Note from Jess:
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