Gawd, I am so goddamned ADD. I mean, it isn't like it comes as a surprise or anything-- I've been like this my entire life, so it isn't a new revelation or anything, it's just sometimes I have these days where I catch myself doing it, and I just think, Keee-rist, I am such. a. spaz. I'm all sixteen open projects all at once, and can I please complete one of them? I've been working on a grocery list for three days. I'm going to be completely out of food before I finish the damn thing.
(Stops. Realizes that this does not constitute writing up a grocery list, writes list, returns).
As I was saying, before I so rudely interrupted myself a thousand times, Benjamin says something interesting about the relationship between audience and actor in cinema. "The audience's identification with the actor is really an identification with the camera.... What matters is that the part is acted not for an audience but for a mechanical contrivance-- in the case of sound film for two of them." He is speaking about film, and making a comparison between the acting that happens in a film versus what happens when an actor is on stage, in a theatre, with a live audience... he is taking issue with the intercession of the mechanical device between performer and audience-- a contrivance created in order to make mass reproduction possible, and to therefore reach a wider audience.
He does not assert the same thing for the photograph (in fact, he notes that the photograph of the human countenance, as it was created in the early years of photography is the final vestige of photography's mimicry of art's original purpose and task-- that of a cult object). But if one were to examine this comparison using the other mechanical means of reproduction that takes up half of his essay, theater acting would be to film as painting is to still photography; the relationship between actor and audience in a theatre would be analogous to the relationship between subject and painter... I see his point about the actor who performs for the camera's lens rather than the audience (or, to draw out the analogy, the subject who poses for the lens rather than for the painter's eye/brush)... but he eliminates the photographer, the cinematographer, the "operator," to use Barthes' term, which brings an awkward (and violated) intimacy in the performance/pose. Yes?
Why is that? Benjamin dismisses the question of whether or not photography is a true art form without engaging the question: it is a waste of time to engage, in his view ("Earlier much futile thought has been devoted to the question of whether photography is an art. The primary question-- whether the very invention of photography had not transformed the entire nature of art-- was not raised."). He seems to see it as purely mechanical, its affect on (real) art the only question truly worth engaging. He sees only its function as indexical, and fears that with each reprinting of the indexed object that the aura of the original is a little diminished. I guess I'm beginning to see more tension in this essay that I remember seeing when I used it for my dissertation. But, then again, I'm now coming at it from a very different perspective than I was at the time.
For my dissertation I read this article simultaneously with Benjamin's essay (from the same volume) on translation, "The Task of the Translator." In some important ways these strike me as tandem essays that are really focused on the same ideas. I haven't reread "The Task of the Translator," but I remember the crux of it as being that there really wasn't anything such as a "true" translation, but that all translations rendered such a tremendous break from the original, language being so embedded, that translations became entirely separate objects from the original. To my mind, in "Art in the Age..." seems to be saying that the photograph is, in some way, a translation of the original object into something that is infinitely reproducable, and that that final product, like the translation, is an entirely different entity. In both cases, something is lost from the original during the translation process. At least in the case of photography Benjamins seems to be saying that something is lost in the original because of the translation process (the photographing, reproducing, and disseminating).
But, and here was my question, what happens when the original work of art is the original? Is a print of that negative the same, meaning-depleting reproduction as it would be if the original were a sculpture? And what of things like this photograph? It is a photograph that I made in December of 1994 in the museum in Athens. My intent was not indexical. It may have indexical qualities to it (were the slide collection of the museum to be destroyed I would have a copy of the sculpture, which was sitting in that room in the musuem in Athens in December of 1994), but I did not make this image in order to record the mere existence of the statue, nor was it a matter of recording the statue for the purpose of reproduction and dissemination. This is the first time anyone other than myself has even seen this image (I recently scanned the negative. I'd never had prints made). I'd made the image because the light was beautiful falling on the carved stone. I made a photograph; which is different from making a record. In my mind the photograph is as much the art work as the statue pictured in it. Do the auras of both diminish when reproduced? (N.B. I never really got behind the whole aura thing, though I get what he's on about).
I guess I just don't buy into the idea that the original object's "authority"-- or its essence or aura-- is diminished by photographic reproduction. I think, like the translation, it is a different object all together. One that references the original, surely. But I just don't buy the idea that the existence of that separate object detaches the object from its tradition. The photograph above doesn't remove the sculpture from the tradition of ancient Greek sculpture. Furthermore, if there is any "detachment" that has happened to that object (whether that refers to detachment from its original "cultic" purpose, detachment from its original cultural milieu, or from its original site), it happened long ago: the ancient Greeks did not place it in the museum. I guess I'm more concerned with the kinds of detachment that has occurred to objects like the "Elgin" marbles than I am with what might occur when someone takes a picture of them.
Indeed, it is a strange feeling to see one's self in photographs. I'm always far less disturbed by self-portraits (in which I was participant. The sole participant.) than in photographs from other people. In that second, before you catch yourself, you are forced to see yourself as you are seen. The images is not simply what someone else might see when they see you... it is, exactly, what someone else saw when they saw you. (Barthes' noeme once again)... the photograph is always that which has been....
Interestingly, Benjamin, writing in the interwar years, seems to pre-sage both things like blogging and things like flickr, which is (to me) related to this issue of photography's power to allow you to detach your mirrored self for presentation in public (because a blog does something similar, just not visual, no?). He isn't terribly kind about it (these methods of detaching one's self from the mirror and creating a package for public consumption)... as someone who both blogs and posts to flickr, I think I need to meditate on that for a bit longer....