Since at least the '60s philosopher Walter Benjamin's essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" has been a favorite for conceptualist artists working with imagery to cite in support of their work whether it actually supports it or not. Benjamin's style is murky and delphic compared to say, Clement Greenberg's, making it easier for people to pick and choose suitable phrases from it, even though much of "WAAMR"'s content was aimed at a very specific set of political circumstances (the rise of fascism in the '30s--the print era) that would seem to make it inapplicable to someone making present day art. To the extent it is used as the basis for a discussion of multiples vs originals in the art market it is a blueprint for boredom, and not good boredom. That kind of talk is dull because it's mostly about money--the context here was Creative Commons licenses and how much freedom they give the artist to also sell work.

The "here" in the last sentence is a discussion over at Paddy Johnson's blog between artist Nathaniel Stern and commenter David McBride. McBride attempts to correct Stern's reading of the Benjamin essay and then they spend several paragraphs wrangling over what the essay means, both back in the day and now. It doesn't help that the two aren't speaking the same language: Stern uses "meme" as an adjective ("meme'd") and McBride thinks he means "copied"; Stern thinks "aura" as Benjamin uses it is a form of "value" (it was really more like "residue of religious power"). Then there's the question of whether "to exploit" is good or bad. These appear to be generational misunderstandings. In any case the back and forth is interesting, if only to convince you to stay out of Benjamin country and stick to something informative and fun like "Avant Garde & Kitsch."

- tom moody 6-24-2007 10:47 pm

Hello from artMovingProjects it's time to come out of the pedestal.

- aron and zoe (guest) 6-24-2007 11:52 pm

I have another post, and then I'll come out and hang with y'all.
The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
- tom moody 6-24-2007 11:58 pm

meme'd? I'd watch that show.
- Matt W (guest) 6-25-2007 3:36 am

in the days pre-Thatcher and Reagan I would read folks like Benjamin and also the german functioanlists and think wow what a way to think about life. After a dose of undiluted capitalism I sense we wasted a lot of time back then with complex ideas translated from complex languages when we shoujld have been refreshing our ideas base. In short too much obeisance to the past give's the anti-culture do-ers too much of a free hand so I'm now in the keep your historical references light club.
- haydn (guest) 6-27-2007 9:28 pm

And better grammar would help - sorry it's my keyboard
- haydn (guest) 6-27-2007 9:29 pm

Spending several paragraphs wrangling over what an essay means is a bad thing? Hopefully not everyone thinks so, and when the essay is as significant as Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (significant not in what it says but in the status it has come to enjoy in the art world) such wrangling can be pretty satisfying. Curious that a conversation would undergo a critique, too; but our dialogue somehow managed to get a bad review and evidently we're better off talking about more accessible (and let's not forget fun) things. Why bother with Greenberg at all, when those Dave Hickey books are out there? After all, "informative" can be so boring.

Greenberg's great and fun to discuss, but the conversation was about Benjamin. And not really about money. The anti-intellectual bent that is present in American politics and culture is frustratingly noticable among artists, too, such that complex ideas are a waste of time (to paraphrase Haydn) and the work of a brilliant and novel modern philosopher is warned off (in Tom Moody's suggestion that we "stay out of Benjamin country"). The Yahoo arts and entertainment editor (is there one?) couldn't have put it better.

For what it's worth, from what I could tell by his website, Nathaniel Stern and I are of the same generation (we received our undergraduate degrees in the same year).
- David McBride (guest) 6-30-2007 8:42 pm

Hi, David,

Actually I'm more of an Adorno man.

Your use of the words "Dave Hickey" on this site are needlessly inflammatory.

I liked your initial back and forth with Nathaniel (your comment and his reply) and was planning to link to it but when I came back a few days later it had ballooned into this long thing and I started having a flashback to the '80s and early '90s, when those Frankfurt School texts were used as a cudgel to beat lesser minds in the art world. Not saying one shouldn't know the Benjamin, just sick of it still being consulted as holy writ when we're into the nth generation of "mechanical reproduction" with Google Images, Flickr, Getty Images, ubiqitous Photoshop, ad consultants for politicians, meta-meta image analysis, etc. The essay feels quaint to me.

The subject was Nathaniel's use of Creative Commons licenses in connection with the marketing of work, so, yes, that's about money.

You're new to this page, otherwise you'd know we prefer our Benjamin in practice--he's kind of a given around here. We haven't worried about "aura" in long time.

- tom moody 7-01-2007 3:14 am

The over-reaching of art theory enthusiasts is well known. But, bad flashbacks notwithstanding, the cudgel shouldn't be ripped from their hands only to be used by "lesser minds" in a beat down of their own. (I don't really believe in the "lesser minds" notion, though I agree with your sentiments.) Ultimately your take on mine and Nathaniel's conversation, at least as you wrote about it, represents an approach that drives me bonkers, for among other reasons the AM talk radio tactics it employs. I'm not so sure the essay is quaint. I might be of a "more things change, the more they stay the same" mindset, because it seems a lot of the things Benjamin is examining are very much in play here in the nth generation of mechanical reproduction.

The Dave Hickey reference my have been gratuitous. Probably every Dave Hickey reference is gratuitous.

From my perspective, the subject of the conversation was the essay, not money. I know very little about Creative Commons licenses. (Your linking above to Art Fag City's summary of the conference is a little misleading in this respect.)

- David McBride (guest) 7-03-2007 6:59 pm

Anti-intellectual. Yahoo. Misleading. AM talk radio tactics (i.e., right wing).

So many insults, so little time.

The purpose of links is so people can read what's linked to and decide for themselves whether it's relevant or "misleading."

- tom moody 7-04-2007 10:09 pm

Pardon, Tom, I'm not trying to be insulting. I felt the original post dealing with this conversation was dismissive of what was important to Nathaniel and I, and the trend of comments in its wake irk me. Ultimately I found it odd that the conversation garnered judgement in the first place (short of you participating in it).

I doubt you're anti-intellectual, I'm sure you're not right-wing... Air America uses the same tactics, by AM talk radio I mean to refer to a certain kind of discourse. I'm too ignorant to have a good sense of you or your blog; I'm only going by the commments, and the general sentiment of your original comment is representative of something even if you're not (and I doubt you are) personally so disposed.

So again, it's not my intention to be insulting. I've probably been stating my case in too strong of terms, I apologize that you feel insulted.

(...but people can't decide if something's misleading if they're being mislead)
- David McBride (guest) 7-06-2007 12:19 am

Stern's work had been discussed over several posts by Paddy Johnson regarding the Creative Commons conference in Dubrovnik and art Stern created in connection with that conference. He mentioned Benjamin in support or defense of that work. You apparently aren't interested in it, or that discussion, but wanted to discuss "the essay" (Benjamin's).
The purpose of my links to Paddy was to show that you took the subject off topic and are (still) trying to bound the discussion only to what interests you. (The essay's meaning in the 1930s, I guess.)
Beyond the initial correction of Stern, it's not an interesting interchange for the reasons I mentioned.
Readers can go read the links and see if my characterization is correct.
Your statement "but people can't decide if something's misleading if they're being misled," besides being circular, assumes people aren't capable of reading what's linked to.
I think we need to end this discussion, since you're just slinging mud.

- tom moody 7-06-2007 1:17 am

I'm not slinging mud, Tom, and I've tried to apologize for my over-heated rhetoric. You're right, let's end our dust-up.
- David McBride (guest) 7-08-2007 2:08 am

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