Print the Legend

Buffalo Bill’s Buffalo Pen, Scout Ranch, North Platte, NE © 2006 Jeff Ward

Legend has several meanings which have evolved over time. Initially legend simply meant story or collection of stories. It was also applied to collections of the lives of saints, so it makes sense that it became stories of a larger, more mythic significance in the 17th century. In the 19th century, it was stretched to mean popular (and probably untrue) stories. In the 20th, it was first applied to people, as in “a legend in his own time.” In the 16th century, it was associated with an explanatory caption associated with an image (such as engravings), and in the 19th, with the instructive and interpretive captions attached to photographs and maps.

Legend in the first sense blurs the distinction between myth and fact, and in the second has a more rhetorical or logical aim. One of my favorite works of scholarship on 19th century photography also serves as a primer for useful approaches to critical thinking about technology. Martha Sandweiss’s Print the Legend (2002) speaks directly to the social development of reproductive technologies:

New reproductive technologies did not immediately create new ways of understanding the world. There was, in the late nineteenth century, a gap between the technological capacity to convey certain sorts of visual information and the more conservative popular expectations for what images should look like. This is a gap that is visible at many moments of technological change, from the development of the daguerreotype to the development of digitized image banks on the World Wide Web. . . . We should probably not be too quick to scorn them for their lingering preference for traditional forms of communication, for images that fit into a comfortable frame of reference created through exposure to other pictures. (324)

The research question Sandweiss begins with is wondering why so many 19th century photographic images were held in low esteem and discarded in favor of reinterpretations of them produced through a variety of reproductive processes. The predominant form of reproduction at the time was relief printing, produced by typeset text and woodcut engravings that allowed the combination of words and images on the same printing press. Many common terms emerged from these technologies, though they have long since lost their metonymic connection. Stereotype and cliché were originally printing terms.

A stereotype was a casting of type or the combination of type and engraved woodblocks made by creating an impression in paper mâché and then pouring metal in it to facilitate consistent impressions. Cliché is the French term for the same thing, a way of avoiding shifts or uneven wear in the components of a printing plate. Exactness and repeatability are essential parts of modern communication. This characteristic was the crowning achievement of photography, according to William Ivins:

The seriousness of the role of the exactly repeatable pictorial statement in all the long development since about 1450 has escaped attention very largely because that statement has been so familiar that it has never been subjected to adequate analysis. Having been taken for granted it has been overlooked. The photograph, as of today, is the final form of that exactly repeatable pictorial statement or report. Although it has very great limitations, it has no linear syntax of its own and thus has enabled men to discover that many things of the greatest interest and importance have been distorted, obscured, and even hidden, by verbal and pictorial, i.e. symbolic, syntaxes that were too habitual to be recognized. It is unfortunate that most of the world is still unaware of this fact. (180)

There is a palpable sense of technological optimism in both Walter Benjamin and William Ivins that is commonplace. Here, Ivins speaks directly to the enlightenment claim of “demystification” common to the pursuit of science where a veil of myth and legend has obscured the truth from us. Walter Benjamin’s claims are different in that he emphasizes evolving social effects as a positive influence, enabling people to formulate their own tastes. Sandweiss quotes liberally from both, but does not make the positive evolutionary claim for the ascension of photography. Rather, she looks critically at the devaluation of photography in the nineteenth century in terms of its actual use. There is an important turn in Ivin’s vocabulary that directly impacts the evaluation: “pictorial statement or report.”

The printing terms stereotype and cliché, developed as a technology serving repeatability, have reversed in connotation to be negative terms for prejudgment by myth and mindless repetition. Photographic technology at first was prized for its uniqueness of representation: daguerreotype portraits were in a literal sense like looking in a mirror and confronting the face of the other. In the end, technological demands for reproduction transformed what might be considered “cult” objects, in Benjamin’s terms, into objects created primarily for exhibition and reproduction.

The demand of the public for images, then and now, creates a market, or better, troc (in William Baxandall’s usage), that reinforces a particular type of image. Sandweiss frames this in a remarkably useful way:

In his classic western film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) director John Ford includes one of the great lines of western filmmaking. “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes a fact print the legend.” The newspaper editor who utters the line understands that the interests of his readers are best served not by exposing a much-loved historical legend as a lie. Like Ford himself, he understood his audience well, understood their preference for the comfortable myth over the unsettling truth. (324)

Ultimately, legend functions in two ways simultaneously. It is both an aid to reading (as in a map’s legend, or an image caption) and a way of framing a statement or report in a way the public wants to hear. The two meanings reinforce each other and like stereotypes legends have both positive and negative connotations if we consider critically what is being repeated.


There are two fundamental ways that humans have made their marks upon the world. One is by depositing pigment on surfaces, the other is incision, carving or impressing lines and shapes into objects. One requires two dimensions, the other three or even four. An incised line can appear or seemingly disappear through the motion of light across a surface, subject to motion of the light or the observer.

An incision can be decoded in at least three ways. Is the key information on the surface, or in the depths, or both? When applied to reproductive technologies, it’s generally an either/or decision. The end product is primarily the transfer of pigment to a flat surface, so ink is applied either to the high spots (as in linocut, woodcut, or movable type) or to the depths as in intaglio printing (engraving). Paper may be embossed or ink left raised in an impression, but this is a secondary characteristic, meant more for touch rather than symbolic use. Braille is of course a notable exception to this generality. Primarily, though, symbolic exchange is usually reducible to a two dimensional domain, with a third element being syntax—the sequence which symbols occur, either in space or time.

I have been revisiting Stephen Bann’s Parallel Lines (2001) for its trenchant critique of Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936-39) and William Ivins Prints and Visual Communication (1953). Bann argues that Benjamin and Ivins leapt over the cultural context of burin engraving (specifically in 19th century France) to make broad statements about reproductive technologies that are misleading at best in their effort to crown photography as the logical culmination of the search for meaningful communication in the visual realm. Ivin’s declaration that photography presented “images devoid of syntax” has always struck me as particularly ludicrous, but coming back around to these books after a decade or so has brought new thoughts.

Bann argues that photography and printmaking developed along parallel lines, with practitioners sometimes crossing between technologies for a variety of reasons. Bann’s examination is crucial to me because for a brief span, the reproduction of images and words occurred on a parallel track of a different sort: words were reproduced through movable type, a relief printing method where the raised parts of a plate are inked. Woodcuts could be reproduced in the same fashion, but engraving brought entirely new challenges. Because engravings are incised, with ink pressed into the impressed spaces, they could not be printed using the same presses. Word and image had been divorced, cut apart by technological divergence. I’m not sure they have ever reconciled.

Books using engraved plates for illustration generally group the plates in separate sections, or exist as separate volumes from typeset texts. In fact, it was possible to buy the illustrations separately and combine them with print and have them custom bound together, making each copy of a book unique. Each illustration also represented a division of labor, because the designer of the image and the artist engraving the plate might also be different people, with different aesthetic senses.

This plate, for example, was inserted into an 1811 copy of Thomas Aikenside’s Pleasures of the Imagination. The image credits are T. Stothard del (delineavit- artist) and I. Neagle sculp (sculpsit- engraver). In a direct way, this is the syntax of engraving— there are two credits, always poised on the left and right in the same places, because there are two labors involved with separate conventions. It’s convention, more than syntax, that William Ivins names as the syntax of the image. Syntax is generally defined as sequence or arrangement, but Ivin’s use of syntax points to conventions, conventions that are more recognizable as transformation or translation between the planar media of painting and drawing and the incised medium, engraving.

What makes a visual expression valuable? In Marxist terms, that would be it’s exchange value. Walter Benjamin suggests that in the arts, this amounts to exhibition value, where rather than being a small scale object viewed by the few (cult value) it becomes a reproduced object viewed by the many. Stephen Bann points instead to a concept from Michael Baxandall, troc, which is the French word for barter (1985, ch. 4). Baxandall, in a chapter delineating the relationship between Picasso and his dealers and art critics of the day, defines it as a sort of syntax for visual expression which guided the way his works were created and distributed. “Market” is not the correct term:

But it must also be said at once that the relation is much more diffuse than the economists’. In the economists’ market what the producer is compensated by is money: money goes one way, goods or services the other. But in the relation between painters and cultures the currency is much more diverse than just money: it includes such things as approval, intellectual nurture and, later, reassurance, provocation and irritation of stimulating kinds, the articulation of ideas, vernacular visual skills, friendship and — very important indeed — a history of one’s activity and a heredity, as well as sometimes money acting both as a token of some of these and a means to continuing performance. And the good exchanged for these is not so much pictures as profitable and pleasurable experience of pictures.

Without suggesting that Picasso modified his art to accommodate market conditions, it isn’t a stretch to say that he sought approval. Human marking activities are intentional, and those intentions are not strictly a personal matter—there is a social currency that motivates them, rewards them or ignores them. Reproductive print culture changes the flow of information in dramatic ways, not simply because of the loss of cult status but because of entirely new social conditions directing them. Baxandall compares painting to the work of a bridge builder, who is constrained both by the structural character of his materials and the proclivities of those who have commissioned the structure and would like to consider it “beautiful.”

The material constraints of incised artwork are many. Burin engraving, in particular, is unforgiving and laborious. Once removed, material can’t really be replaced. The division of labor between designer and etcher was a necessity, particularly later in the nineteenth century when images were valued for their news value; burin engraving was wholly unsuited to this. Acid resist etching was far more popular, particularly in England, because instead of abrading the plate it was painted or drawn upon with resist material and later etched to incise the surface. Creating texture, or indistinct lines, was challenging.

Joseph Viscomi’s landmark Blake and the Idea of the Book (1993) offers an excellent peek into the practicalities of etching and the cultural context of reproduction in the 18th and 19th centuries. Illuminated printmaking, Blake’s “infernal method,” was marshaled against the division of labor then prevalent in visual reproduction:

In Illuminated printmaking, the labor of the artist (delineavit) and engraver (sculpsit) is the same labor, occurring in the same place and at the same time. This relation conceiving and making, between invention and execution, is encouraged by the very act of drawing as opposed to tracing and/or translating designs already drawn and thus composed. (32)

Drawing directly on the plates (including lettering all the text in handwriting) was the way that Blake composed all his major works. Only one book, juvenilia published by friends, was printed using a conventional letterpress. Consequently, the conventions of drawing are crucial to understanding how/why he was obscure in his own time and largely ignored. Viscomi compares and contrasts Blake’s extant writings about drawing with selected drawing textbooks, some of which he seemed to follow and others he chafed at, as well as various developments in printmaking that sought to bring it into alignment (at least in appearance) with contemporary trends in drawing.

This is only one side of the equation of troc. The other side, that of critical reception, is beautifully illustrated by an excerpt from Blake’s letter to the Monthly Magazine (1806) in response to the harsh criticism leveled at Henry Fuseli’s depiction of Count Ugolino.

Mr. Fuseli’s Count Ugolino is the father of sons of feeling and dignity who would not sit looking in their parent’s face in the moment of his agony but would rather die in secret, while they suffer him to indulge his passionate and innocent grief, his innocent and venerable madness, and insanity, and fury, and whatever paltry critics cannot, because they dare not, look upon.

The implication that the critic simply didn’t look at Fuseli’s work. “Under pretense of fair criticism and candor, the most wretched taste ever upheld for many, very many years.” Blakes backlash against connoisseurship speaks directly to the emergent “syntax” by which visual arts were being formed and judged in the 18th and 19th centuries

The taste of English amateurs has been too much formed upon pictures imported from Flanders and Holland; consequently our countrymen are easily brow-beat on the subject of painting; and hence it is so common to hear a man say, “I am no judge of pictures:” but, O Englishmen! know that every man ought to be a judge of pictures, and every man is so who has not been connoisseured out of his senses.

A gentleman who visited me the other day, said, “I am very much surprised at the dislike that some connoisseurs shew on viewing the pictures of Mr. Fuseli; but the truth is, he is a hundred years beyond the present generation.” Though I am startled at such an assertion, I hope the contemporary taste will shorten the hundred years into as many hours; for I am sure that any person consulting his own eyes must prefer what is so supereminent; and I am as sure that any person consulting his own reputation, or the reputation of his country, will refrain from disgracing either by such ill-judged criticisms in future.

The hope that people wouldn’t be “connoisseured” out of their senses is strong in both Ivins and Benjamin; Benjamin actually suggests that the mass taste was progressing faster in motion pictures than anywhere else, with a more prodigious appetite for advanced art forms. It remains that we always judge new art using the yardstick of the old, and while some “syntax,” or circumstances for troc, disappear others appear.  Blake may have been able to overcome the division of labor in printing, but he could not change prevailing taste.

It has always been one of the primary tasks of art to create a demand whose hour of full satisfaction has not yet come. The history of every art form has critical periods in which the particular form strains after effects which can only be easily achieved with a changed technical standard that is to say, in a new art form. (Benjamin 266)

Benjamin’s sentiment, derived from Andre Breton, is much in evidence in Blake’s response. However, the conditions for communication will always be social and therefore political. Photography is not immune. There is a reason that Henry Fox Talbot called it photogenic drawing. Photography did not settle deep debates over taste, it merely complicated them.

A Spurious Result

Thomas Ruff, jpeg kj01

The working definition of artifact I’ve been comfortable with lately is an object embedded in a tradition or social structure that gives it meaning. Walter Benjamin argued that one of the things being altered about artifacts in the age of reproducibility is that they are loosing the aura that surrounds them because of the irrelevance of authenticity. There are no originals, only copies that have surrendered their claim to uniqueness in pursuit of universality. They lose their fetish cult value, but still participate in social structures in new ways.

Thomas Ruff’s JPEG work demonstrates this. Immaterial objects that exist only as clusters of electrons on a screen provide new social effects brought about through increased connectivity. The drive for universality continues.

I find it interesting that Ruff’s series arises, in a sense, from a group of failures (disasters, both natural and unnatural) juxtaposed with idyls (his word), or natural and man made landscapes depicted in the same digitally disintegrated form. He suggests that the focus on disaster is autobiographical, arising from an attempt to make sense of the collapse of the twin towers on 9/11/2001. He was in NYC at the time, and his camera failure  (or x-ray damage at the airport) left him searching the internet for images to make sense of the disaster.

His career-long focus on the structure of photographic images as they change with technology lead him to consider the pixel, rather than silver grains, as a fundamental constituent of images. Further, the internet has altered the image through compression. The artifacted image, then, is a product of both a reduced “sampling rate” of reality, related as “painterly squares” but further altered by losses when compressed images are reintegrated as viewable artifacts. This presents artifact in different light.

Research into the term in the OED has brought some new perspective. Artifact is of relatively recent pedigree, defined in the 17th century as “An object made or modified by human workmanship, as opposed to one formed by natural processes.” The Latin etymology from ars factum (object made with skill) is amazingly direct and similar in meaning and spelling across several languages. However, in the 19th century there was a reversal of this meaning:

A spurious result, effect, or finding in a scientific experiment or investigation, esp. one created by the experimental technique or procedure itself. Also as a mass noun: such effects collectively.

The alteration of usage shifts, perhaps with the trends in shifting technologies and techniques. Artifacts have been wrenched from human hands and rendered procedural. But the human touch lingers, in its third sense, an ideological manifestation: “A non-material human construct.” The citation of this usage from Toynbee’s Study of History from 1934 is particularly telling:

It is a mere accident that the material tools which Man has made for himself should have a greater capacity to survive than Man’s psychic artifacts.

Toynbee’s psychic artifacts like the concept of an internal and external proletariat have completely faded, including his suggestion that civilizations disappear through disintegration. Recall that disintegration is ultimately what Thomas Ruff’s JPEG work places firmly in the field of view. Ruff suggests that with adequate distance these artifact filled JPEG images integrate themselves into natural images. Viewed up close, their disintegration can be beautiful.

What procedural tool, then, creates the appearance of these images? The short answer is “lossy compression,” but the longer answer has some important clues. From Wikipedia:

JPEG uses a lossy form of compression based on the discrete cosine transform (DCT). This mathematical operation converts each frame/field of the video source from the spatial (2D) domain into the frequency domain (a.k.a. transform domain). A perceptual model based loosely on the human psychovisual system discards high-frequency information, i.e. sharp transitions in intensity, and color hue. In the transform domain, the process of reducing information is called quantization.

The images are transformed using an algorithm created from a perceptual model. The information discarded in the compression is forever lost. In short, we trust a machine (computer) to shape our images, using a model based on our perception. The information we view has a diminishing relationship with any sort of material object, rather, it comes from our artificially created intelligence of our own visual system. This takes artifice to an entirely new level.

The “skill” introduced into the ars factum— the artifact— is that of a machine. We are in effect, creating human/machine hybrid perceptions that are becoming the cornerstones of our epistemological universe. These new truths are not completely man made. It’s not just AI and robots that will alter the future, it’s a thousand choices along the way based on spurious information untouched by human hands.

It remains startling to me how relevant Walter Benjamin remains in all this.

Theses defining the developmental tendencies of art can therefore contribute to the political struggle in ways that it would be a mistake to underestimate. They neutralize a number of traditional concepts—such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery— which, used in an uncontrolled way (and controlling them is difficult today), allow factual material to be manipulated in the interests of fascism. (252)

Benjamin goes on to argue that his “politics of art” would be useless for fascism. I think he’s wrong. Machine manipulation is nothing if not the new mystery. Reproducibility through algorithms has reinforced what is worst in us in the last decade or more.

Electric Whirl

Some things have appropriate names. The electric whirl is a device that consists of brass wires or plates, poised upon a pivot, that spin around when static electricity is applied. The gentle breeze, which results from the flow of electrons from the tips of the wires is known as an aura.

I didn’t consider this when I was writing about Walter Benjamin a few days ago, nor did I consider that the oldest definition of aura listed in the OED is “a zephyr,” a gentle breeze. In fact, in 1398 the terms aura and zephyr were interchangeable. It is a latinized version of the Greek αὔρα, now translated as breeze or breath.

There is a particularly interesting use of the word by George Berkeley from 1732 in Alciphron: “After which [i.e. the flying off of the volatile salt or spirit] the Oil remains dead and insipid, but without any sensible diminution of its weight, by the loss of that volatile essence of the Soul, that æthereal aura.” The connection of aura with soul foreshadows the way it was taken up in the late nineteenth century. An odd confluence is the inclusion, in this 1732 publication of Berkeley’s 1709 “An Essay Toward a New Theory of Vision” in which Berkeley embarked on his program of “immaterialism.”

A cornerstone of Berkeley’s explanation of vision pivots upon the difficulty we have in determining distance from visual evidence, arguing further that the sense of sight and the sense of touch were totally incommensurate. With incongruous sensual information, we cannot ever really know objects outside our mental conceptions of them.

The OED also connects aura with an odor, or a smell that arises as a “subtle emanation.” Curiously, the explanation reconnects with the Anemoi Zephyrus. From The cyclopædia of anatomy and physiology (1835–1859):

Fecundation is attributable to the agency of an aura from..the seminal fluid

Painters frequently depict Zephyr with maidens with blossoms emerging from them when graced with the west wind, as is the case with this detail from Botticelli’s Primavera. There’s a distinct network of connotations for “living spirit” with the term aura, whether it is soul or simply fertility.

During Walter Benjamin’s time, spiritualism was still very much a force in the world and surely he was familiar with (though he avoids it in his definition) of that level of meaning to the term: “A supposed subtle emanation from and enveloping living persons and things, viewed by mystics as consisting of the essence of the individual, serving as the medium for the operation of mesmeric and similar influences.” Benjamin isn’t applying it to people, but strictly to objects.

In a note in the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1737, Benjamin Franklin suggests that earthquakes in Pennsylvania might be caused by an “imprisoned aura” like the discharge of the electric whirl, and pathologists also connected aura with the onset of seizures “A sensation, as of a current of cold air rising from some part of the body to the head, which occurs as a premonitory symptom in epilepsy and hysterics.” So, it might not just be a pleasant fertile wind— an aura might be an ill wind as well.

Aura is ultimately an incredibly synesthetic description. It might be taken as tactile, as aural, as an odor or, as Walter Benjamin suggests, as a visual phenomena. When gazing up at a branch where the sun has cast its shadow on you, as he describes in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, one would obviously see a halo of sorts, as the light was diffracted by the edges of the leaves.

And like this illusion, the meaning and applicability of aura is always difficult to pin down with any degree of certainty. But it makes me happy to think of it as a form of living spirit that might cling to objects, not literally of course, but as a metaphoric effect.


Letchworth, © 2019 Jeff Ward

The most significant and oft-quoted factor highlighted by Benjamin is the concept of the aura, initially discussed as surrounding an authentic original, a unique object situated in place and time. Developing the concept, almost a theory of the alienation of objects, Benjamin considers it thusly:

The concept of aura which was proposed above with reference to historical objects may usefully be illustrated with reference to the aura of natural ones. We define the aura of the latter as the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be. If, while resting on a summer afternoon, you follow with your eyes a mountain range on the horizon or a branch which casts its shadow over you, you experience the aura of those mountains, of that branch. (III)

The “unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be” is a powerful way of conveying the strange sense of awe one feels in the presence of a powerful artwork, and a description of the sort of “aura” that clings to authentic objects. I remember a trip to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, feeling this strange, visceral feeling when standing in front of the clothes of performers that I had only experienced as reproductions: as records, movies, tapes, etc. There is a similar distance even when you’re present with a performer in concert and leave with a sense of them that will be retained and held closer in memory than in actuality.

This image makes it easy to comprehend the social bases of the contemporary decay of the aura. It rests on two circumstances, both of which are related to the increasing significance of the masses in contemporary life. Namely, the desire of contemporary masses to bring things “closer” spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction. (III)

To be there, situated in space and time, as feelings unfold is at the core of our experience of art. Increasingly, however, art comes to us in the form of reproductions in books, in movies, and in other mass media. Benjamin continues:

Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction. Unmistakably, reproduction as offered by picture magazines and newsreels differs from the image seen by the unarmed eye. Uniqueness and permanence are as closely linked in the latter as are transitoriness and reproducibility in the former. To pry an object from its shell, to destroy its aura, is the mark of a perception whose “sense of the universal equality of things” has increased to such a degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of reproduction. (III)

The urge that Benjamin describes here is akin to the drive to privatize that Martin Pawley has described: to have the benefit of experience without its social component, to disconnect art from its social roots, savoring the sensual in isolation and achieving the natural without nature as an the ultimate goal.

This reading is supported by his discussion elsewhere in the same essay of the stripping of the “cult” value ascribed to unique objects.  However, it’s worth noting that the technologies Benjamin is discussing are recording technologies— technologies designed to aid memory. There’s another possibility, raised by Benjamin himself in an earlier fragment:

The great art of making things seem closer together.  In reality. Or from where we are standing; in memory. “Ah! que monde est grand à la clarté des lampes! / Aux yeux du souvenir que le monde est petit!” [Ah, how big the world is by lamplight, / But how small in the eyes of memory!] This is the mysterious power of memory—the power to generate nearness. A room we inhabit whose walls are closer to us than to a visitor. This is what is homey about home. (248)

I am reminded of other scholarship about the parlor as a the public portion of a home where visitors were welcomed, and brought together in middle class culture as it was emerging in the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth century. In a sense, a collective memory of places and celebrities and fashions was presented to make visitors feel less foreign in a new space. It plays much the same role as the stock backgrounds and scenarios that were offered to visitors to a photographer’s studio, positioning them as someone they want to be— manufacturing memories. The fragment continues:

In nurseries we remember, the walls seem closer to each other than they really are, than they would be if we saw them today. The sight of them tears us apart because we have become attached to them. The great traveler is the person who passes through cities and countries with anamnesis; and because everything seems closer to everything else, and hence to him, since he is in their midst, all his senses respond to every nuance as truth. The distanced Romantic is as ignorant of this as the Positivist. (248)

The mechanism at work here seems similar to the function of metaphor, in that the “strangeness” of the comparison creates new pathways, new knowledge through holding two ideas in suspension. I am struck by the similarity between anamnesis and amnesia. To travel with remembrance rather than the feigned amnesia of “objectivity” results in a heightened sense of place.

Romantic forgetting of the actual specifics of the world (the bugs, the dirt) is equally bad. Knowledge, in this formulation requires both distance and closeness to be effective. Hence, it come full circle to the formulation of aura. A translator’s footnote to the second draft of Benjamin’s essay adds clarity to a unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be:

“Einmalige Erscheinung einer Ferne, so nah sie sein mag.” At stake in Benjamin’s formulation is an interweaving not just of time and space—einmalige Erscheinung, literally “one-time appearance”— but of far and near, einer Ferne suggesting both “a distance” in space and time and “something remote,” however near it (the distance, or distant thing, that appears) may be. (123)

The “one-time appearance” might be taken as a unique encounter between self and world, a “never the same stream twice,” view suggestive of Heraclitus and obliquely echoing his observation regarding traveling with anamnesis. There is an aspect of “the things they carried” involved in any recounting of experience. This a deeper reflection than simply recounting the mystic aura of a cult object, or of a history through the distance of time; it is a suggestion of things being woven together in the making of sense, a bit like the “ah-ha” moment when one deciphers a metaphor.

Benjamin’s discussion of the loss of aura isn’t a conservative bemoaning the loss of the previous mode of art, but rather an attempt to understand the work of art (in both nominal and verbal senses) in a new frame of reference that does not rely on sublime experience but rather on closeness and possession of a universal image of the world, overcoming its uniqueness.


The Work of Art

Woodstock, ME © 2017 Jeff Ward

Taking an obscure route across Maine, when we turned the corner near Woodstock I wasn’t expecting to find an oversized sculpture of a hand cranked telephone. Just what use is that? But there is a value to it, I think. Art, according to most, is defined by its lack of utility, its uselessness. Economic theories generally don’t have much to say about Art, nonetheless people who make it are constantly in search of a way to find some sort of livelihood. The exchange value of art seems impossible to predict, caught up in arbitrary social fashions.

Tolstoy’s fourfold division of labor has a place for it, as “mental labor” alongside science. Reflecting on this grouping, it dawns on me that in their purest forms, both art and science aim at an increase in understanding. This piece fulfills that criteria, in that I was moved to pull of the road and read the placard which explains that the last magneto telephone system was operated here.

Not all art is this easy. Accepting that the purpose of art is to increase understanding and that it is necessary human work has deepened my understanding of Walter Benjamin’s canonical essay “The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility” (1936-39). I’ve read it hundreds of times, researched its context, even delivered papers on it, but this time it’s different. It’s like turning a corner and finding a new perspective.

There are some useful concepts in the essay that I always come back to, i.e. the aura and learning through distraction, not to mention the shift between cult value and exhibition value, but concentrating on these is a bit like focusing on the steps of a ladder without understanding where the ladder is climbing to. Film is central to Benjamin’s dissection of reproducible art, as is photography, but the core structure is built around the struggle between capitalism, marxism, and fascism.

My obsession with photography and film wasn’t my first technological obsession. I was eleven when I watched the moon landing on T.V. and long before that I had read Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo at least 40 times; I didn’t even know there was a movie version. It was a firsthand account of a pivotal point in World War II, of the first bombing raid on Tokyo and his subsequent crash and escape in mainland China. I poured over that book as a kid. Of course it’s filled with patriotic enthusiasm, but it was also filled with human struggle and vivid detail. Remembering it has made the conclusion of Benjamin’s essay ring louder:

“Fiat ars—pereat mundus,” says fascism [Let art florish—and the world pass away] expecting from war, as Marinetti admits, the artistic gratification of a sense perception altered by technology. This is evidently the consummation of l’art pour l’art. Humankind, which once, in Homer, was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, has now become one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached the point where it can experience its own annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure. Such is the aestheticizing of politics, as practiced by fascism. Communism replies by politicizing art. ( 270)

The last two sentences, offered with emphasis in the original, have long seemed enigmatic to me. Aestheticized politics is easy enough, as every war narrative easily attests, but politicized art is not so simple; one can easily envision communist posters, but since they often depict armed revolutionary struggle, it’s hard to see much difference.

It suddenly dawned on me that politicizing does not necessarily entail sloganeering and jingoism. I think what Benjamin really meant here is that proletarianization, coupled with the shifting nature of reproducible art should lead to an increased consciousness of the body politic. Remember that the root of politics is polis (city) and by creating a mass of people, art with a mass appeal is political. The entire sweep of the essay marks the shifting valuation and potential for art as a mass phenomenon, i.e. the work of art.

Part of the confusion about this essay is reflected in the permutations of its translated titles. It was first published in english as “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” a variant that enables the reading of work as a verb— i.e. what does Art do— a reading supported by the concluding paragraph. However, recent scholars have translated it as “The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility,” privileging the nominal form, a reading which emphasizes the idea of an original art object that is being reproduced. There is support in the text for this as well, particularly in its treatment of cult value, and the function of architecture as art. I hadn’t really considered the janus face of work in this context before now.

Throughout, what Benjamin offers is a social theory of value in art that works in concert with Marx’s social theory of value. Modern reproducible forms alter our perceptions and our social behavior in dramatic ways by creating new pathways and functions, not simply new forms for art.

As I turned to drive away from Gil Whitman’s telephone sculpture, a different scene unfolded.

Woodstock, ME © 2017 Jeff Ward

Motion Tabled.

Adolf Loos Tea Table
“The elephant trunk table” designed by Adolf Loos

It’s easy to get pissed at Adolf Loos, especially when he passionately argues that tattooed people are either savages or criminals. The difficulty in researching him, for me, is trying to figure out some context for his polemic declarations. In the introduction to the 1982 collection  Spoken into the Void: Collected Essays 1897-1900, Aldo Rossi suggests that Loos’s writings are best taken in the spirit that they were offered. Sadly, virtually every book I found, and every PDF littered about the web, has the context stripped away along with all the dates and attributions. Even recently published collections offer no documentation about where the articles first appeared.

The power to irritate is closely related to the ability to amuse oneself, and the reader who is not overly confused by the academic pedantry will amuse himself a great deal with the writings collected here. Certain pieces, written in the “journalistic” manner, have provoked me to laughter and remind me of another artist who love to confront problems with a sense of humor, namely James Joyce. There is no doubt that these contemporaries of Freud were well aware that “every joke is a murder,” and may be placed among those artists whom Manfredo Tafuri defines as “villainous.” But Loos, apart from being “villainous” in a higher sense, is often “impudent” in the usual sense of the word. While preaching the uselessness of furnishing provided by architects at the same time of the do-it-yourself method—and from this we should logically deduce that one style is as good as another—he considers Secession [art nouveau] furniture actually to be criminal: “The day will come,” he writes, “when the furnishings of a prison cell by the court decorator Schulz or by Professor Van de Velde will be considered an aggravation of the penalty.” This is a statement which, deprived of its sarcasm, could be said to contain a moralism much like that of Gropius. (viii-ix)

Henri Van de Velde Tea table, Padouk 1896
Henri Van de Velde Tea table, Padouk 1896

It appears to me that the designer whose ornaments are so heinous that the ought to be jailed, has produced a tea table that is far less ornamental than the designer who railed so sharply against ornament. In fact, the designs of Professor Van de Velde, a leading Belgian art nouveau designer, are far more restrained than the norm. Loos’s critique is obviously not only sarcastic, but also tongue-in-cheek. That’s the problem of reading things divorced from their context.

I find it downright irritating that there isn’t much out there that isn’t in German on Adolf Loos. Apparently, he was a big fan of America and visited the Columbian Exhibition in 1893, so like Muthesius’s obsession with the English, he provides an interesting view from the outside. The passage from Rossi continues:

In speaking of his mythic America, the significance of which we shall see more clearly below, Loos seems to be delighted with a meal whose main dish is oatmeal; elsewhere he notes the fine eating habits of his much maligned countrymen, “for the Austrians know a lot about good cooking.” This unexplained assertion is equivalent to another on German cuisine: “The German people eat what they are served; they are always satisfied, pay the bill and leave.” (ix)

I am always struck by the way that gastronomy interweaves with architecture; both, one must assume, are matters of taste. In Loos, it seems, sarcasm is a way of life.

Throughout Loos’s writings one can find many quotations of this sort, some even more amusing and sarcastic than the above, and above all supported by a rigorous sense of logic, a persistent sense of involvement, and an anger akin to disillusionment. This feeling of disillusionment is much broader than any sort of disappointment with society or personal matters; it is centered on an abstract idea, a battle in which the enemy is a priori elusive, ungraspable, and not unlike the enemy of the mystic—sin. (ix)

Rossi’s assertion here brings out an aspect I’ve really not considered before. That the punk spirit (e.g. John Lydon’s “anger is an energy”) has some shared consciousness with the puritan aesthetic. It attempts to rid the world of the sins of bad taste.

In this case the enemy is stupidity and the lack of understanding and a sense of the end of things. Speaking of Karl Kraus, Loos summed up his friend’s thought and anxiety, saying, “He fears the end of the world.” The end of the world here is also the end of a world without meaning, where the search for authentic quality involves a man without specific qualities, where the great architecture of immutable meanings carries with it a sort of paralysis of creativity and the non-recognition of any progress of reason. Truth, architecture, art, the ancients—all this is behind Adolf Loos who, like all men of this kind, was well aware that he was traveling down a road without hope. (ix)

No future? John Lydon would be proud. The name Karl Kraus rang a bell, and I eventually remembered that I read an essay by Walter Benjamin on Karl Kraus years ago, and revisiting it today I remembered that Benjamin was also deeply moved by Adolf Loos, who features prominently in critical parts of that essay. The Benjamin essay on Kraus is worth revisiting another day. Returning to Rossi on Loos, what does it mean when one is “traveling down a road without hope”?

This attitude also calls into question the meaning of trade, of day-to-day labor, and consequently, of how one earns a living. On the one hand are the static architecture of monuments, the great architecture of the ancients, and the rather complicated possibility of “becoming” an architect; on the other hand are the minor activities whose efficacy he denies, such as the ordering of a house, it’s furnishing, its interior design. Loos does not hide this contradiction—on the contrary, he posits it as a part of his working terminology, and in one of his responses to a reader of Das Andere he actually affirms that he will continue to furnish stores, cafes, and private homes, even though such an activity is not by any means architectural—especially in an era when “every carpet designer defines himself as an architect.” (ix)

This places the matter of domestic design and fine art front and center; Benjamin’s Karl Kraus essay connects this line of questioning to art and technology instead, although there’s a telling fragment from around the same time period (1931-2) which includes a citation from a book given to Walter Benjamin by Franz Gluck:

On ships, mine shafts, and crucifixes in bottles, as well as panopticons.

“While reading Goethe’s rebuke to philistines and many other art lovers who like to touch copper engravings and reliefs, the idea came to him that anything that can be touched cannot be a work of art, and anything that is a work of art should be place out of reach.” Franz Gluck on Adolf Loos in Adolf Loos: Das Werk des Architekten [Adolf Loos: The Architect’s Works] by Heinrich Kulka (Vienna, 1931) p. 9.

Does this mean that these object in bottles are works of art because they have been placed out of reach?

(Collected Works of Walter Benjamin v. 2, p. 554)

Leaving aside the mind-blowing conceptualization of surveillance as art, this unpublished fragment really highlights the complexity of these questions, and shows strong connections with Benjamin’s concept of “aura,” The separation between day-to-day labor and artistic labor—the importance of and inaccessibility of the artist’s touch—is featured in Benjamin and Loos’s writing on the topic.

What separates the carpet designer from the designer of architecture, of monuments, from the carpet designer? Rossi offers this thesis for Loos’s acceptance of the paradox:

And why does he do all this? Because his trade gives him something to live on, and because he can do it well: “Just like in America where I earned my living for a while by washing dishes. But one could support oneself just as easily by doing something else too.” The contradiction between art and trade is so played down that the argument touches on an aspect that the idealist point of view has always neglected, that of the artist’s means of subsistence. As always, Loos condemns the moralism of action that is directly opposed to the economic romanticism of the Modern Movement. Each person will live in his own house, according to his own personality, but in all probability someone will ask for advice about this or that problem, or more simply will have better things to do than furnish his own house; then the architect, trying to do his job well, will advise him. That is all. In this light, Loos’s sarcasm directed against the Secession is easier to understand; what Loos is really attacking in his contemporaries is not so much their style or their taste (even though he finds it abominable)—what he cannot tolerate is the “redemptive” value that they assign to their own actions. One trade is as good as another; and even a trade like washing dishes can be done well provided one breaks as few as possible.

This certainly is the one aspect which “modern architecture,” so committed to mythifying its relations with industry and reformist politics, has been unable to admit and unwilling to discuss. (ibid., ix, x)

It seems clearer now why arts and crafts, art nouveau, and even the modernists with their imperatives would bear the brunt of such savage critique. Read in this way, all the high minded moralizing about the value of labor seems strained coming as it does, filtered down from bourgeois artists and designers sitting on their high moral thrones. For Loos’s most scathing thoughts on the topic, read “The Poor Little Rich Man.”