Several weeks into the coronavirus epidemic, multiple governments have declared national lockdown, leading all sorts of enterprises to suspend activities. In an effort to stay open to the public and offer an alternative to utter boredom, numerous museums and galleries have set up online platforms on their websites where everybody can access most of their collections and exhibitions and even take a virtual tour. The list includes prestigious institutions such as the Vatican Museums and the Uffizi Galleries.
This initiative is relatively recent, with pioneers like the Museum of the History of Science (Oxford) launching online virtual exhibitions in the late nineties, and the significance of this step forward in the accessibility of art is surely hard to overstate. Although having the chance to enjoy a tour of some of the world’s most prestigious art collections from one’s couch is obviously a privilege to be thankful for, some considerations are in order about the real value of this counterfeit aesthetic experience and its underlying implications.
In fact, when the exposition of artworks takes place through a distorting medium such as one’s computer screen, the impossibility to discern the sculptural quality of Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo or the trailblazing use of aerial perspective in Leonardo’s Annunciation is not the only loss the public has to mourn. There’s a deeper and subtler way in which virtual museums are detrimental to the authenticity of aesthetic sentiment, a way that is akin to the distraction of museumgoers more intent on taking pictures of a painting than on the painting itself. The thinking of German philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) in his 1935 masterpiece, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, offers us a brilliant and powerful framework to contextualize this phenomenon in a broad historical perspective.
In his essay, Benjamin investigates the roots and consequences of technological development in the arts and the implications of the emergence of photography and cinema for traditional artforms. What makes Benjamin’s analysis so relevant to our day is the notion of mechanical reproduction. Rooted in Marxism, Benjamin’s framework construes the advances in artistic technology and methodology in the early 20th century as symmetric to the technological innovation that had propelled industrialization. Just like new machines and production chains enabled factory workers to increase production volumes by unprecedented amounts and without having to exert greater effort, the camera made its disruptive appearance on the art scene and subverted the dogmas of artistic experience (how art could be consumed) and artistic practice (how art could be made). Benjamin’s thesis is that the conditions of production under capitalism are “no less noticeable in the superstructure [which includes the arts, A/N] than in the economy”. Those conditions, Benjamin contends, brush aside “concepts such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery”. In this sense, as prof. Massimo Cacciari has pointed out, Benjamin’s essay is actually a work in the philosophy of history, rather than aesthetic theory or philosophy of art.
When studying the phenomenon of virtual museums, the greater impact is on artistic experience, and concerning the latter Benjamin maintains that mechanical reproduction dismisses the importance of the hic et nunc (Latin for “here and now”), namely the presence in time and space of the work of art. A mechanical copy of a painting, like the ones we can see on a computer screen, is somehow inauthentic. As Benjamin writes: “The situations into which the product of mechanical reproduction can be brought may not touch the actual work of art, yet the quality of its presence is always depreciated.” What is found lacking in mechanically reproduced and distributed copies of the original is what Benjamin calls the aura of the artwork. The technology of replication detaches artworks from the domain of tradition, strips them of the intentions with which they were conceived and displaces their contextual value.
In Benjamin’s essay, two types of “values” of the artwork are contemplated: cult value and exposition value. The philosopher argues that initially, artistic production consisted of “ceremonial objects destined to serve in a cult”. Insomuch as the artwork was aimed at complementing ritualistic practice and symbolizing divinity, its intrinsic value didn’t lie in its being exhibited for people to admire it, but in its bearing cultural significance within specific religious or traditional borders. Later in history, as the object used in rituals and ceremony became invested with the identity of work of art, cult value was replaced by exhibition value, and art went from cult image to object of cult. The importance of exhibition value is not to be downplayed: in this latter guise, the work of art can serve as a proxy for what the artist aims to convey, a display of beauty for beauty’s sake, even a political statement and so many other functions. The relevant difference is that whereas in the age of cult value the work of art was simply a means to an end, in the age of exhibition value it acquired significance of its own, without necessarily having to complement a ritual or tradition, and by so doing it presents as an end in and of itself, rather than a gateway to something else.
A very important note is that, in the museum, the artwork doesn’t preserve its full spiritual presence, since the move from cult value to exposition value as theorized by Benjamin has already taken place. However, the rituality of the aesthetic experience is not at all foreclosed, that is, not for the crowds of museumgoers. That this is the case is evident if one simply ponders the reasons that entice us to visit museums: we attend exhibitions not just to become acquainted with the work of an artist, but also to experience the ambience of the cultural institution. The aura of the work of art might be feeble and even ailing, but it has by no means disappeared: it simply has shifted from the hic et nunc of cult value to a new form of hic et nunc, namely that of the signifying space that is the museum, where the aura emanates from the collection of objects with artistic meaning and our being surrounded by them. It’s not the aura of the artwork anymore, but the aura of the museum as a sacred space, the aura of the ritual of attending exhibitions. The recent idea of virtual museums lacks even this new version of the aura, as the assembly of individuals in the artistic venue is precluded. This way, a further loss of aura is effected, one that completes the elimination of rituality.
It might even be that we’re somewhat immune from perceiving this loss of authenticity. The birth of the smartphone – a technological development that Benjamin couldn’t witness – has subverted artistic experience once again. Whenever we visit a prestigious gallery and stand before masterpieces such as the Mona Lisa (Musée du Louvre) or Van Gogh’s Starry Night (MoMA), our first instinct is to take a snap of the artwork. Sure, we could find professional shots on the internet, admittedly superior in quality to the products of our iPhone camera, but that is not what we are looking for. As a result of the way technological development has unfolded, this is our generation’s way of connecting to the artwork (or attempting to do so), and through mechanical reproduction the artistic experience once again evolves into new forms of interaction.
Virtual museums might be our only chance to have a systematic exposure to art collections for quite a few weeks (if not months) to go, however distorting and unsatisfying that exposure might turn out to be. For that reason, they constitute a valid alternative to having to wait until the COVID-19 nightmare is finally over. But if Benjamin’s reflections on mechanical reproduction are valid, and if indeed they apply to our time and to this very singular turn of events, those of us who value the authenticity of aesthetic sentiment will go back to normal life with one more reason to rejoice.