Tag Archives: Walter Benjamin

Subverted Experiences

     A fake Renoir owned by Donald Trump

Anyone can hang a version of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in their home or view it online.  But seeing the original fulfills the desire for a pilgrimage. 

What does it mean for a painting or a musical piece to be endlessly replicated and copied? Is a good reproduction of the Mona Lisa still a Mona Lisa?  Is a march by John Phillips Sousa captured on old Victor acoustic recordings that he hated still a Sousa march? And what does it say about our sensibilities that a lot of people on the rim of the Grand Canyon seem to be preoccupied with a digital device rather than the glorious and unmediated view?

Budding critics and art scholars are usually required to take a look at Walter Benjamin’s seminal 1935 piece, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. He addresses the question of how we should treat a copy of an original at a point in time when copies of everything are mostly what we know.  Benjamin claims an original has an “aura” that a  reproduction cannot match.  And  yet, as the recent BBC/Netflix series Fake or Fortune makes clear, it may require the precision of an electron microscope to tell the difference between a Renoir and a good fake. We see millions of paintings done in the style of French master.  If we love the style, why not love them all, regardless of their pedigrees?

To say the least, our relationship with an original in its own place is peculiar and unstable.  Anyone trying to actually see the Mona Lisa in Paris or Vincent van Gogh’s iconic Starry Night in New York is likely to experience the same kind of crowding that happens on a subway platform. The mob scenes in the galleries often block a clear view of a painting, mostly because of a forest of cameras held high to catch the moment.  What brings these crowds out?  Is the real thing that much better than a good print?  Do the hordes expect some sort of transference-by-proximity?

It’s usually the case that a photo of a painting or a bootleg of a concert will be a degraded form of the original. But I suspect the expectation of seeing more in the original is usually not the point. A better explanation is fundamentally social: tied to being in the presence of a recognized icon, even when the actual experience is surely a long way from what the artist envisioned as an ideal viewing experience.  Indeed, the fact that there are so many copies of a cultural artifact surely increases the impetus to find the original.


Being in the space of the original is what functions as a kind of secular pilgrimage.

My theory: as individuals, we occasionally need just one degree of separation rather than six.  We need to be at the scene of what everyone else celebrates second hand.  And we need to take home some evidence that we were there. Anyone can hang a version of the Mona Lisa in their home or view it online. But being in the space of the original is what functions as a kind of secular pilgrimage. Somehow our status as an occupant of the planet is formally affirmed.  Our own Hajj can lay claim to the association factor that comes with being in the same place.

None of us are immune to this pull.  Ask anyone what they have put on their personal ‘bucket list,’ and you are bound to hear about places that are crowded with people on their own pilgrimages. These might include throngs of tourists in Times Square, the daily homages paid to any number of pieces of art sitting in a city’s premier museum, or even a tour of the Warner Brothers back lot. We seek the aura that Benjamin suggests, even though the circumstances of our attendance usually end up sabotaging what is or was so sublime about the original.

     Midwest Street, the Warner Brothers Back Lot

For example, in Burbank we can still visit outdoor sets used in the shows The Music Man, Gilmore Girls and La La Land.  But with film, the fakes are actually the sets, which are used along with a number of  photographic “cheats” to make them look authentic. With film, the real thing is what actually ends up on a screen out in Duluth or Denver.

Of course being ‘in the scene’ says little about understanding what makes a work a masterpiece. For that we need the practiced eye of a dedicated appreciator, and maybe a sense of the consciousness an artist originally experienced.  All may be more easily captured away from the crowds and planted in front of a good facsimile. But of course this deprives us of the social act of visiting our own version of Mecca.

The Queasy Rhetoric of Cultural Appropriation

Porgy and Bess                                                                                  WFMT

Many Americans worry when the defining features of one group are used for commercial purposes by another.

Identity politics defines our age and is scattered through the nation’s history.  A nation spread across a continent is bound to be divided into regional and social allegiances, even though these social anchors often trigger thoughtless comments and lasting resentments.

We are all complicit.  Thinking in terms of one’s own community first is a natural impulse. But inevitably sensitivities can be stepped on when ‘outsiders’ adopt or imitate another group’s practices and traditions.  This is a familiar issue with the names of the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Indians.  Are these sports teams entitled to use native American symbols?  Is the use of key words and symbols an inherent complement to the first Americans, or a commercial gambit the teams are not really entitled to?  Legal entitlement is one thing.  Cultural entitlement is less definitive, if no less involving.  As with so many linguistic issues, applications of a group’s lexicon or symbols are almost always subject to different understandings. And in these days when nerve endings are more exposed, the appropriation of any group’s names and artifacts can raise eyebrows.  In our climate of discontent, even viewing a mainstream Hollywood film from a previous decade can make us queasy.  Why are there only African American actors in 50’s comedies playing maids or butlers?  Why was the lead in the popular Charlie Chan series given to a Swedish American?

What may seem like acts of empathy or flattery to one person can be another’s example of expropriation.

No short essay can do this subject justice.  But the questions we might ask are still valuable.  While Americans in the 21st Century are more open to claims of “cultural misappropriation,” we are still search for the outer limits of this kind of critique.  Who gets to be an authority on Thai or Mexican food?  Who gets to be a French chef?  Likewise, did George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward step over the line to write the iconic black opera, Porgy and Bess?  I’m glad they did.  But was the story of the impoverished residents of Charleston’s Catfish Row theirs to tell?  In its time (1935) Porgy was a daring extension of a  tradition-bound form.  But what may seem like acts of empathy or flattery to one person can be another’s example of expropriation.

We can all cite less cosmic examples of cultural infringement. When I was a visiting professor years ago I can remember my chagrin when otherwise wonderful British colleagues greeted me with an over-the-top “Howdy Partner!,” delivered in a theatrical Midwestern drawl.  Minor stuff for sure; I suppose I could have responded with a fake Lancashire accent. But what would be the point? I would have preferred a greeting in their own voice.

The image of an American melting pot has begun to yield to the realities of a rising tribalism. This idea was behind Pete Wells’ concern in a recent New York Times review of a restaurant built on the side of an old recording studio.  The decor featured lots of images of African American recording artists like Stevie Wonder, even though none of those performers apparently recorded at that 10th Avenue location.  This made Wells “uncomfortable.” “Stevie Wonder will always be cool,” he noted, “but a restaurant dreamed up by real estate developers doesn’t automatically become cool by putting him on the wall.”1  

Is there a legacy–a history, an origin–that is a community’s property, but not necessarily the culture’s?

This issue raises the question of what constitutes fair use of a group’s symbols.   Does the existence of a common language within the culture extend to the words and images associated with a specific sub-group?  Or is there a legacy–a history, an origin–that is a community’s property, but not necessarily the culture’s?

In a famous essay the journalist Walter Benjamin considered a related problem: the difference between original works of art and the sometimes convincing copies made of them.  “The work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility” raised better questions than answers.  But he did make the point that an original retains an “aura” that will always make it different and special, even while it may be cheapened by its copies. Our age has simply pushed the discussion forward to the moral question of whether those outside an exploited group have the right to use elements of the group’s legacy.

However one feels about a particular case, the viability of  the idea of ‘offensive misappropriation’ is a clear indicator that bonds to specific communities may now be stronger than bonds to the culture.  That’s surely one reason the idea of “tribalism” has become the word of the moment in discussions about current American attitudes.

1 New York Times, June 20, 2018, p. D7.