Original vs reproduction. Reading Walter Benjamin. 

Last weekend, I fInished two books. A compelling memoir by Ta-Nehesi Coates (below) and a slender volume called “The Ghost of Hampton Plantation.”  More on those later.  On our way to Salem on Memorial Day, a parade in Peabody forced a new route. We enjoyed hot dogs and beans with my sister.

A friend dropped by. We took Finn over to Crystal Lake where he found a dead fish to roll in. That was as gross as her gift of a silk kimono was delightful.   Of course, I couldn’t resist a little photo play with the wavy lines in the kimono.  Which leads me to this: I have been thinking a lot about “the made thing” (involving time, skill, energy, and occupying a place in tradition) vs. the reproduction. Mo kindly insisted I read an essay by Walter Benjamin on the topic (see comments a couple of posts ago).  I resisted. Even though it would be easy to discount what he had to say because he wrote the piece decades before Warhol and Rauschenberg, never mind digital media, I was nevertheless impressed. He supported his central thesis about the superiority of the original, crafted work to reproductions in a compelling way.

For those of us abiding in practices of Slow Cloth, Benjamin’s words stand as important reminders about why we do what we do — even when it makes no economic sense.

He wrote:  The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced. Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter. And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object.  And:  One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence.     … the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics.

Very provocative.

Not sure where that leaves double exposures created by tapping a teeny screen and hitting a “save” icon.

I mean, these are pictures that may never even assume the form of a print. Is that yet another level of degradation? And if the original work has elements of the religious, and the reproduction has characteristics of the political, what does the binary-coded “work” in the cyber sphere embody?

I would like to read a more recent essay on the same topic. One written post-internet.

11 thoughts on “Original vs reproduction. Reading Walter Benjamin. 

  1. Heather

    I live in an old house, and I’ve talked to people who believe you can build a “new old house.” I really don’t believe that … to explain why, I always reference the Velveteen Rabbit.

    1. deemallon Post author

      Oh the velveteen rabbit is such a good reference here!! I hate to see overpriced ripped and stained jeans for sale. Same idea. It just offends.

      1. Heather

        Yes, I really hate that too. I want things to last, and I’m perfectly capable of ‘distressing’ them myself while living my life, thanks very much. It’s also so irritating to see ‘vintage’ used to describe new items. Messes up my searches 🙂

        My house is 88 years old, and it really seems to me to have its own personality. I really believe there’s no way to get the personality of old things in something that was manufactured yesterday.

  2. anonymous

    Dee, I think the post internet essay on this topic is one you are most qualified to write? You would write something rich, fascinating and at least as provocative as Walter Benjamin! Many How interesting it would be to interview a variety of artists this topic! Jeff Koons?

    1. deemallon Post author

      Thanks Jude. I think the answer to why I want you to produce a book lies within the discussion. Though it, too, would feature reproductions. It’s good to have readers like Mo who push and cite!

  3. Mo Crow

    the handmade thing holds the direct mark of the hand of the maker, the physical manifestation of what the inner eye dreams and the heart feels into a thing that can be held in the hand and offered in the world.
    “The compelling thing about making art — or making anything, I suppose — is the moment when the vaporous, insubstantial idea becomes a solid there, a thing, a substance in a world of substances. Circe, Nimbue, Artemis, Athena, all the old sorceresses: they must have known the feeling as they transformed mere men into fabulous creatures, stole the secrets of the magicians, disposed armies: ah, look, there it is, the new thing. Call it a swine, a war, a laurel tree. Call it art.”
    Audrey Niffenegger – The Time Traveler’s Wife (p 274)

  4. Eileen Mele

    I sew in isolation. It’s hard not to have anybody to show off to. Sorta saps your happy intentions. I make a few small pieces anyway. Don’t know know where all the kindred souls are! Lol

    1. deemallon Post author

      Well there are a lot of us connecting online. Check out some of the blogs in my sidebar. Start with Spirit Cloth.


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