Tuesday 27 April 2021 2:16 pm

The work of art in the age of mathematical reproduction

Recognise this? Walter Benjamin, a German Jewish philosopher and cultural commentator famous in the first half of the twentieth century, published an essay in 1936 entitled The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.

It became famous as whatever passed for a meme in high-end inter-war cultural circles. Benjamin traced a change in the status and interpretation of art. Art was originally encountered in caves then churches, that is religious spaces. It was impossible to experience art aside from its context because it couldn’t be moved. 

A copy, that is a manual copy, was, in effect, a forgery. As a consequence, art had an Aura (the German word Aura is generally translated into English as aura; in German it carries an implication of context and feeling). The aura was what a viewer of visual art experienced.

Benjamin’s essay considered the effect of the then recent technological changes that made the mechanical reproduction of art possible. Art that could be copied could be: (a) experienced outside its original context and (b) mass produced in copy.  

In particular, Benjamin thought about what would be the effect of copying on the aura of a work of art?  Spoiler alert: not a good one.  The viewer that experienced art in a book, a postcard or on television encountered it unmoored from its proper place and in that sense was experiencing something other than the artwork itself.

Digital revolution

Digital art compounded the problem. Reproducibility was increased and art further lost its aura. But scale is a difference of degree not of kind.  No conceptual change occurred as a result of the digital revolution. It mainly led to punning essay titles: The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction.  I am of course following in line, hence the title of my essay showing due deference to its ancestors. 

Art projects utilising blockchain technology at first appears to further compound the problem because: (a) it further enables reproduction, and (b) at the same time it now also enables dissemination. There is more engagement with the image of art via facsimiles but not with the original artworks. But there is more to the story and NFTs offer a lens through which to view it.

Art is now created from the technological transformation of existing media.  Through the “creation” of an NFT an existing article, a video clip, an image acquires value from its reproduction.  The reproduction here is mathematical.  NFTs are data on the Ethereum blockchain.  A a “token ID” is transferable by smart contract using Standard ERC-721.  The token ID is unique and so it has what Benjamin would call a “here and now”.

The technological transformation is not superficial, however. The art isn’t transformed; it looks the same. 

Sea change

But there is a sea change. A change in the status of the art. The tokenId certifies ownership. Ownership is what is valued.

And in the case of a blockchain-based ledger, reproduction is at the scale of the community because the ledger is stored on the nodes of all participants. The owner’s claim to the art appears in the view of the market to have been enhanced: materialised not in a physical way but by certification. It acquires the criteria of value in the attention economy: publicity, scarcity and a high price. An aura. 

Benjamin considered that aura was lost when copying a work “… substitutes for its unique incidence a multiplicity of incidences.”

NFTs square the circle. Familiarity of a work precludes an aura from viewers experiencing the work but uniqueness of the tokenId permits an aura from viewers experiencing the ownership of the work.  The artist, the owner and the ledger are the objects of contemplation.  

A strange thing has happened. The mathematical reproduction of art causes it to regain its aura. 

The Geist of Benjamin explains why. For him, because originals have special status, he had to mind their genuineness. “Analyses of a chemical nature carried out on the patina of a bronze may help to establish its genuineness”.  But blockchains by definition establish genuineness. Just check the ledger. No chemical analyses needed.

Indeed, Benjamin’s reasoning shows how his mistake here (amazing for a person of such profound cultural insight…) was to fail to foresee the invention of the blockchain: “The whole province of genuineness is beyond technological… reproducibility”; “… in relation to manual reproduction… the genuine article keeps its full authority, in relation to reproduction by technological means that is not the case”. 

Mathematical means

We can see, however, that in relation to reproduction mediated by mathematical means that is exactly the case.

The title of Benjamin’s essay was always read with the stress on the word ‘art’: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. It was read by artists and so naturally they laid stress on the most important term to them.

Now we can reread the essay with the stress in a different place: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. The sea change is that the art now is made capable of doing work. For the owner, the artist, and all the service providers (platforms, exchanges, auctioneers, technologists, commentators, lawyers(!), et al) as partners in the project and parties to the programmatic contracts sharing the proceeds of commercialisation.  

Some of the things that NFTs have done are obvious and have already appeared in the press – “jpeg for $69m” etc.  Some are still being worked out. This essay is an attempt to work out another. 

Reproducibility has generally been a precursor to commoditisation: creation of identical, interchangeable things that are distinguishable only by the price. This time round it is the precursor to commodification: giving substance to an item that is distinctive because of its price precisely because it is not identical to or interchangeable with any other thing.  (Don’t believe your dictionary on commoditisation vs commodification; I’m sure that they aren’t the same thing).

One last thing…

A final point. For Benjamin, this wasn’t just about art.  He was concerned about the implications for the aestheticisation of politics. We may be concerned about the implications for the aestheticisation of capitalism. But that is not just a story of NFTs.

I haven’t touched on the legal issues surrounding NFTs here yet.  But I don’t need to because here is the CMS NFT That-NFT-o… NFT for sale at Mintable.app.

We are all post-modernists now. Even lawyers. 

Charles Kerrigan

Charles Kerrigan

Charles Kerrigan is a partner in the Banking and International Finance Team at CMS London.  

Charles acts on finance and technology (fintech) transactions and projects. He acts for fintechs, funds, technology companies, governments, trade bodies and corporations.

The Blockchain Industry Landscape Overview 2018 names Charles as one of the UK’s leading influencers on blockchain. He is the UK’s “recommended lawyer” for blockchain and digital technology in the UK Parliament Hub.