Some weeks ago, I saw a golden-framed replica of Vincent Van Gogh’s Café Terrace at Night. Like most reproductions of art that stumble into my daily life, this painting (or printed picture?) was met with a conflicting mixture of appreciation and distaste. The latter far overtakes the former whenever I see a mug or a t-shirt splattered with a washed out Starry Night.  I have always loved Van Gogh, so what was it that made his work so off-putting in these contexts?

Inside  the Van Gogh Museum’s shop with reproductions of the Sunflower painting available on pillows, mugs, bags and dog vests (luxedb.com)

In 1935, German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote The Work of Art in its Age of Mechanical Reproducibility, an essay that perhaps captures the spirit of the contemporary art world better than many others that came after it.

“In principle,” Benjamin wrote almost a century ago, “the work of art has always been reproducible.” But never before had technology been so advanced as to allow the ever-accelerating mass-reproduction of all forms of artwork. The advent of film and photography gave rise to tension between tradition and reproducibility; the latter came at the cost of the former. When a work of art is reproduced (especially rapidly and in bulk), it loses its “here and now” as Benjamin calls it; the authentic link to historical longevity.

He calls this link the aura, more concretely defined as the “strange tissue of space and time: the unique apparition of a distance, however near it may be”. And with this loss of the aura comes a shift in the perception of the reproduced artwork; the reproduction becomes detached from its original, and finds itself reaching new uncharted territory. Think of all those fake Starry Night images floating through the internet with the wrong dimensions and colours. Or worse yet, think of all the art in digital culture that is circulated with no knowledge of the original artist.

Art Sock series by photographer Kate Brien.

“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,” Benjamin wrote. And in the 21st century, art leaves the museum to be plastered on our screens, mugs, t-shirts and even socks!

With reproducibility, the work of art is perceived in a different light. I’d venture to say (at the risk of sounding snobbish) that the art is consumed almost carelessly. It must be acknowledged that reproducibility allows those who do not have the privilege of visiting museums to still discover art — as art should never be reserved for the elite few. But what I mean is that if we see the art stripped of its aura, of its magic, then this means we also see it as an inferior to the original, even if we don’t quite know what the original is.

Promotional image from Van Gogh Museum X Vans collection featuring Almond Blossom-inspired jacket photographed in front of Almond Blossom painting by Van Gogh (vans.com)

In museums, you cannot get too close to the art or touch it. There is always more to experience than you are allowed – hence the art is shrouded in ambiguity. With copies, you can touch them, alter them, even destroy them, and no one would bat an eye. The copy is inherently of lesser value. And since it is not only a copy, but one that is easily reproducible and also inferior to an ambiguous original, then you approach it with an air of indifference, maybe even dissatisfaction. The more it is reproduced, the farther away it strays from the original, the lower it steeps, the more cliché it becomes. This was our self-fulfilled trap. Our desire to get closer to art saved us in one manner and cursed us in another.

Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup prints(1968) on display at Sotheby’s auction house in London, Britain, 15 March 2013. (sothebys.com)

Of course, some artists celebrated this reproducibility and turned it into its own art form. Andy Warhol is the first name that comes to mind — the artist who forwent any attachment to Benjamin’s understanding of the aura and embraced the new age of art. Warhol took subjects that were not his and turned them into his own unapologetic icons, like Marilyn Diptych and Campbell’s Soup Cans. We perceive these as art pieces with their own auras before we think of them as reproductions. It is difficult to make sense of why Warhol warrants such treatment while 3D-printed reproductions of art don’t, for example. Perhaps it is the intention they’re created with, or who the reproducer attributes the art to, or the arbitrary nature by which one thing becomes art and another doesn’t…I can go on.

Sarah Bird, Inkberry Holly (edition of 85), Synograph on Panel, GeneralPublic.art.

What I can say is that in the age of the aura, art was viewed hand in hand with ritual, with an almost tangible history. It was hidden away, appreciated by few. With reproducibility, art became accessible, shareable. Hence, the weight is shifted away from tradition and towards exhibitionism. Art developed new functions – functions which are intricately linked to possession. And so, art was reduced – for lack of a better word – to its commodity form, through the desire of the masses to own, to possess.

This is why Warhol provocatively reproduced popular icons. This is why I have a magnet with Henri Matisse’s The Snail on my fridge or why Edvard Munch’s The Scream makes a fantastic backdrop for memes on Facebook. But this is also why many people feel underwhelmed when they finally encounter Leonardo da Vinci’s smaller-than-expected Mona Lisa at the Louvre. And this is definitely why I dislike kitschy mugs with Starry Night on them but would probably still buy one anyway.

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All image courtesy indicated in captions.


Sima Qunsol
Sima Qunsol

I'm a Jordanian writer currently serving as an editor for Rusted Radishes: Beirut Literary and Art Journal. I studied English literature, media communication studies and creative writing at the American University of Beirut. I often find myself exploring—and trying to make sense of—the spaces where art theory, urbanism, technology, and language overlap. I have a soft spot for Mark Rothko.

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