In 1824, if you wanted to disseminate an image of innocents senselessly killed in the Mediterranean during a brutal conflict, you had to paint one yourself. If you were talented enough, your painting would be exhibited, analyzed, studied, and eventually hung in the Louvre, but above all it would remain your painting, forever connected with your name. In 2015, if you wanted to disseminate an image of innocents senselessly killed in the Mediterranean during a brutal conflict, all you needed was a Twitter account. Just over two years after the body of a refugee child washed up on the shores of Southern Europe, the iconic photo of him—face down, red-shirted—has appeared atop the pages of nearly every major newspaper, on numerous humanitarian websites, and in countless social media feeds. Very few of the people who posted this image knew the name of its photographer, or that she was a twenty-nine-year-old reporter who’s worked for Dogan News Agency (DHA) since her teenage years, or that she’s spoken in interviews about the pain of seeing the dead child. I myself knew nothing about her until I started researching this article.
I found myself thinking of the contrast between Eugene Delacroix’s painting The Massacre at Chios and Nilufer Demir’s photo of Alan Kurdi a lot last week as I read Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. For such a short essay, Art in the Age makes a multi-faceted argument. In this column, I’ll talk about some particularly relevant aspects of Benjamin’s premise: that organically-made images have an aura, that mechanical reproduction of an image destroys its aura, and that images without aura are ripe for politicization.
To summarize, Benjamin’s point is that before photography, every image painted had an aura. In other words, each painting had its particular chronological and cultural context. It would be very hard to make an exact copy of such a painting without altering some details, but even if you did, there would still clearly be an original canvas from which the replicas were copied, so the replicas would become their own works of art with their own contextual auras. Photography, however, introduces the potential for “mechanical reproduction”, or the rapid-fire reprinting and mass distribution of images, which strips them of their time and place, their aura, by making them omnipresent. In contrast to painting, there’s no “original print” of a photo; every reproduction is as valid as the last.
Benjamin uses this premise to make a series of conclusions about art and politics in his day, but as a casual modern reader, I’m most interested in how this is relevant to me. The answer is that the process Benjamin describes has accelerated tremendously since the 1920s, when this book was published. Forget about mechanical reproduction; we’re in the age of digital reproduction now, when everything from news footage to your cousin’s Instagram photos to the latest gifs can be shared thousands of times an hour and move across the globe on a variety of platforms. Take, for example, the Raptor Jesus meme that we’ve all seen at some point—does anyone have any idea when that originated, or who first made it, or how you came upon it? I certainly don’t, and it used to be my screensaver.
If you don’t see why this is important, consider the politicization aspect and replace Raptor Jesus with the gif shared by President Donald Trump advocating violence against journalists (or the image that linked Jews with political corruption, or the one about so-called “black-on-black” crime, etc.) By the time anyone was able to track down that gif ’s creator and his unsavory ties to white supremacy—in other words, what remained of the image’s aura—it had been presented throughout the news and continued to reverberate through a dark network of neo-Nazi websites, far-right “thinktanks”, and 4chan trolls, while simultaneously spawning more, equally repellant images. Or, consider the aforementioned photo of Alan Kurdi; many who shared that photo did so to emphasize the West’s moral obligation to take in refugees, while many who opposed it or falsely claimed that it was staged did so because of anti-immigration beliefs. It’s not a coincidence that social media images have become increasingly important to the political process as technology allows us to copy and spread them more and more efficiently.
In conclusion, the takeaway from this is to read Benjamin’s Art in the Age, even if you’re not generally interested in art or politics—I think you’ll still find it fascinating and, above all, relevant.