From Mail Order Catalog to Amazon-Prime: or, Walter Benjamin’s Loss of Aura All Over Again

Gold Marilyn Monroe 1962

When Andy Warhol silkscreened Marilyn Monroe off-register onto a stretched canvas, he did two things: he called attention to the distance between the mythical and the real, (the iconic and the ordinary) and, at the same time, with the same action, he closed that very same distance.  The gesture’s the thing with Warhol; his art found in the “placing upon” while engaging in the ironic erasing of.

Mythic proportion (our perception of things seeming larger-than-life) is throughout history unveiled for us as individual societies progress.  Belief systems created to understand the world moved in the direction of science [of knowing] and mythic distances closed. Ancient Greece (Western Art’s primum mobile) gives us evidence in their art’s evolving anthropomorphism: gods and goddesses becoming more and more human in character (sculptural) depiction.  Distance is lessened further during the 15th century Italian Renaissance:  paintings applying manmade formulae to otherworldly spaces (utilizing Brunelleschi’s linear perspective) in the disavowal of spatial translations of  the heavenly with the earthly. In result, we arrive at a shattering of mythical distance once again.  The shifting from earthly to heavenly (specifically, for our purposes here, in Western Art before Modernism) is a constant throughout the intervening centuries. 

By the time we greet Modernism in the early 20th century, American culture had, [was actively in the process of] creating its own version of gods and goddesses in the form of film stars, sports idols and other larger-than-life figures which would become for Warhol, the ideal subject matter for his art.  His art’s meaning would, in turn, depend upon this reality of the mythical, the sacred, the distanced.

Warhol’s art evinces itself in the mechanical reproduction of popular culture icons, offering us the disillusion he sought (the truth he wished to reveal) as he blurred the line between the iconic and the everyday real.  Warhol’s Marilyn, his Jackie O. his Elvis fall from their pedestal as he places them silkscreened-smudged and mass-produced onto canvases, and, as the ink itself runs its mechanical course simultaneously upon it. Image is blurred; literally, smudged, and made everyday by the process and, maybe, more significantly, by the quantity produced. Twenty Mona Lisas placed off-register in deliberate mass reproduction removes the mystery by engaging the process. With every image reproduced, repeated, enumerated, the place of aura, the line between the iconic and the real diminishes.

The point to note here, though, is that there [was] a line there for Warhol to blur; the distinction existed; the fall from the distant and the sacred, real. This is what accounts for the disillusionment we, [as a generation living through it] experienced.  We see the metaphorical in changing our Marilyn Monroe from iconic pedestal to many-numbered reproduction, no longer able to maintain mythic distance.  Postmodernism simply ensures for us the finality of the loss of the mythic, the illusion we once had the opportunity to momentarily believe in.

“Shelf Life”, linoleum block print, 2006

Today, though, is quite different.

Today, we are not given the distance needed to note any such fall. We are as close to our Beyoncés and our Lady Gagas as we can be, just in terms of sheer mediated enumeration and our immediate access to it.  There is no mythological goddess in the distance for us to worship – for the form in image that these icons take, and, the one they took from the start – [one of enumeration and accessibility] makes this no longer applicable. Lady Gaga was never mythic, sacred. She was never that far away from us.

The use of the tally mark eventually morphs into numerals to signify ‘all of those many marks’. A threshold reached; the realizing of an amount unmanageable results in a change in form. Degree influences kind.

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We are no longer a society of manageable quantities: _the Sears, Roebuck Catalogue, Life Magazine and The National Geographic Magazine, only three broadcasting networks on our television sets, the tangible vinyl records of the music of the ‘70’s taking up only one aisle in a Caldor Dept. store, and, a handful of books found on high school required reading lists, and these lists fairly standard: manageable, finite. We all read Animal Farm in the 8th grade; Lord of the Flies in 9th; The Great Gatsby in 10th; Our Town in 11th, and The Grapes of Wrath in 12th.

Today – there is no end to the amount of books, musicians, writers, bloggers, magazines, publications, artists, news cycles, references, television entities [and, options for viewing], videos, movies, images, data, tweets, memes, texts, opinions, information, margins, status, standards, trends, and, more importantly, those which we have access to: our access to it making all the difference.

“Google estimated in 2010 that there were 300 exabytes (that’s 300 followed by 18 zeros) of human-created information in the world, and that more information was created every two days than had existed in the entire world from the dawn of time to 2003.” 1

We are not only living in more of what we used to have, but, by this very fact, are experiencing it in a new way. This translates to a change in the way we read things; our act of reading influenced by the enumeration of the readable (sheer amount available) and the form in which the ‘enumerated readable’ takes.

For those of us who grew up in an age when the amount of media access was limited in comparison; limited in amount of options, we were more assured of a knowledge base (whether  accurate or biased or mythical itself) we could manage, and, given the limited sources, far more willing to trust without the built-in skepticism needed for today’s source-sifting.  

We took our time, because we had the opportunity to, and, because we were dealing with a fairly manageable amount. Most of what we knew was determined by what was within our own tangible reach. Library aisles were walked; reference book sections arrived at; their physical spaces experienced in sound, smell, sight and touch. Screens were limited to one small box in the corner of one room in our house. This was our limited-in-perspective access to (a) much larger world.  

For the pre-digital world generation, the purchase of an LP record closed a sacred distance that truly existed, brought us nearer to the music artist we cherished as much as the photographs we clipped from magazines and posted on our (real) walls. These were larger-than-life images held up by scotch-tape — significant in a way not quite possible today.

Today, iPods hold our music — but not in tangible “cherishable” form, (a record album cover’s physical wear relative to its degree of “cherishedness”), but in an un-felt invisible digital code. Even the act of purchasing a record album has lost its recollected significance. It would be difficult to do this, I think, with an electronic purchase download onto a replaceable-when-it-breaks device –:  we probably won’t recall our favorite iPod, our favorite Kindle.

–The tactile objects of the past will remain just that, (becoming even more of a museum treasure) while the scanning and processing of our cultural products (literature & art) turns what used to be individual hand-held objects into a field of digital code. 2

The way we seem to be viewing our present is in an overlapping of distance and myth with closeness and real; the experienced disillusionment now a perceived “something cherished”. In a way, this “Before Digital” generation views things with the advantage of a luxury of loss.

The Warhol mass-reproduced image can now be read as our Marilyn Monroe before she was silkscreened; that very gesture in demystifying as our latest version of “hand-held treasure” — as we hold onto not the myth which was lost, but rather, the memory of our personal experience of losing it. 

This is not unlike Keats in his choice to reject both nightingale and urn for “being too happy in thy happiness”, far preferring –[like those of us experiencing now], (with our aim to see the 2016 Star Wars installment simply for the anticipated reunion of Fisher and Ford) a charged sentimental nostalgia as cherished experience.

At the least, with our worn-out record collections and recollected awe—– [when Lucas first gave to us ‘special effects’ (BCGI), that, at the time, were thought to be the size of galaxies ]- we have something to weigh against the present – and, with this, our experience not only varies in degree, but in kind.

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Our reliving of yet another loss of aura is worth the introspective reflecting, but that is as far as it will go. We may still find ourselves nostalgic for imagined innocent times, but, these times were simply for us, clouded in myth; our limited number and access keeping us from the real; not unlike Plato’s cave, where shadows served us far longer than maybe they should have. Today’s digital is the new linear perspective.  Lady Gaga could not be more real for us to appreciate, nor her closeness, more grateful for. Video Killed the Radio Star —– once again. We will gladly sacrifice the sacred for the access, the shadow for the real pixels on our relentless high-def screens.

As with our mythical bird’s song – a song that does not change, it “singest of summer in full-throated ease” – but, fortunately, [and, regardless of any lines blurred or distance lost], our listening does.

“In my mind and in my car, we can’t rewind, we’ve gone too far………..” 3

1 In the Age of Information, Specializing to Survive By J. PEDER ZANE   MARCH 19, 2015    

2 L. Szpak – “Some Thoughts On Language and Its Evolution in the Advancing of a Digital Technology” 2010

3 THE BUGGLES lyrics: “Video Killed The Radio Star” Copyright © 2000-2016 AZLyrics.com

    Contemporary Photography’s Response to Digital

cmyk

Forget the illusions of Surrealism and Realism and History Painting and Portrait Painting and Religious Painting and the Still-life.  There is nothing but the process here, the process of painting.

 

Like American painting of the 1940’s, Photography opens itself up to the gesture and visceral connections we (once) had with paint.  No illusion suffices when the darkroom magic no longer means anything, just as the representational after WWII proved meaningless.

When the photographer’s eye loses out to digital photography’s own technological magic, when any image, all images, made, taken, shown can be easily edited, cropped, and placed into any context, when this is the new norm, Photography readjusts.

 

The “eye” of the photographer – the ability to capture something from nature ‘as is’ – print full-frame – is no longer viable.  The prestige we once placed on the skill of the photographer’s eye has been replaced with the egalitarian ‘so can I’.  Photoshop toolbars are the new darkroom and access to it all exists no matter what level or claim.

 

The Everyman’s camera with digital grip on capturing every moment before us – because we can — must somehow be distanced from the art photographer working diligently at his/her craft.  Rather than a World War to diminish the significance of painting things from nature ……we have the ubiquity of Digital diluting the democratized pool of images we now all make with abandon.

 

It is no wonder that new work in Contemporary Photography is found returning to that of origin, and, with it, possibly, an aim for the retrieval of aura in the literally-pulled-from-the-negative; a move to discussing the process of Photography itself. The subject matter contemporary artists photograph now is imbued with the process of making one.  And, the subject matter photographed is likewise ensured of greater meaning because it is indeed, a (true) photo.  Artists photograph Photography now, leaving the task of recording sunsets and snapping in successive impulse the documenting of the everyday to the now incurable digital.

 

 

In the late 19th Century, Painting went through its own self-evaluative phase with the advent of the camera –its arrival on the scene challenging artists re-presenting likenesses on canvas.  If the camera can reproduce nature as it is, (and, much more directly) we painters must give the Nature we aim to imitate with our brushes and canvas another angle, another view.  Realistic portrayal is no longer the painter’s aim, but one of creating more of an impression of what we see (one which examines the Science of light and the study of refraction, saturation and hue) rather than what the artist has worked at for centuries to achieve.  The camera changes everything.

 

Today, Photography has been taken over by the dpi pixelation of image —  computer-generated and electronically processed without any gestural, personal touch or hand in the making other than the holding-at-arm’s-length distance (no longer eye pressed tightly peering through the closeness of the camera’s lens) one of the many electronic devices we carry around without distinction, and then, the tapping of a few remote keys on a keyboard while awaiting the contrast-adjusted screen resolution’s response.

 

With digital technology we can paint photos, make photos look like paintings, scan photos and print them as if paintings, photos, or, maybe, if we wish, both.  (There is even an app that can make an image photographed look as though a painting by Thomas Hart Benton!) The origin of source is rejected for the contrivance of cut and paste and digital manipulation.  The advantage of the eye in seeing something unique in the real world is overwhelmed by the savvy nature of the digital screen’s editing options offered at the touch of a distanced keystroke.  Darkroom pools of chemicals and physical film emulsions dipped and swirled and submerged and pulled are all part of the mystical past printed in sepia-toned nostalgia.  The capturing of the observable taken by our clunky cameras and then preserved in a photograph has been replaced by the ease and facility and access and uniformity of technology’s latest picture-taking app.

 

What then, can the artist who works in Photography do to maintain a level of artistic creation, freshness, scholarship, expertise, and, add to the discipline by contributing to the evolution of Photography in offering commentary on this phenomenon through one’s art, one’s own photographic work?  How does the artist comment upon this digital world and its competing role?  Where are the Impressionists of today and what are they doing to unite past history and our current ‘taking of pictures’?

 

The photographer’s image will now, always be measured against the new paradigm, the digital world’s offering — (in both quantity and kind); the photograph no longer able to carry itself just by virtue of “its being”.  “Is that digitally created?” is the context all photography now faces.  It no longer matters if it looks one way or another.  It is now about the viewing of such a thing amidst – and, how it reads now that technology has diluted [in its own nonchemical solution] Photography’s very origin, process and meaning.

 

 

2017

 

that venue for showing art

caa show announcement

Regarding the static painted visual art piece on a wall, or, the static sculpted object on a pedestal, what are we to read beyond the object’s own “art-object-ness” in a recycled environment of reference and quotation? Can the object we now make be successful at translating our meaning given its expected reception in a now seemingly all-too familiar field? Is the gallery context itself somehow inhibiting as it moves from exclusive space visited by students of art and other artists to the David Byrne familiar with Eric Fischl painting art’s own art-going morphology?

Is it like the phenomenon of digital accessibility —- with too much equaling too ordinary and expected for us to even blink an eye no matter the possible strength of the work residing? Can the static art object give us the reading it means to in its current context of “being art in a gallery”? or, have we become too savvy an audience, too familiar with how the system works for the art object itself to move beyond the space it relies upon for its translation?

Is Visual Art stuck in its own necessary replication, unable to move beyond the “look” of what we know art on a wall to be, to move beyond the entrenched orthodoxy of this look, this paradigm? Does the gallery space by default, due to our familiarity with it – create for the artist a space impossible for understanding the actual work?  Is our awareness of “looking at art” getting in the way?  Has our method of looking overwhelmed the actual art (if there is any) to be found?

Not unlike a Kafka character caught in truest dilemma, the balance for both lies between the method used (gallery space = traveling circus ) and, the very awareness of the method by both the artist (when placing work in such a prescribed space) and the viewer (upon experiencing that space).  Both require an isolation without self-awareness, and, given our method of viewing art – (which includes taking along our image-conscious selves), neither of these seems possible.

Sept.  2018

today’s realism and bowls of fruit drawn, painted

 

Apples with PLU - entry 1

  • Apples [w/ PLU Sticker] in Pewter Bowl : ( w/r/t the history of Still Life painting)  37” x 46” – Digital – inkjet collage – 2016

 

A realistically drawn apple may be read as the mastering of a skill in the field of representational drawing.  There are endless ways in which the drawing can be done:  varying materials, altering the approach in tackling formal qualities, playing with scale to name but a few.

 

The subject of an apple, or, bowl of fruit, allows for a connection with 2-dimensional art’s tradition, its history in both the academic “learning how to draw” and the prominent genre works found in painting.  This connecting to the past empowers the apple, the fruit as subject matter, referencing a linear progression comprising any true discipline or study which, in turn, genially accounts for its validity and, yes, its relevance.

 

Depending upon how “good” the drawn fruit is (honoring the laws of Realism) will determine the level of mastering.  The drawing becomes somewhat of a biographical sketch of where the artist is at the time in the advancement of a learned technical skill.  Like hitting the perfect note in music, the wows of the viewer are in response to the artist’s performance, the result of a practiced skill, the visual cue to an artist’s bettering this sought-after facility.  We are struck by the artist’s ongoing mastery of drawing something convincingly “real” on a 2-D surface.

 

In looking at a drawing of an apple or fruit Still-life made today, we might be asked to look at it not in terms of success or failure of a bench-marked realism, (our go-to assessment as viewers) but rather in terms of the choice of subject matter itself.  It is in the choosing to draw an apple, fruit bowl that is now our subject matter.  Not unlike our original choosing of the apple, the enactment, the act of drawing or painting is now our content.

 

The weight fruit carries today is not the same in origin, when introduced as subject as it was for Bruegel, Chardin, Courbet.  Our supermarket-stickered fruit reads far differently than the anonymous peasant apple-carting of a Bruegel, the bourgeoisie interior sitting-room of a Chardin, or the crumbling aristocracy of a Courbet.  Our fruit drawings or paintings hold all of these weighted meanings in reference and tribute which is now our subject.

 

In today’s world of the ease of digital rendering, and, an omnipresence of PLU- stickered fruit, the romantic notion of a fruit bowl set in golden-hued light on an elegantly arranged table seems foreign, out-of-date, remote, exotic.  The only connection to this is precedent, art’s own history’s role in continuity of subject for meaning.  We paint and draw fruit because we know painted and drawn fruit register as art.  Still-lifes are wonderful rendering workshops and tradition gives us the proverbial nod to go right ahead and draw the apple, so to speak.  Weight of subject matter is found with a nod from history and the enactment of the actual making.

 

The art part, if there is any to be found, might arise, for instance, from the enacted, the activity or ‘scene from a play’, [maybe Chekhov in spirit?] where the fruit bowl is set upon an old yet elegant gate-legged table, and a drawing is worked on by an actor on stage, the actual result never seen by the audience.

The fruit bowl need not be drawn or painted well, poorly, or … at all, even, for the visual prompt to our much larger subject matter is there, found in the reference to an acceptable academic art-making approach and made real by our artist’s set-up of easel and oils; and, our artist, maybe long-since disillusioned —- yet still searching for meaning in a palette of colors fully within physical reach, but, irretrievably lost to one’s failing eyesight or quickly closing memory.

 

May  2018

Subject: digital & the making of images

We live in a world where digital transmissions of images and ideas are only eclipsed in quickness by the changing of the very technology itself and its effects on our society.  We seem momentarily remiss of a cumulative history while we capture with a digital ferocity every current changing element of our own very-now life.  Thousands of digital photographs live and breathe on our tiny hand-held cameras. Thousands.  And thousands which will never see the form as “printed photograph” in which to record history.  It is all a digital blur which will change the next time we “load our cameras”. 

ben tree

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The quickness of a ten year old’s hand and mind as he moves the mouse to edit a photo that he took of a tree against the sky from his own backyard is the subject.  The photo, in origin, having the tree a bit out of focus, transforms itself from an “okay” photograph taken by a child to an exposition of technical facility by this very same child who downloads it and edits it and crops it and saves it to his file.  This action changes everything. 

All of a sudden the idea of a “good photo” precedes documentation of both tree and sky, trial and error, and the focus shifts to the child’s ability to use the computer skills he has mysteriously acquired in order to “technically adjust” his photo.  The photo then begins to talk about the incredible facility this ten year old has already assumed in his role as “photographer”, as seer, as observer, as “maker of images” , and most amazingly, as technician:  a child responding to the availability of a digital world before him.  

The actual (original) photo of the sky, or the tree, may never see the light of day again, but that’s okay.  The art is not in the printed photo, but in the observation of, and extension of this newfound facility. 

In looking at a child’s activity of photographing a tree against the sky — what is the significance of [our] attempts to capture something with our cameras and then somehow [given technology] be able to then ‘fix it’ later ?   The photo as documentation of the actual world becomes secondary to the activity of manipulating it to a preconceived liking. 

Where does this process of alteration come from, and where does the actual tree fall in all of this, and why, in the end, [upon reflection of both the ‘tangible’ digital picture and method of technical facility ] did we stop to take a photo of [a] tree to begin with?  Do we applaud the visual given us (in the form of a photo of a tree against a sky) or do we applaud the facility which got us there?  What is it that we are actually taking a picture of ?

April  2016