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Impact of Photography and Film on Art

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Published: Tue, 09 Jan 2018

Photography and film have changed our notion of art. Discuss.

To explore how photography and film have changed our notion of art, we must elude to Walter Benjamin’s essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction[1].

Here, Walter Benjamin, discusses how art changed in the face of technology, and how state economies, the way art is perceived, the impact of reproduction, and how the meaning of artworks change through time, is discussed predominantly in the wake of film. He also puts forward the idea of the value of the work of art is linked to its authenticity. “The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity.” And sites various reactions to the emergence of film. “I can no longer think what I want to think. My thoughts have been replaced by moving images[2].” He writes about the impact of the reproduction of art. “Mechanical reproduction of art changes the reaction of the masses toward art”, and the difference between aspects of film and other art forms. When comparing the painter and the cameraman, Walter Benjamin compared them to a magician and a surgeon. “The magician heals a sick person by the laying on of hands; the surgeon cuts into the patient’s body.” When Walter Benjamin wrote his essay, film was emerging as a powerful art form, “The shooting of a film, especially of a sound film, affords a spectacle unimaginable anywhere at any time before this”, and obviously influenced The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, possibly fearing that art’s heritage would be lost in the wake of technology, “The technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition.”

The purpose of this essay is to take these ideas and re-evaluate them in our 21st century world, to enable us to explore how our notions, or ideas and conceptions of art, in relation to photography and film have changed.

Through examining our notion of art and how it has been manipulated through photography and film, we will be able to gauge what art means to us, its use, what influences art, and how we perceive it.

Arguably the biggest impact over the last two to three decades on art has been the rise of the market economy. Through striving for profit, the media industry that arguably utilises art has been greatly affected. The use of art has become a kind of dictated president. The use of demographics has largely dictated what kind of films and television programmes people watch. In relation to art, the question has to be asked: Is there room for art in demographic driven film? This can be explored further in relation to television, especially where reality television is concerned. In his essay, Walter Benjamin ask a similar question, “The question remains whether it provides a platform for the analysis of the film.”

Perhaps to answer this question we need to look at other art forms. Music, like film has gone through a change in how it is made, and there is arguably a clear division between commercial music, and music from artists wanting to express themselves. Where as twenty years ago the pendulum was arguably more balanced, with the advent of television talent programmes and their subsequent success, the popular song has become formulaic. The creativity, or the “cult” element has been lost in the commercialism of music, and subsequently it is more like painting by numbers, than a tapestry of sound. This argument to a degree is now present in the film industry. Film scripts, particularly in the action genre, seem to fit a certain format, and subsequently, one seems a lot like another, save perhaps a few exceptions.

Art has little scope for recognition in this kind of film. Walter Benjamin: “The masses seek distraction whereas art demands concentration from the spectator.” The merits of which still seem to prevail. This leads us to the question, what do people actually want from their film going experience? If art is an expression of idea through a creative medium, then this is not art that is being sought, or offered, as there is no expression of ideas, but rather a tried and tested rerun of what sells.

Marketing has played its part in changing our notion of art. It has not only conducted research into demographics, but also packaged the film to make it more fit for consumption by a mass mainstream audience. It has kind of duped us into believing that we want to see a film that we really do not. This clever use of marketing and its power should never be underestimated. Its reach stretches to wherever there is a product and consumer. The driver here is money and investment, and film companies want a top return for their outlay. Though this is understandable, the results are arguably limiting the scope of art to take form.

Western Governments may not have been directly responsible for the demise of art to commercial demographics, but by allowing the rise of the market economy to strive for greater profits above all else, ideas driven film inevitably was always going to be displaced to a more profitable, formula led system. In this way, Western Governments have created the condition for this kind of film making to exist.

If art is suffering in commercial film, it is growing from independent film makers. Here, it could be argued that the art of film making still exists, where the demographic driven formula of the commercial sphere is rested, and ideas are used to guide a film from beginning to end. It should also be noted that with the advent of websites such as Youtube, and Flickr, and more affordable technology, film making and photography are arguably more affordable to the average person in the street than ever before. How much of the content of these sites is art is questionable, but nonetheless, keen people looking to explore the worlds of film making and photography, are striving to achieve something more than just a home video and snapshots, and now have the tools to explore their own creativity and self expression.

In the minds of most people, film is a source of entertainment. It is not a crucible for culture. Most films that people see would have undergone the demographic research we have discussed previously, and been screened in front of a test audience. Depending on the results of the test audience, the film may have been edited again. Art, which is arguably in short supply, may well have been lessened further as a result. As Walter Benjamin stated, “The public is an examiner, but an absent minded one.”

Photography, on the other hand, seems to come into its own when used for its shock power. Photographers have carved out a niche for themselves in this arena by combining the controversial with a particular topic. It has also shown to be an instrument of real power, especially on a battlefield, where a dead body can tell a thousand words. Where photography perhaps has the edge over film on an artistic level, is that there are no demographics to dictate the content of the picture. In fact, the art of photography lies in the technique of the photographer.

Art in this form, is what people are left with. Photographers have a freer rain to practise their art than their film contemporaries. Our notion of art in photography is what we are left with when we view the picture. Exactly what this is, is hard to determine, but for all intense and purposes the art is still there.

The power of the camera should never be understated. Injustices, tragedies, and humours moments are remembered by all. 9/11, the Tiananmen square massacre, Vietnam, are all images that have stayed with people long after the events have taken place. Art is not something that immediately is apparent, but the statement by Marinetti[3] that, “War is beautiful”, does resonate in some way. Though other feelings are prevalent to: Shock, fear, intrigue, horror and abhorrence. If a destruction of another human being can be classified as beautiful, then perhaps this is because of authenticity, which provides the basis of value for a genuine work of art. Perhaps a student being unjustly killed, a village being massacred or people being crushed to death in a collapsing building, gives the lives lost a meaning albeit a grim one, and here in lies the art, both genuine and authentic.

It is a nice thought that art is intrinsically linked to something profound, and something that represents humanity.

Walter Benjamin wrote, “But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice-politics”

Indeed, politics, in our day and age is about gaining advantage where possible to reinforce a position through manipulating facts and arguably truths. Perhaps artistic value in film and pictures that depict tragedy is lost once the act moves into the political arena, as through manipulation authenticity dies, and with it the value of life and death.

One could say that the death of authenticity, is actually the death of art in mass market media. Tragedy, seems to be all around us, and now you can watch the events of it on a hundred television channels. The world wide web which is accessible to many people around the globe, can show tragic events at any time of the day. Perhaps the authenticity is dying because we are saturated by similar images. We are becoming immune to its effects and therefore immune to art itself. We have seen it every week in one form or another. Many actors are groomed in the same way, and so look similar. The uniqueness is lost to the mainstream, and so art is lost, for without uniqueness there can be no art. The Mona Lisa would not hang in the Louvre if twenty million people had there own copy painted by Leonardo De Vinci hanging in their kitchens.

To this end, Walter Benjamin states that, “Thus the same public which responds in a progressive manner toward a grotesque film is bound to respond in a reactionary manner to surrealism”, could not have predicted the deadening of sensibilities due to the saturation of horrific imagery.

Perhaps then, Franz Wefel[4] who states, “The film has not yet realized its true meaning, it’s real possibilities..these consist in its unique faculty to express by natural means and with incomparable persuasiveness all that is fairylike, marvelous, supernatural”, was more in tune with what film, cinema, and television would become.

Arguably, it has realised its potential and has done so for some time, with the magical quality coming in the form of various visual, and special effects. Creating an illusion in this sense, is arguably the art of the film. Where a counterpoint exists, is that many effects are duplicated- The hero does not fight one deadly monster, but five. Authenticity is lost, through duplication. Only where all these effects come together to give us something unique, can art be created.

Perhaps then, the exhibition is where we begin to understand the true meaning of art. Arguably, this arena is where we are most exposed to it. Art is all around us and in everything, but through mainstream media it has been removed and not replaced by anything tangible.

The gallery offers the photograph to the viewer as it was meant to be seen, and not perhaps through the same eyes of the photographer, but has taken a different meaning from shutter click to development. The art is prevalent, and our notion and awareness of creative expression is heightened. The impact is optimised, unlike a computer monitor where it can blend into a mirage of other pictures.

Unlike an art form from civilisations long dead, where the art form would have been created for a ritual, and later as a valued artwork in an exhibition, contemporary photographic art is seemingly created to become a valued artwork in an exhibition. Though the picture was taken to convey an idea or a concept.

The gallery offers us art, and to many of us this is the first image that springs to mind when the word ‘art’ is mentioned. With art prevailing less in mainstream film, can it be argued that it prevails less in society?

The traditional journey of an art form whereby it starts by serving a purpose and ends as an exhibition piece does not apply. This was recognised by Walter Benjamin. “Today photography and the film are the most serviceable exemplifications of this new function.”

Interestingly, he eludes that the “artistic value”, may not be that important. “later may be recognized as incidental”.

Evidently, by examining the past, we can see that art has changed as it has aged. As Walter Benjamin states, “Work of art in prehistoric times when, by the absolute emphasis on its cult value, it was first and foremost, an instrument of magic. Only later did it come to be recognized as a work of art.”

Applied to film and photography, the better remembered creations are ones that are unique in their approach and what they achieve. The finished product is not a paint by numbers affair, and is a creative process from start to finish.

In conclusion, our notion of art through the mainstream is diminishing. Market forces, demographics, and clever marketing, has turned potential works of artistic creations of film, into a film made to a formula. In this environment, the film looses its uniqueness as it is made to a set criteria, like its predecessor and indeed, its successor. Once this happens, the film has lost its uniqueness and subsequently, it has lost its art.

It is probably fair to put forward the statement that not many people associate mainstream film making with artistic achievement. Rather as a source of entertainment, whereby the only opinion expressed is whether or not they liked it. So Walter Benjamin’s analysis, “The public is an examiner, but an absent-minded one”, still prevails today.

With the advent of the world wide web, and images and imagery effectively available on demand, we are becoming saturated with images of a similar nature. No matter how tragic, and how disturbing, they have in their own way become part of the mainstream, and as a result we have become desensitized not only to the horror we are witnessing, but the long term implications the events may have. Like popular cinema, their art is diminishing through loosing authenticity. They are no longer original, but duplicated which puts them into the realm of the political arena.

The same can be said of the still image. Once it can be seen on websites and available on demand, it looses authenticity and therefore its art.

This is also true of a truly horrific event that genuinely shocks. Through this genuineness, we discover the authenticity. This authenticity is arguably the basis of art, and through it the event has meaning. This is particularly important where there has been loss of life, as the people’s lives and deaths have significance. Once this event moves to the political arena however, it looses its authenticity as facts and truths are manipulated for the benefits of individual careers, rather than the common good. When the art dies, so does the meaningfulness of the lives lost.

Therefore, our notion of art begins and ends in galleries. Exhibitions, are the only place where we see art for arts sake. From a contemporary perspective, art has become created to be seen, and to convey an idea through self expression. There are no market forces here, no demographics were at work when a photographer took the picture of a condemned building, or a child in a classroom. Just the desire and the impulse to create something from an idea.

The photograph tells a thousand words, and the art is there because the picture that hangs in the gallery is unique, and this in our mainstream world is the only notion of art.

[1] Walter Benjamin – Marxist philosopher

[2] Duhamel – Dadaist commentator

[3] Fillipo Tommaso Marinetti – Idealogue, poet.

[4] Franz Wefel – (1890 – 1945) Czech-born poet, playwright, and novelist, whose central themes were religious faith, heroism, and human brotherhood. His best-known works are The Forty Days of Musa Dagh(933), a historical novel that portrays Armenian resistance to the Turks, and The song of Bernadette(1941)


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