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 manufactured 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 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 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, one quite different in kind – and, not merely, degree.

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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, and, given today’s context, be 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

Intro. to blog

I would love to begin my blog discussing the latest Star Wars movie and tie this in with [a] recent Guerrilla Girls appearance on The Stephen Colbert Show, along with the SNL ‘Undercover Boss’ sketch with Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren, and, how these entertainment incidentals (the grist of our Postmodernist mill) tie in with where we are in our society with regard to Art and Culture.

But… I think I need to first identify my angle of approach in Getting Art : Now = where I simply want to discuss contemporary art in a way so that we all can try and understand it (why are Warhol’s soup cans so important?) and participate in the discussion no matter our level or background in art. How I will do this will be by looking at contemporary art shows at galleries and writing about the work shown. The art on the walls tells us a lot about where we are, and, who we are.

If the culture of a people is reflected in the art of a people, what is the 21st century artist reflecting with the visual works it comes up with?

The piece of pottery we look at in a museum of collected artifact – [with its ornamental bands painted in circular pattern] gives to us a glimpse of the culture that created it. The ornamental bands read perhaps as elements mimicking an aquatic nature; a people surrounded by the always-moving bands of water that surround them. The art object reflects the culture that creates it.

“And then I was thinking, what would the worker murals of today be like? They say we are a service economy now – that there are more people selling us hamburgers then making us steel and things. So would the huge wall murals of today be of the people sitting at computer terminals and the people at Burger King handing you your fries? Is there any way to make that look heroic? “Andy Warhol’s “America”; 1985

How is the world of Contemporary Visual Art adding or subtracting anything from the social fabric and does Visual Art have a role, responsibility, or play even a small part in making successful connections with the very same society that sponsors it?

Are those sporadically surfacing visual presentations of the contemporary gallery space doing anything to make us more aware of our current society, or, even better — is that what the assignment is for art? ———has it been? has it always?

Has art and its making become a therapeutic necessity for both artist and viewer; the isolated studio bubble for the artist’s inner peace, and, the contemporary gallery shows and exhibition spaces fulfilling the spiritual-community need like a coffee shop with Wi-Fi or a Y membership?
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My approach to Contemporary Visual Art would like to be one of discussing the work, the actual work on the wall, each piece individually, or, an artist’s direction granted to us by the whole. In doing this, maybe we can find some answers to some of the questions the art object raises.

The fact that so much is familiar to us about art and its making, and, the distance between artist and viewer lessening considerably over the past fifty years [with increased access to the whole idea of artists and making art], there’s a need for the Contemporary Art world to somehow blur the line between arcane language and elitist reading with that of a very savvy digitally-connected here-and-very-now society. This is our context.

With Modernism, we had the approach to painting (making a painting on a canvas in full regard to its tradition and history as a painting) tied to theoretical and practical advancement made within its own well-defined field. With Postmodernism, we no longer have the luxury of such a limited and tidy system of evolution. (Noted, BTW, only in retrospect.) We are no longer reducing painting until we reach the actual canvas material that’s painted on, in order to ‘end painting’, or, at least, to have tried to -Postmodernism -far more unmanageable in its scope. There’s so much here – and, we are swimming in it — our engagement now, (in Post-Postmodernism, Meta-Modernism or whatever term we are asked to apply) something that we have to use as our context for looking at any art object we now make.

The facet of contemporary art’s own tribal chanting of an Anti-Aestheticism attached to the visual art world’s response to Postmodernism makes for an interesting parallel with our conservative movement in our politics. This is what happens, socially, culturally, I guess. The larger we get  (our virtually boundary-less Google-search space) the more tribal we seemingly become; the more protective of our past only in response to an unmanageable present.

The new Star Wars movie (the one everyone is complaining didn’t give us anything new) gives us a glimpse of the culture that created it.  [The piece of pottery we look at in a museum of collected artifact – with its ornamental bands painted in circular pattern gives to us a glimpse of the culture that created it.]

The question we should be asking ourselves of Episode VII is not “why is it simply a remake of Episode IV?”- but, ……………what does remaking Episode IV actually say about us?
If all we did was add technological advancement to the original, is this not our art? Doesn’t this say a lot about our current culture? The fact that there is no new story-line, the fact that we are so eager to be reminded of the first Star Wars movie, to return to the mythical (we are all anxious to see Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher 40 years older) gives us a good indication of where we are culturally, and, where our next Star Wars installment might lead us.