Art and Value

(Note the following post is a based on a paper that I wrote for my Digital Culture class in Summer 2015. Hopefully you will find it interesting.)

On what basis do we ascribe value to art? What makes a Rembrandt inherently more valuable than a seven year-old’s crayon sketch? In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” Walter Benjamin argues that, “the unique value of the ‘authentic’ work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original use value” (Benjamin 224). Since art’s original function was ritual, its primary value must be based on this concept of pointing to something greater, outside of us. To have ritual value, the piece of art’s context and authenticity must be considered. Benjamin uses the examples of the cults of magic, religion, and beauty to expound upon this idea of art for the purpose of ritual.

Benjamin then explains that art is accepted and valued on a scale, with exhibition value at one extreme and cult or ritual value at the other (Benjamin 224). The exhibition value of art becomes apparent when artists create cultural artifacts for the primary purpose of being seen by others. Cult objects, on the other hand, were created with their main function being “their existence, not their being in view” (Benjamin 224). Cultures create art like this without man as the primary audience. Whether it exists mainly for the gods, the spirits, or oneself, cult art is not meant to be displayed and be seen by others.

In the birth of the digital culture we see a shift in the basis of art and cultural artifacts. Benjamin contends that in the photographic image, “the exhibition value for the first time shows its superiority to the ritual value” (Benjamin 226). This movement is based primarily in our newfound ability to technically reproduce art, which has inadvertently caused our culture to value exhibition and accessibility over the higher, cult value of art. In the past we devalued art by transporting it out of its original context, but now we are further able to diminish the value of art by completely belittling its authenticity. We begin to create art that not only can be reproduced, but with the intent of its reproduction. However, this shift in value comes at a cost. As we singularly emphasize the exhibition value of art, there begins a “qualitative transformation of its nature,” to the point where it exhibits “entirely new functions,” and the artistic functions becomes primarily incidental (Benjamin 225). The purpose of art becomes reaching the broadest possible audience to the point where we completely lose sight of the ritualistic element and authenticity of art. When we see replications of statues of divinities we quickly admire their aesthetic appeal but forget the original purpose of the original statue.

As we, as a culture, shift from a focus on cult value to exhibition value, one new value has become apparent: self-promotion. In selfies, Instagram, and social networking it is clear that members of our culture attempt to use digital images to sell themselves. Whether it be for the purpose of getting a job or just the desire to be well-liked, we love to use pictures and videos to try to make ourselves look as good as we can. Self-promotion is definitely deeply interwoven into our individualistic, American “fabric of tradition,” where we pride ourselves on working hard and bettering our lives (Benjamin 223). This is the land of opportunity where you can be what ever you want to be if you just put your mind to it. As a result of this belief, art has moved away from its original ritual purpose and become a means of enhancing our appeal in the eyes of others.

 

For further reading check out Benjamin’s book.

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Clichés, Stereotypes, and Sameness

(Note: the following post is based on a paper that I wrote for my Digital Culture class in Summer 2015. I hope it will be of relevance and interest to you.)

In “Enlightenment as Mass Deception” Adorno and Horkheimer base their discussion of the culture industry on the fact that “culture today is infecting everything with sameness” (Adorno and Horkheimer 94). The need to classify what we consume has all but disappeared since all the media before us occurs “cyclically” and “the details [have] become interchangeable” (Adorno and Horkheimer 98). Since all media put out by the culture industry is fundamentally the same, “the appearance of competition and choice” is deception (Adorno and Horkheimer 97). As consumers, even this pretense of choice and classification is meaningless since the culture industry has thoroughly classified everything for us (Adorno and Horkheimer 98). Whether sameness displays itself through patterns of form or through the transposable nature of the details, the products of the culture industry are fundamentally the same.

Clichés are an artifact of the culture industry that demonstrate this sameness. While clichés could probably be defined more broadly, I understand them to be interchangeable phrases that the majority of the public will understand and appreciate in a given situation because of their constant use. When Adorno and Horkheimer discuss clichés, they talk about them in the context of the film industry where these “ready-made clichés” can be “used here and there as desired and always [be] completely defined by the purpose they serve within the schema” (Adorno and Horkheimer 98). These phrases perpetuate sameness because they have been clearly defined through repetition, and, regardless of the situation, these clichés always mean the same thing. When someone uses the phrase “in the nick of time,” you do not stop and say, “That’s an odd phrase I wonder what it means?” Rather, although the specific vocabulary is peculiar and does not really make sense, you understand it’s meaning, regardless of the context, because you have heard it so many times.

Stereotypes also prolong sameness but in a more multifaceted manner than mere phrases. Although this definition is far from exhaustive, I understand a stereotype to be a common understanding of what something is like or how it should operate without being critically analyzed. Adorno and Horkheimer make a somewhat startling claim when they say, “the bread on which the culture industry feeds humanity, remains the stone of stereotype” (Adorno and Horkheimer 119). When understood within the context of their argument about the culture industry’s goal of sameness, this statement is enlightening. The culture industry bases the achievement of their goals on the cyclical nature and immutability of these stereotypes. Memes would definitely fit this category of stereotypes because the picture dictates the way that we understand the words without much need for analysis. When we notice memes of Dwight Schrute or the Most Interesting Man in the World, we can immediately predict the tone of the meme and then merely insert the specific words into that context to understand them. Beyond memes, we also see these patterns and repetitions through stereotypical characters in movies and stereotypical melodies in popular music, which can be understood and appreciated without an analytical or questioning mindset. Adorno and Horkheimer state that “in a film, the outcome can invariably be predicted at the start” and “in light music the prepared ear can always guess the continuation after the first bars of a hit song and is gratified when it actually occurs” (Adorno and Horkheimer 98-99). The culture industry is able to get away this repetition of form and detail because we not only tolerate it, but we welcome it.

The culture industry is able to continue injecting production with sameness because sameness sells. Pop music melodies and chord progressions are recycled because they have been proven to generate revenue. For the culture industry it is dangerous and unprofitable to break these patterns. Where greatness and innovation push boundaries and distrust style, the culture industry has promoted a “withering of imagination and spontaneity” through the closely monitored creation and promotion of patterns of sameness (Adorno and Horkheimer 100). Although we may hope for innovation and originality, we help prolong these cycles by buying into them. We may complain about the predictability of movie plots, but we still see the movies and support the industry. Maybe deep down we enjoy the stability and sense of control that we achieve through predicting the outcomes of songs and movies that, in essence, we’ve seen or heard many times before?

 

For further reading, check out Adorno and Horkheimer’s book.

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Hopefully you found this post to be interesting. I’d love to hear what you have to say about it. Please leave a comment or send me an email with your thoughts. Thanks for reading!