(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.
If you found this post to be relevant or think it is way off the mark, please leave a comment or shoot me an email. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Thanks for reading!