Sunday, January 13, 2013

Guest Lecture Neil Baldwin

Note from Jess:

 Neil Baldwin is a Professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Montclair State University. A native New Yorker, he received his PhD in Modern American Poetry from SUNY/Buffalo. He is a widely-published cultural historian and critic. His most recent book is The 25th Protocol(Washington House, Inc./Amazon Kindle, 2010). Dr. Baldwin also serves as Co-Chair of the NYU Biography Seminar. He is currently at work on a biography of Martha Graham.

I would like to thank Neil (who is also Director at the Creative Research Centre - read the blog here) for participating in our course all the way from New Jersey. 


Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

As you read this, it will become evident how I arrived at this question.

[A note before we begin. The carefully-selected links herein are integral and elucidating components of my lecture; I urge you and your students to follow them.]

Some analog decades ago, I taught a Masters course at NYU graduate school called What Was Modernism? The seminal work required was a 1936 essay by Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) called The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility. This is a visionary must-read for all inhabitants of this day and age under the delusion that our fantastic technological voyage is unique.  If you haven’t read it already, you can do so right now, right here: The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility.

One of Benjamin’s crucial pedagogical beliefs – I want to get this on the table at the beginning because this is a class, and we are all teachers and students alike – was the necessity for children – yes, children – to be exposed as early as possible in their education to Anschauungsunterricht, which means “instruction in perception and intuition.”

Now hold that thought, as I give you another key WB insistence, that “The sphere of authenticity [The Aura] eludes technological – and, of course, not only technical – reproduction.” 

In his melancholy mode, Benjamin is saying that as technical facility makes reproduction/publication of art works [and this includes literature for my purposes] feasible and more widespread, the original will lose its ‘aura’: authenticity - heart, if you will.

The increasing accessibility of art to a larger mass of audience changes the nature of its value – makes it more “popular.”

Which is to say that mass-culture depletes this magic, “strips the veil” from the ideal Thing Itself.

Don’t forget: this essay was written January 1936. 

Now, let’s flash forward to the January 2013 issue of ARTFORUM magazine, where there is an attenuated debate between Lauren Cornell, Curator of the 2015 Triennial, Digital Projects and Museum as Hub at the New Museum in NYC; and Claire Bishop, author of an essay on “Digital Divide: Whatever happened to digital art?”

This is more than a can of worms, not just in the so-called “art world” (whatever that means); it is a veritable vat full of worms.

The Cornell/Bishop debate about “new media” vs. “auratic, dead-tech, analog” art brings us to another issue, one that’s pertinent to your fabulously-rich course syllabus: This restless argument about the value of digital creations of all kinds in contradistinction to “real” art isn’t helping anybody.

Surely I am not the only content-provider/author/literary artist (if you will)/teacher/cultural citizen who thinks that we need to moderate, and mediate, this vestigial polarity.

[Now do you get the meaning of my lecture title?]

How amusing that I can invoke Marcel Duchamp’s words to help us resolve the battle. He said that a work of art needs to be known in order to be. Its existence depends upon “the artist on the one hand, and on the other, the spectator, who becomes the posterity.” I love that – “posterity!” The viewer’s contribution, Duchamp maintained, is equal in importance to the artist’s, because, as he also wrote, “It is posterity that makes the masterpiece.”

I do not want to tie all of these questions into a nice bow for you and your class. My goal here is to raise perceptual and evaluative points that I hope will lead to lively discussion.

That said, let me end with this personal admission: To me, as the Director of The [born-digital] Creative Research Center, the challenges going forward are not just about acceptance of the digital.

That proverbial train has left the proverbial station. I look back on my mission statement for the CRC that will be three years old this spring, and the term “born-digital” seems so antiquated now! I was so proudly proprietary ‘way back in 2009 that I was launching a Center that didn’t have to worry about concrete infrastructure…

…and nowadays, so what…? It doesn’t matter to “the digital” what I or you or anybody thinks about it.

We live with it, and it lives within us.

The exponentially bigger issue for you, and me, and your students reading this, is curatorial – selection and preservation:

What – in Walter Benjamin’s prophetic terms – do we choose to pay attention to, and why?

And then, concomitantly - what do we value – in art, in literature, in media - and why?

And then, once we have sorted out our preferences, and “likes,” what to put on Facebook, what to put on Instagram, what to add to our queue on Netflix, how do we maintain a sense of confidence in our choices - and the courage of our convictions that we are not missing out on something else?

All the best, as ever,

Neil Baldwin, PhD
The Creative Research Center of Montclair State University


  1. Thanks Neil for guest lecturing! I'm looking forward to what the students have to say.

    I think you raise such a timely though classic question: what do we miss when we make our choices. Perhaps it's not about missing but about curating - and finding the content that is relevant to us; and of course this changes.

  2. Is Benjamin in "melancholy mode" or celebratory? After all, mechanical (and digital) reproduction make art available to all. The "aura" is no more than bourgeois obfuscation, no?

    As for today's digital choices, are we really only left with arranging our preferences, afraid to miss out? So that's it? That's what it all comes to -- and endless stream of updates?


    1. The readings this week were very thought provoking – it took me time to digest – and I will admit to getting caught running down a few rabbit holes. I had a whole post prepared on passages that reminded me of McLuhan insights but then I got into Miriam Bratu Hansen’s reading and hit her paragraph on page 342 where she clearly states that Benjamin’s concept of medium should not be confused with McLuhan’s use of the term as a technological medium or means of communication. Well I will admit then to being confused. But this is what had me thinking about McLuhan, Benjamin says “Just as the entire mode of existence of human collectives changes over long historical periods, so too does their mode of perception. The way in which human perception is organized -- the medium in which it occurs – is conditioned not only by nature but by history” he goes on to give an example of a change in late-Roman art industry and the Vienna Genesis which changed both art and perceptions. This reminded me of McLuhan’s infamous insight on the medium is the message – verbatim from this groovy video McLuhan says “The medium being used by the artist is the message – the dominant form is the medium – each of these creates a new environment it creates a new situation for human association and human perception. Any new media creates a new pattern a new environment of human conception – which works upon the whole man – it works upon the whole society – the total pervasive effect – that is the message – that social change is bought about the content is never the message the content is always the old medium”. I guess my confusion comes with separating the “art” (which I see as the message) from the “medium” or the technology. McLuhan made the point that the medium and the message couldn’t be easily disentangled. Both Benjamin and McLuhan insights come out in the ArtForum letters debating the state of digital art. One example is from the critical authors “Bishop says that the art world simultaneously “disavows and depends on digital media”. To be sure there has also been a tension between art and changing social and technological order.” Isn’t this what Benjamin was writing about? His was a straightforward sensible piece and it didn’t seem melancholy to me, but definitely at its conclusion he sends a warning or foreshadows events to come. Benjamin was Jewish and the time period he wrote this in was as Hitler was rising to power. Benjamin was correct in terms of how governments use film as propaganda to rally support for war. Fast forward to 2011 and the Arab Spring where digital film, photographs and text on Twitter lead to social change – this time initiated by the people.

    2. Benjamin’s description of aura made perfect sense to me – the comparison to live theatre and a film, or to actually viewing nature live versus seeing a beautiful picture. I would love to be able to afford an original painting from my favorite artist – but at the same time I am so glad that technology has enabled her to provide limited edition prints of her work. She paints beautiful, colourful Okanagan (interior BC) landscape abstracts of the terrain that is my second home when I cycle through it. My reprint is not an original but it evokes a very personal and special memory for me – there is aura enough for me. I am an untrained art “spectator” – but I know what I like and I know what I want to visit in a gallery or hang on my walls. The letter in Artform speaks about the current rise of amateur cultural production and the accessibility of tools from creating visual media posing new challenges for the art world. The new digital art forms and means to share them are creating new art forms, new artists and many more spectators. Yes, posterity may remember the GanghnamStyle video. This is visual art to many people. It doesn’t change the incredible work on display at the MET or in the Louvre; it’s just a different form, crafted by an artist with the technology and tools of the day. We have always been able to create artwork, what has changed is how many more ways there are to do so and how many more ways there are to share it.

  3. This is a really fascinating and relevant topic. I've never read Walter Benjamin's essay before and found it to be a good read. With the abundance of digital work surrounding us (art, graphics, film, photographs, literature, etc.), it is really difficult to say definitively what we as a society pay attention to. Some of the characteristics of art that Benjamin talks about include: uniqueness (and embeddedness in context of history and tradition), permanence, and aura. In other words, I find myself paying attention to things that are different and unexpected, classic/timeless, and are "special" (for lack of a better word) and evoke an emotional response. We value the things that tell us something about ourselves.

    These characteristics are highly subjective, of course. It lends well to the discussion about curation. Curating news articles, style/design sense, information diet, and other content plays a big role in shaping our identity, mindset, and communities we belong to. Confidence often comes into play when these pieces (images, articles, videos, fan followings, etc). are validated with the recognition, attention, interest of others. Platforms like Instagram, Pinterest, Google+, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Tumblr, etc. have built-in tools for followers to express those sentiments. In terms of not feeling like we're missing things - I am never sure of this. I feel like I miss things all the time!

    A question for anyone who feels like responding regarding digital media and art: I'm curious to know if you think remixing (all forms of media) is authentic art, and if it has an aura as Benjamin describes.

    1. Great question Sylvia. I think that remixing produces new art, I'm not sure I would call it authentic art because it is reproduction. What's cool is that Benjamin states that technology can place the original in situations it can not itself attain. I think viewing art dynamically is very interesting and progressive. I think that aura emerges (maybe only in part of Benjamin's definition), where aura is the desire of the present day masses to get closer to things...I believe aura can be experienced even if art it is reproduced or remixed.

    2. Hi Sylvia, this is an interesting one to ponder. In 2011 I read Laurence Lessig’s book Remix and watched a film on one of the examples used in the book (

      My head went immediately to the young man who is the creative genius behind “Girl Talk”. He uses other artists songs to make mash-ups with a technique described as digital sampling. To describe what he is doing your impression is that this is not original work, but he creates something so truly unique it cannot be appreciated until you experience it. Sometimes we hear songs from original artists being refashioned and re-interpreted by the musicians of the day. It is not original in terms of the words or music but something unique has been added to it in the new artists interpretation of it – the way they sing it, the way their band plays it. I can experience this in a live performance and feel the aura as Benjamin describes. Or, watch a video of them singing it and experience the aura that surrounds the musician in the way Bratu Hansen described (p. 340) -- their surrounding halo of authenticity and individuality. If one version creates an emotional connection and impression with the spectator and the other doesn’t are they not truly unique to each other? On paper, legally the courts will say it is not original work. But from the spectator, layman perspective they are.

  4. Being introduced to "aura" both literally through Benjamin's essay, and conceptually was really interesting. As Teresa indicated, it seemed to pose many questions that would lead to more questions. Ultimately, I found myself trying to identify what is art, and what is media, and how is "aura" concentrated or absent within? There seemed to be no clear distinction as I am persuaded to believe that new media is a progressive form of art, and that aura may be present in all forms. I too toyed with the idea that media was just the medium much like McLuhan states, but that idea seems static, and media seems to be constantly evolving. Prior to reading the Benjamin's "Aura", and starting this class I believed the use of media was really for the dissemination of art. Throughout his essay the evolution of traditional art (paintings, sculptures) and literature have been transformed by technology and accepted as art in film and photography. It seems we may be quick to dismiss "art" in the form of new media because it is simply too new. As I mentioned last week, art is an expression of the current state of society. It represents aspects of humanity and nature and our relationship to them seems to be where aura emerges. I love Benjamin's descriptions of aura and how we experience it in relation to art, however, I find it limiting. Benjamin finds that aura is missing through reproduction, and talks about the "here and now", the unique experience of the art being in one place, that it "bears the mark of history". Art that started on the walls of caves as primitive drawings could not be authentically reproduced and placed in museums. Therefore, paper and canvass can be seen as the medium, or technology used to allow art to be transportable and displayed. The idea of experiencing aura by being present with the piece of art seems to contradict itself if art can be moved from where it was created in any way. When placed in a museum, are we truly experiencing what the artist did when creating the piece? Is it not in fact substituting "a mass existence for a unique existence" in Benjamin's own words? We may be present with the object, but are we truly experiencing it's aura when outside of it's place of origin? That's the question that arises for me?

  5. I connected with the statement that Bratu Hansen made that technology is nothing but a "truly new configuration of nature", as we see with new media. We use multiple forms of technology to disseminate and reproduce art, but now also to intentionally create it. New media is our cave walls. We can invite people into our caves. As artists and creators of original pieces of literature, visual art, movies, animation, and other digital creation, we invite others to our cave walls through our own webpages, sites, and blogs. I believe that all art form evoke emotion. We may not experience aura through the aesthetics of beauty and emotion, but instead connection and accessibility. We experience the mass existence and the unique existence simultaneously. Neil Baldwin's reference to Marcel Duchamp works perfectly here - the work of art needs to be known in order to be. I have probably strayed from the original ideas presented on this topic, but found it challenging to consolidate all my thoughts in a linear fashion.

    I think that what we choose to pay attention to, and why is subjective. I think it may come down to what evokes the feeling of "aura" for the viewer if it is no longer measured just by beauty and emotion. Do we have to have a unanimous decision on what is curated? There is something for everybody. with seven billion people on the planet, how could we come to a common consensus. The beauty is that we don't have to.

    1. Gail, I agree, I think the beauty of art in all its forms is that there is no unanimous decision – we are unique and this is reflected in art tastes. No doubt occasionally your network will sent you emails, videos or pictures that have really moved them and connected with them and it hits your desk for the big “delete” as the sentiment is not shared. Marcel Duchamp’s says that the creative act is not reserved for the artist alone and that the spectator who deciphers and interprets it adds a contribution to the creative act. As an artist would it be frustrating to know that your poem or your sculpture or painting is being misunderstood or misinterpreted? There may be huge success for the artist commercially but from a different interpretation than was intended. That could be frustrating as your message really hasn’t been delivered? Or maybe you would be happy for the flexibility of the interpretation.

      I’m not sure I entirely agree with Marcel Duchamp either as some people create artwork, or write in journals or on blogs and it is never shared.

  6. Response from Neil Baldwin:

    Dear Teresa and Gail-Ann [have you two met? you certainly have alot to talk about], Sylvia, Dewar, and any others in Jess' class and beyond, who did not participate but still might be interested:

    There is something provocative about that Walter Benjamin essay!

    I wrote about it a year and a half ago in one of my Director's Blog posts for the Creative Research Center and several of my colleagues at Montclair State responded at the time. You will find this relevant:

    More recently, stockpiling my imagination for the biography of Martha Graham I am planning, I have delved into the literary works of the great modernist composer, Arnold Schoenberg. What a prodigious fellow! You do not have to be able to read music to become enthralled by his intellect. In his 1930 essay I just read last night called New Music: My Music, he has the audacity to say that "all art is new art."

    The reason I like to respond to Jess' requests for lecturing in her course is pedagogical rather than dogmatic. Because when I am teaching my own classes (the semester starts tomorrow and all my syllabi are done, the texts laid out neatly on the floor of my study where I can doublecheck them, the reminder emails sent to the students) I spend most of my time standing in front of them asking questions rather than "feeding" them information.

    Information is not knowledge. My classes are more about learning how to learn rather than what to learn, despite the fact that they are apportioned properly and officially into subjects and curricula.

    So I am thrilled by the back-and-forth I have seen in the New Media Narratives discussions, especially and predominantly between Teresa and Gail-Ann, because although they come at the subjects of "aura" and "medium" from different points of view, their dialectic - if I may! - is cordial and shows mutual respect.

    That behavior appeals to me because the more I teach, the more I see an unknown terrain opening up more and more broadly and becoming more and more unnavigable. There is no question in my mind that the Web has created a vast "aura" of its own - - an aura of uncertainty. Digitization has fragmented the traditional "aura," which is why I inserted the Claire Bishop references in my piece.

    We have reached a stage in the arc of human perception where the phenomenal world as known by the Romantic poets is a mere fraction of a fraction of the potentially-perceptually knowable world.

    When we sit down to put out our opinions onto the Web, we are entering a totally different reality than experienced before the Web; and that is why those of us like myself who are old enough to remember many years of pre-Web interaction are referencing a range of experience that is off-limits to net-gen human beings in the way that we experienced it. I am not trying to sound melodramatic or circuitous here. I lived through a time of perception that my students did not.

    To bring that separation back around, and propose a question rather than attempt closure on our phase of your NMN semester: Do you think that with the exponential proliferation of types of communication and varieties of presentation and formats coming into the Web world, we will reach yet another gradient of perception/disconnect, where people who do not adapt to (say) 3-G or 4-G will become likewise set apart from/left behind those who continue to adapt?

    What will happen to the modest nineteenth-century concept of "curation" in five years from this writing?

    Yrs., NB

  7. Hi Neil, Gail and I have never met in person but we had a nice chat on the first day of class online and bonded over technology challenges we were both having :-) We (Gail and myself, and yourself and Jess for that matter) all share the same profession – we all teach young adults – different disciplines but our audience is the same. So you can understand why your blog post “Learning How to Learn: A Mandate for Change in Today’s College Classroom” ( really resonated with me in so many ways. I teach college students (Business School) and part of my very being in this particular course and my Masters program is to do it better. I very much enjoyed and identified with your insights.

    Ok, I have to do a bit of a shout out to Arnold Schoenberg’s quote here. You see I finally, for the first time, had a lovely trip to Paris in the summer of 2011. We had only one day for The Louvre, it was emotionally exhausting. Of course, I was in awe of so many revered and extraordinary pieces of art and yes – it was very much “new art” for me (I get what he means). Finally, I was in the Mona Lisa room. I wish I could have gotten closer to her but there were so many people! I wanted to look into her eyes – the way we all have with her in the print or digital reproductions. She was 15 feet away I’d guess, but I still felt something special to be in the same room -- there is just something about that first original piece. It does create sentiment and emotion that is different than looking at reproduction. I think it is special because you feel closer to the actual artist – he was there – those are his actual brush strokes you can imagine the scene. That “authenticity” that you reference in your post above.

    I have recently hit my 50th decade so I absolutely understand where you are coming from in expressing how you want to experience art in the way we have always done so. But I do think that these new communication formats express art and curation in new ways (history repeats itself) and that ignoring or discounting them is just delaying the inevitable -– at least we should try to understand them and experience them before we choose not to adapt. Otherwise we may miss out – As Sam I am famously said once “I DO, I DO like green eggs and ham!” The push back or acceptance of digital art and the media that communicates it reminds me of Walter Ong noting that Plato critiqued writing as an “artificial” aid which would lead to the erosion of mental capacities specifically memory. I guess art is an acquired taste too -- I have tried to like beer repeatedly and I keep failing -- but at least I've tried, it just doesn't connect with me the way a fine glass of merlot does. One thing I will say about the seemingly relentless onslaught of technology -It is exhausting to keep up with it all, sometimes I just want/need a one or two year moratorium on new technology :-)