I have been reading the essays of the late critic, Walter Benjamin, most famous for his 1936 piece, The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproduction (an earlier translation of this essay is available here). Wikipedia notes of this essay that it has been,
…influential across the humanities, especially in the fields of cultural studies, media theory, architectural theory and art history. Written at a time when Adolf Hitler was already Chancellor of Germany, it was produced, Benjamin wrote, in the effort to describe a theory of art that would be “useful for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art.” He argued that, in the absence of any traditional, ritualistic value, art in the age of mechanical reproduction would inherently be based on the practice of politics.
While Benjamin writes of the authenticity of a work of art and how a reproduction lacks this (and how this affects the experience of the viewer), it came to me that some forms of art – novels in particular, but also the book in which his essays are reproduced – are meant for mass reproduction. Without the technology of mass reproduction, printed material was limited in its influence and reach. This in turn limited literacy itself.
Benjamin also mentions the lithograph as a technology that reproduced art, both of which are related to the printing revolution. He doesn’t mention its contemporary technology, steel engraving, which was developed at the same time. Lithography is a chemical process, while engraving is mechanical.
But what I think he ignores is that neither was intended to reproduce a piece of art, but rather to create a unique piece that could be reproduced with integrity (for example, illustrations in a book, but engraving was also used extensively for printing money). The artists who perfected these forms meant for their work to be copied and printed. Only when the plate or stone wore out from use, and finer details become smudged or lost, would the piece begin to lose its authenticity.
Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence. This includes the changes which it may have suffered in physical condition over the years as well as the various changes in its ownership. The traces of the first can be revealed only by chemical or physical analyses which it is impossible to perform on a reproduction; changes of ownership are subject to a tradition which must be traced from the situation of the original.
Benjamin was not merely commenting on art, but on politics and society. He opens with a somewhat mixed Marxist analysis, rambling a bit before making the point that modern reproduction takes art from its original use as religious and ritual items to the realm of the political. Mechanical reproduction removes art from its role, and in doing so changes the viewer’s aesthetic appreciation of it. In the essay, he gives the example of a photograph of a cathedral, which removes the viewer from the emotional and religious experience of being in the actual building.