“Mankind, which in Homer’s time was a contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.” -Walter Benjamin
From the perspective of the modern man, the mediums of photography and film have legitimately equated themselves with the artistic works of painting, literature, and music in their overall depth and aesthetic merit. Yet, like any burgeoning art form, when film was in its nascent stages at the beginning of the 20th century, artistic critics questioned its validity, confused by the mechanical nature of its production and its widespread distribution. In his 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, philosopher Walter Benjamin proposed theories about the rapid reproduction of art transforming art’s overall target audience from the scrutinizing individual to the faceless masses, a move he considered politically congruent with the tenants of Socialism. When Benjamin wrote about the consequences of mechanically reproduced photography and film in the ‘30s, he was particularly concerned about the way this mechanical reproduction would “politicize art” and destroy authenticity – the concept of art as an original, ritually produced piece.
When Benjamin mentioned a “destruction of aesthetic pleasure of the first order” in his essay, he was referring to an alliance of art with war, the melding of the ultimate political act and the artistic act, a unification which aligns itself with a different political school – Fascism. Writing at the time of Hitler’s rise in Nazi Germany, Benjamin stated, “Fascism seeks to give (the masses) an expression while preserving property. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life…All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war” (Epilogue). In discussing the artistic value of war, Benjamin mentioned the new design value of tanks, the appeal of machine guns and bomb smoke – ideas proposed by F.T. Marinetti when describing “man’s dominion over the subjugated machinery.” Mankind can indeed “experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure,” but war and destruction – just like politics – manifest themselves in different forms. Some war is nationalistic, ordered by governments and their mechanized armies to physically overwhelm an opponent; other war is simple rebellion against that very same government, declared by the invisible individual and his fellow covert civilians through various forms of expression, both violent and non-violent. Violent civil unrest has often yielded new governments or countries. Non-violent civil unrest – whether it’s an acerbic newspaper editorial or a spray-painted building facade – tends to leave a blister on the anus of any governing power, and could ultimately flip to its binary.
Yet the non-violent act deemed “graffiti” in the mid-20th century – a certain act of vagrants – has prospered into a 21st century international artistic movement, led by the work of the British underground artist Banksy and his anarchic street art pictorials of everything from daily human undertakings with a humorous twist to absurd conceptions of violent international conflict (one famous painting displays a street warrior tossing a bouquet of flowers as if it were a grenade). One of Banksy’s contemporaries, the American Shepard Fairey, is known for his spray-painted silhouettes of Andre the Giant’s eyes – accompanied by the phrase “Obey,” – stenciled to cement structures throughout the country, purposefully planting a question mark inside any observer’s head and challenging that person to contemplate a random act of art that throws his or her self-centered mentalities off balance. What makes this street art unique, as opposed to an impressionist painting, is that it promotes exhibition while retaining cult value, two forces that Benjamin considered opposing, especially in the age of mechanical reproduction (V). I.e. The work of the French urban artist, Invader, who plasters cartoonish characters using mosaic tiles on the high, out-of-reach areas of building facades in major cities around the world. Works like these – particularly those of Invader – will only be noticed and observed by the select few, but they are not inherently exclusive in their creation.
While intriguing in its novelty and precipitous nature, there is a definite violence to street art (perhaps inherited from its ancestor, graffiti) that draws comparisons to Benjamin’s “war as art” proposition. Street art appears to be a war against the homogenous national alignment of Fascism and the consumerist nature of Capitalism, with discreet individuals defacing and mutilating structures into something more alluring, offering paintings that aren’t for sale, but rather embedded into the landscape. Street art can, in this way, be considered its own form of politics – that of the rebel politicians and their movement of Aestheticism. These aestheticians (continuing with the concept here; “aesthete” has different connotations) who wage war on established political powers via art are making this war beautiful, not only because of the intriguing designs, but also because they place more emphasis on their ideals than their weapons. In the process itself, these paintings contain a between-the-lines message: “We value ourselves only as much as the governing body will tolerate us, and when we are no longer tolerated, we will either not care or simply reproduce ourselves.” And though “the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility” (IV) – one of Benjamin’s chief concerns – it is for different political reasons than the capitalistic mass-printing of a photograph or film.
These are works that cannot be purchased or consumed. Instead, they’re painted on public property to be viewed by the public. And whereas the goal of mechanical reproduction is to provide the artwork with an almost infinite presence, street art is very much aware of its transient nature, of how the weathering of rain and wind will eventually erode the art from the wall, or of how the establishment that the art challenges will simply erase it by painting over it. But even in this act, the establishment is just creating another blank canvas to be covertly painted in the nighttime when no one is about, so that it may be displayed in the daytime when everyone is about.
In spite of Benjamin’s claim that “Painting simply is in no position to present an object for simultaneous collective experience” (XII) like the modern movie does, the street artist’s painting can indeed attract a massive audience, creating sidewalk critics and observers who pass with their own pace, and an audience of automobile drivers who view the work collectively, yet insularly, as part of their speedily passing landscape. This audience is more disorganized than the automaton movie theater masses who laugh and cry when prompted, and the reactions are concordantly more individualistic.
One of Benjamin’s major critiques of film – aside from the mindless audience – was that it was bereft of aura. Street art is reinstating the idea of aura, delivering its magic to the cement bridges, darkened alleyways, and vacated brownstones, empowering and beautifying the ignored, the ugly, the unwanted parts of the city. The shameful is rendered alluring, and the beautiful is brought to the grotesque. Street art is a political movement by faceless “politicians” who provide art for the people – for everyone – not simply for the elite.
Benjamin argued in his essay that “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be” (II). However, street artwork isn’t reproduced “mechanically,” by a machine, but rather by hand through human labor and the use of stencils and spray paint. This stenciled painting is a reversion to manual techniques akin to 18th century woodcutting and lithography.
And because of this, every copy reproduced by the individual is able to retain its very own aura. If Leonardo da Vinci were to paint the Mona Lisa ten different times in ten separate galleries across Europe, would each of those paintings – while being copies of one another – not retain its own individual aura?
This is the beauty of manual reproduction in the age of mechanical production: the ambiguity it promotes, the blurring of thickly drawn charcoaled lines that demarcate our traditional ideas of what art is and how it maintains its title, its allure. This is the beauty of street art and its faceless artists. The lack of a profiled author eliminates problems like Benjamin’s claim that “changes of ownership are subject to a tradition which must be traced from the situation of the original” (II). The art appears in one place, and then it appears in another place, yet it has not been mechanically reproduced, so which painting may be determined the original, “authentic” copy, since — as Benjamin claimed — “presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity” (II)?
In a final, definitive statement in his essay, Benjamin claims, “The destructiveness of war furnishes proof that society has not been mature enough to incorporate technology as its organ, that technology has not been sufficiently developed to cope with the elemental forces of society” (Epilogue). Perhaps modern society – or at least certain rebellious (and creative) members – has become mature enough to discard a dependence on technology for the reproduction of its artwork (the chosen weapon of an Aesthetic movement used in a non-violent war against the establishment), caring not for fame and the obsession with an original, untainted piece, but instead having a laugh at tradition, a laugh that seems to embed itself in every piece of street art’s aura.