Material poetics

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Andy Warhol's Empire interlaces architecture and film in his effort to capture time and the changes that occur with its duration. In this film production, Warhol combines time and history to create film art by replicating the Empire State building, however using this type of medium as Walter Benjamin describes as mechanical reproduction, the question arises of whether Empire as a piece of art can be validated. To discuss I allude to the notion of film art as an art, and where the boundaries of labelling something as art lie. Although an artist of replication using such mediums as printing, Warhol in Empire appears to be trying to achieve a different type of art, one of reception as opposed to approval. Rather than producing a painting or print of the Empire State building, Warhol challenges the observer's perception of architecture by ultimately presenting his view of the iconic building in real time. In relation to Walter Benjamin's 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' the method of replication in art has destroyed the essence of art and taken away from the primary experience one feels from viewing it first hand. However, by eliminating the primary essence, replication allows for the artist to create a new perception in the reproduced object and therefore in Warhol's Empire are we simply viewing the building, or Warhol's reactivation of the building? Throughout the course of this essay, I will compare and contrast the notion of film art in an age of mechanical reproduction and how using architecture, Warhol has captured both time and space in his art piece.

        'In principle a work of art has always been reproducible', and for Benjamin, film art is no exception. He argues that man has always been capable of imitating man made artefacts and therefore man has then always been able to create art. However, through the ages the concept of art has changed and developed since '[o]riginally the contextual integration of art in tradition found its expression in the cult.' The cult meant that art in its early stages had connotations with the spiritual and was therefore not something to frequently behold by spectators, however with the ability of reproduction, art has become available to the masses. Whilst this should be celebrated, Benjamin argues that through the mass production of art, the 'authentic' value is lost, along with the aura which is the intrinsic essence of an art work. Warhol's Empire however presents us with an anomaly in that by using architecture, the historical and traditional value remains. The 'aura' of a building as opposed to a painting can be found in its historical significance, moreover its reception to spectators over the ages. Architecture, over all other man-made arts has had the ability to draw masses of observers due to its sheer size and significance as Marx argues when he says that '[p]ainting simply is in no position to present an object for simultaneous collective experience, as it was possible for architecture at all times, for the epic poem in the past and for the movie today.' Architecture therefore allows many rather than the few to receive it, and although it can be argued that paintings were eventually exhibited in galleries for the mass public, 'there was no way for the masses to organize and control themselves in their reception' however, Warhol's Empire is not simply a building; it is a film reproduction of architecture and as such we must discuss whether in this form it is still able to retain itself as something that has been enjoyed by many.

Warhol's film of the Empire State building is in itself quite a flat piece using only light and dark to add the dimensions of time to the piece. Similar to much of Warhol's work, he presents abstract views to materiality and in his film piece with the changes in light; at times the figure of the building to the observer takes on many shapes. In Richard Dorment's What is an Andy Warhol, he argues that we cannot treat Warhol's art as though it were 'fine' because the concept of the artist does not match:

'A silk-screened image is flat, and without depth or volume. This perfectly suited Warhol because in painting Marilyn Monroe he wasn't painting a woman of flesh, blood, and psychological complexity but a publicity photograph of a commodity created in a Hollywood studio. As Colin Clark's anecdote suggests, you can't look at Warhol's Marilyn in the same way that you look at a painting by Rembrandt or Titian because Warhol isn't interested in any of the things those artists were-the representation of material reality, the exploration of character, or the creation of pictorial illusion.'

Here the question of art as a commodity comes into question, as similar to his Monroe, Warhol is not attempting to recreate the Empire State building but rather 'emancipate the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual,' the term ritual connoting the original location of the object in its use. Warhol in his film removes all traditional associations of the Empire State building by primarily removing the words 'state' and 'building' from the title and presenting the architectural icon as a piece of art rather than history. To return to Benjamin's essay, the idea of art as a commodity resonates with Marx's theories in that art through the ages has become an aesthetic product available to the masses, and therefore it can be viewed in two different ways; in terms of cult and exhibition value. In terms of Warhol's Empire, here I will focus on the exhibition value as this particular value has been increased due to 'different methods of technical reproduction of a work of art.'

Although Warhol's art is a film production, the subject and method are connected by functionality and representation in that the subject's functions through the use of film are overlooked as the building no longer represents a place of occupancy, but rather an artistic piece of architecture. 'Warhol asked different questions about art. How does it differ from any other commodity?' He questioned the values placed on 'originality, invention, rarity, and the uniqueness of the art object,' and in the case of Empire the state building as the art object creates problems of authenticity in Warhol's art. Benjamin states that 'the instance the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed', and whilst the film production of Empire is Warhol's, the subject is not. In his effort to create an abstract view of the Empire State building Warhol uses the technical reproduction of film, however, by using film is Warhol merely adapting to the modern day method of mass exhibition for his art? To answer I will refer back to Benjamin's essay where he discusses the originality of manual reproduction against technical reproduction. Viewers of Empire can question why Warhol chose to present the building in a film, rather than a painting or print to which we can argue that through technical reproduction, Warhol is not attempting forgery because he has not distorted the actual subject in any way, he has merely distorted our optical reception of it as Benjamin explains that 'technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself.' The Empire State building therefore in losing its aura from not being viewed firsthand, is able to be reactivated in its observance through the film. Warhol does not present an idle building, he films architecture through time, the building is illuminated at some points and shaded at others, what seems to be a plane flies across the screen and midway through the film, the buildings floodlights are turned on. Although for Benjamin, the aura through film is dead, he agrees that for the purpose of mass exhibition, film is the 'most powerful agent.' It is as if through his film art, Warhol has made the relationship between art and spectator inseparable because it is precisely his viewpoint that we are observing. Through mechanical reproduction the spectator's view of art is altered as the methods of reception alter with time. Mass reception is now best achieved through such methods as film, but with the social progression of reaction to art forms, film allows for the most criticism as well as enjoyment. In this light, the author of the work of art is able to limit what his audience sees as his equipment fragments and edits scenes, which Benjamin analyses in his discussion of how 'the cameraman compare[s] with the painter.' He argues that the:

'mechanical equipment has penetrated so deeply into reality that its pure aspect freed from the foreign substance of equipment is the result of a special procedure [...] the equipment-free aspect of reality here has become the height of artifice; the sight of immediate reality has become an orchid in the land of technology.'

Benjamin, in his description of a penetrating cameraman with invisible equipment, comments that the cameraman is similar to that of the surgeon in that he penetrates edits and extracts at will, leaving no distance between himself and the patient. In relation to Empire although we cannot see the equipment being used, 'in three reels, they started before they turned the lights back off, so you can see a reflection of Warhol and Mekas in the window' which reminds the viewers of the artist and reinstates the authenticity of the piece, but more specifically reinforces that whilst film may appear to be hiding the equipment used, it is impossible to do so because the 'llusory nature of film' comes from editing rather than raw film. However whilst Warhol, as the cameraman, is able to edit the shooting of the film thereby constructing his own representation of the Empire State building, he is also able to create a new dimension of viewing it, one inexperienced by the naked eye. In his eight hour film, Warhol is able to give the viewer a representation of his own environment and an 'enriched [...] field of perception', by opening up our surroundings and seeing with greater detail what is familiar to us. Here we should pause to consider the conflicting aspects on film in Benjamin's essay; the infiltration of the cameraman and the liberation of film. If by creating film art, Warhol has fragmented the view of the Empire State building, how has he at the same time managed to alter our 'unconscious optics' by viewing film as a habitual space? The answer may lie in his use of architecture as the subject of the film, since it presents something much more familiar to the viewer because '[b]uildings have been man's companions since primeval times.' As an art form, architecture has surpassed its counterparts such as painting and poetry in that it has survived through the ages, this mainly due to the nature of its ritual value; being that 'the human need for shelter is lasting.' The habitual need for shelter therefore echoes that of the habitual space for film in that according to Benjamin, '[t]he camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis ton unconscious impulses', allowing cinema and the production of film to enhance each viewers experience of their habitat. He continues to discuss the ability of honing in on the details of our individual space by use of the camera:

'By close-ups of the things around us, by focusing on hidden details of familiar objects, by exploring commonplace milieus under the ingenious guidance of the camera, the film, on the one hand, extends our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives; on the other hand, it manages to assure us of an immense and unexpected field of action.'

The method of editing and enhancing frames in film explodes our apperception, and ultimately the mass reception to works of art. Film therefore differs to painting in that the image the artist wants to present varies with every second of its duration, and as Georges Duhamel comments, the focus on the film is lost along with its aura because by watching film '[we] can no longer think what [we] want to think. [Our] thoughts have been replaced by moving images', and amidst this confusion, reception fuses with distraction. Reception in distraction 'is conditioned, first of all, by the dynamics of modern technology, by the technologization of things - the accelerated pace of life, [and] the rapid transitions of modern media' however in light of Warhol's Empire the concept of reception in distraction refers to architecture. Architecture, similar to film in intrinsically collective as buildings at any time collect the register of many individuals, and in terms of the Empire State building as a historical icon, it collects the 'registers of time that shape its historical present.' Benjamin comments that 'a man who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it,' but in terms of collective reception, a mass of people in contrast 'absorb the work art' in their distraction, and with reference to art, architecture is the only 'instance of art and everyday culture [that] entails both collective production and collective reception.' Therefore we can argue that Warhol in Empire is simply combining the historical art of collective reception, to the modern day method by interlacing architecture to film; joining the concepts of collective production in film as although he is the author, he is not solely responsible, to the collective reception of architecture within the public. Empire as film art, provides the collective audience with an abstract yet timeless view of the Empire State building whilst at the same time, enforcing the notion that film as an art is an area still to be explored.

        Benjamin in his essay discusses the damaging effects of the mechanical production of art, and yet displays the habitual liberation of film to the human mind, as through its ability to define detail using the camera, we can see more than the human eye. In conjunction with Warhol's Empire we can conclude that whilst the film production of the piece loses touch of the aura or de facto essence of the building, portraying it in such a method allows for a collective response, similar to that which happens in everyday practice by the viewing public. Concentration on such pieces as architecture and film are lost due to their collective reception, however through this reception the pieces are reactivated so that the experience for the viewer is personal. For Benjamin, 'Architecture has always represented the prototype of a work art the reception of which is consummated by a collectivity in a state of distraction', so whilst such art forms as poetry, painting and photography may in the future perish, as long as man exists, the need for shelter and therefore architecture, both by use and perception, will always remain.


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  • Benjamin, Walter, 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction', Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zorn, (London: Pimlico, 1999), pp. 211-34.
  • Hanssen, Beatrice, Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project, (Continuum Publishing Group, 2006).
  • Danto, Arthur, C., Andy Warhol, (Yale University Press, 2009).
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