003-2005)

Anyway, my point is this: science (and art) can't be truly separated into two distinct categories--they are carefully interwoven, with science playing a huge role in the development and creation of art in its many forms.

(Oh, and my other point is that Benjamin's got some pretty interesting things to say about the "modern" world.)

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