Music’s Reproducibility and Our Reflected Reality

Most important through Benjamin’s detailed theses on the “Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility” is his consideration of the unique temporal and contextual position of art, as every reproduction is lacking in “the here and now of the work of art-its unique existence in a particular place.”[1] Benjamin pinpoints the value of art in its authenticity- as it underlined its contextual place both ‘here and now’ at the time of its creation. Today recorded music is devoid of its mystical fundamental aura, as is all highly reproducible art; the instantaneous availability of modern recordings alienates the listener from the music as a physical production, created by humans to effectively showcase their manipulation and direction over variable tempos and time. Instead of retaining the original ambience and performance value of analog sound, records and digital sound files and other acousmatic sounds, (those without a defined sound source) are briskly erasing all remaining foundations of a use-value of music, performance and in our arts in general.

Benjamin indicates in his essay, that “technological reproductions is more independent of the original than is manual reproduction” and “technological reproduction can place the copy of the original in situations which the original itself cannot attain…the cathedral leaves its site to be received in the studio of an art lover; the choral work performed in an auditorium or in the open air is enjoyed in a private room.”[2] As art is removed from its historic and cultural context, through technological reproduction, it loses its authentic value and is detached from its own sphere of tradition, where original motivation and content provided art viewers a sense of understanding and grounds to derive use-value. Technological reproduction erodes a work’s unique place in time as it “substitutes a mass existence for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to reach the recipient in his or her own situation, it actualizes that which is reproduced.”[3]

When a work is copied, it’s immediately devoid of all originality and its natural aura, but by the same token it becomes colossally more accessible to the masses, as individuals are able to acquire and display art in their own private dwellings. This has a twofold consequential effect; generally speaking, more people are granted access to the mystifying and awe-inspiring characteristics of art, however they are simultaneously both illumed by the work’s stimulation of their senses, while having no means of properly and cogently comprehending the material. To the masses, proprietorship over high art gave individuals a new means of expressing their own tastes and venerations, but this soon blossomed into a ripened consumerist culture possessed by hoarding art purely for display purposes and accumulation.  Reproductions allow the viewer a chance to grow closer and more intimate with a work of art, thus enhancing their own experience with the piece. Benjamin mentions that as a result of the alienation of art and its aura, and imminent due to the way mass reproducibility erases individuality amongst art, “these two processes lead to a massive upheaval in the domain of objects handed down from the past- a shattering of tradition which is the reverse side of the present crisis and renewal of humanity.”[4] Examining historical proceedings with a Marxist lens, Benjamin links the developing reproducibility of art, with the history of human collectives and our ever-changing mode of perception.

“The way in which human perception is organized- the medium in which it occurs- is conditioned not only by nature but by history.”[5] As art became more easily reproducible, (achieving a greater sort of mass existence) human collectives coincidentally were evolving to better accommodate their numbers. Upon the further broadening of enlightenment throughout the world, in the course of the past four or five centuries, Aristocracies and the bourgeoisie were upset by mass upheavals and democratic revolutions, attempting to install more egalitarian systems in place of their authoritative regimes. As art substituted a unique existence for a mass one, human societies were essentially trying to achieve the same sort liberation and universal consistency. The increasing significance of the masses in contemporary life evolved alongside the desecration of the aura, as the “stripping of the veil from the object, the destruction of the aura, is the signature of a perception whose “sense for sameness in the world” has so increased that, by means of reproduction, it extracts sameness even from what is unique.”[6] Similarly to our devaluation of the aura, our historically affected mode of perception is attempting to extract that same resemblance from amongst individuals in our own society. However, instead of stripping the uniqueness of individuals to generate mobilized masses driven towards a common good for their community, there is a necessity for humanity to recognize its own deterministic mode of perception in relation to its contemporary reality. A mentality that simultaneously recognizes the likeness of all human bodies, between one individual and another, while maintaining the notion that all people are individuals and the chief directorates of their own lives and modes of thinking. “The alignment of reality with the masses and of the masses with reality is a process of immeasurable importance for both thinking and perception.”[7] It is interesting to consider McLuhan’s own essay “The Medium is the Message” in relation to our evolving consciousness’s as deterministic results of historical proceedings, and how integral our conditioning is to our modes of perception, as the facilities with which we have been taught to think both free and limit us in our capacity to understand life and the interconnectedness of universal forces. Our world is on the brink of an evolutionary transformation in human consciousness and organization; now, it is only a matter of relaying information through our globally connected consciousness, utilizing art and other aesthetic achievements of mankind to instruct and educate ourselves, in correlation with our historically (not naturally) produced modes of perception. Reality is what we make it to be, and if we collectively recognize the quandary of our own existence, a theme that almost all forms of art deal with in one way or another, we can reattribute the aura to its proper position as a legitimatizing force within our massively reproducible artistic sphere, and reconnect the lost link between art and it’s inherent use-value.

Benjamin ascribes that formerly “the uniqueness of art is identical to its embeddedness in the context of tradition. Of course, this tradition itself is thoroughly alive and extremely changeable.”[8] Cultures and social systems incessantly fluctuate, as is natural to human institutions, but that doesn’t mean that art must be displaced and decontextualized every time society develops in a divergent manner. Art, especially music, embodies the ephemeral qualities of human life, and thus serves as an effective tool for artists and their audiences to augment their self-conscious reflection and recontextualize their own placement in the grand scheme of the Cosmos.  “The unique value of the “authentic” work of art has its basis in ritual, the source of its original use-value.”[9] It is through these social and sacred proceedings that art emerges with actual use-value, through ritualistic devotion or contempt as traditionally practiced. “Technological reproducibility emancipates the work of art from its parasitic subservience to ritual…but as soon as the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applied to artistic production, the whole social function of art is revolutionized. Instead of being founded on ritual, it is based on a different practice: politics.”[10] Our present conditions show that art, especially the mass use to which music is implemented in society, has removed the auratic presence of art and created the theology of l’art pour l’art, which subsequently spawned the idea that there is such a thing of “pure” art, “which rejects not only any social function but any definition in terms of a representational content.”[11] Music is exhibiting itself as a more and more abstract form of art, yet it is still a direct product of the human mind in response to mankind’s environment and surroundings. With proper guidance, a revitalization of the aura is possible, if we recognize the transient characteristics of both our traditions and our lives. Music is proving to be an exemplary force to challenge the idea of l’art pour l’art; although technological reproducibility has been a liberating respite for freeing art from its ‘parasitic subservience to ritual’ it has instantaneously revolutionized our conceptions of authenticity, and has placed us in a situation in which we must reconsider our notions of use-value. Perhaps music will be the formal key to regenerating a newly enlightened and instructive discourse on how to understand art contextually, and reinvigorate an illumed artistic body to be the forerunners of new modes of human perception, and instruments of the implementation of a new human reality.

[1] Benjamin, Walter. “Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility”p. 253

[2] 254

[3] 254

[4] 254

[5] 255

[6] 256

[7] 256

[8] 256

[9] 256

[10] 256-7

[11] 256


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