#6 Dream Kitsch

Kevin chimes in close to the hour but still with enough time for interested classmates to check our his post!

Things were simpler with the Greeks. Only bronzes, terra cottas, and coins were reproducible. Everything else had to be made by hand, which meant every sculpture or piece of artwork in the Grecian times was as unique as a snowflake, barring handmade replicas. Now, with MP3 files, photographs, movies, gramophones, and photoshop, you probably have a reproduction of artwork waiting on half your internet tabs.

What distinguishes replicas from the original piece of art, according to Walter Benjamin, is a lack of a certain “aura,” or lack of a “here and now.” A photograph can capture the Mona Lisa, but it loses the authenticity and historical testimony that the original Mona Lisa has. The original Mona Lisa has physically changed over time–with paints drying and colors fading–and the ownership has switched hands a few times as well. Your photograph of the Mona Lisa is a bundle of data on a camera that has only existed for a few seconds. Your photograph still has its own “aura” but the original Mona Lisa’s aura trumps it.

The interesting thing about reproductions, though, are that they can be brought to an audience as large as the world, while the Mona Lisa is stuck in a museum. This accessibility of Reproduced Art destroys old notions of cult value and catapults exhibition value. Furthermore, it invites reproductive art such as music and film to play a social role. If you see a film, you see it in a movie theater along with thousands of other people across the nation, and these masses of people shape your perception. Just like how seeing a movie alone is different than seeing it with your mom, your perception of the film has to be regulated through other people. People become judges of taste.

For its part, film carries very little aura because it is an assemblage of photographs, uncaring of the realities of life, and it is only presentable to the masses because its artificialness has been post-edited to resemble reality, cutting out bad takes and the fact that it was shot in a studio. This artificialness combined with film’s ability to focus the camera on certain lights, sounds, and moments that escape reality is why Benjamin declares film has a universal dream-like quality. He says: “The ancient truth expressed by Heraclitus, that those who are awake have a world in common while each sleeper has a world of his own, has been invalidated by film—and less by depicting the dream world itself than by creating figures of a collective dream, such as the globe-encircling Mickey Mouse” (38). Good or bad, technological reproductions have flooded the world with a deja-vu assortment of artworks that take on their own social significance inside each person.

So, some questions to think about before class:

Benjamin defines the aura as a unique existence that bears the mark of the artwork’s history. What is it about the aura that makes an original piece of artwork so special? Is Benjamin’s definition valid?

On page 22, Benjamin says about technological reproduction that, “By replicating the work many times over, it substitutes a mass existence for a unique existence.” Folk art, kitsch, and dream kitsch accomplish a similar effect, but instead of replicating an artwork, they replicate an idea or style. How else do technological reproduction, folk art, kitsch, and dream kitsch relate with one another? How do they not relate?

Benjamin also brings up war at the end of Chapter 1. Is art really an entryway for war in terms of the masses?

Here’s a link to the NES Great Gatsby game Kevin used to illustrate the way the work of art works in the age of (post) technological reproduction, with the help of Luc’s digital skills.


4 thoughts on “#6 Dream Kitsch

  1. One aspect of the reading that grabbed me was the distinction that Benjamin raises between cult value and exhibition value. I’m wondering if there is not some sort of cult-ish value in the public exhibition and mass reproduction of art? Yes, mass reproduction of art can cause a shift in the function of art from serving a ritualistic function to playing a political role — but can the widely-consumed political culture of the art embody cult value?

    • Maddie, you’ve hit the nail on the ambivalent head of mass art in Benjamin’s text–its revolutionary/political potential to unite people in new, unalienated ways (the subject at the true heart of the essay) and its negative capacity for fascist mystification by creating new cults around false auras that deny the political function of art by recapitulating the ritual (without any of the spiritual content of yore). We might locate the different effects in the mode of artistic perception by the mass audience: does the mass-produced image produce a passive society of the spectacle who perceives the new art in the old way? Or does it interact with the audience as subjects and co-creators of art’s transcendent effects, by laying emphasis on the novel situation of collective consumption and democratic dissemination; activating the age’s new sensory order, allowing viewers to see the world in new ways and thereby visualize a new world or political dreamscape together?

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