If Walter Benjamin received a rose from every student whose worked through ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ he’d have died from bouquet-smothering. In Western art education anyway the essay marks the path into contemporary theory and without it a person can feel unqualified to argue any case at all.
Thirty-five years ago, my friend Paul Rappoport asked if I’d read the Benjamin essay. I had not: at the time I was cutting tropical fish shapes out of adhesive shelving paper and making zany collages. Art theory was completely outside my bailiwick. I was in love with colour and form, with Matisse and Kandinsky, with tropical islands and simple shapes.
I was ‘just a maker’.
Between then and returning to university thirty-five years later, I did try and get my head around Benjamin’s thoughts, and even owned a copy of his collection ‘Illuminations’, with a foreword by Hannah Arendt. But I never ‘got’ it and eventually gave the book away.
Now I am by choice re-reading Waltern’s essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, and now I am not so intimidated: I have other ideas built on exposure to other writings, art makings and systems of belief, and on experience.
I think Benjamin personifies the rubrik ‘comes the hour, comes the man’ (yes, in his time and ours, still most often ‘the man), nailing questions about art then, and still, pounding at the gates. His enthymemes about market forces and the meanings of art are cogent even as, in less than a century, we move to life in The Cloud … and new areas of responsibility for human expression.
The ethical drivers in Benjamin’s essay are entirely anthropocentric; it would be decades before his friend and influence Theodore Adorno started writing about the distance between feeling and intellect in art theory and Benjamin, too was immersed in the meaning of the world to men, primarily and humans generally.
These men and others in the Frankfurt School, were ardent Marxists, busy with the role, responsibility and market forces reconsidering Art in a world where everything was speeding up, and social strata were shifting faster than they had since the Enlightment. They were as interested in semiosis as philosophers down the ages, but the markets themselves had not yet dis- and reintegrated as they would in the following thirty years.
Decorating this stream of thinking are sculptural works made from ‘chryselephantine’ – a technique combining carved elephant ivory and metal casting. It is a technically demanding craft where pieces are made separately and then assembled. People have been creating by this method for two thousand years, in ancient Minoa and again during the Hellenistic period, chryselephantine statuary was hugely valued as a status symbols. Perhaps the sheer effort of killing elephants back then helped elevate the value of the works; their maintenance was so demanding that records exist of skilled craftsmen employed specifically to keep them in good nick.
The style lapsed for centuries, and then came back into fashion in the mid-19C, growing in popularity and peaking at the height of Art Deco – late ’20s to late ’30s – which period coincides with rampant European empire-building in Africa.
The challenge of slaughtering elephants was now far reduced by the prevalence of high-powered contemporary guns, wealthy thrill-seekers killed thousands of these animals – and continued their attack for another forty years. Heavily armed bounty hunters came hot on their heels, snatching everything they could out of Africa, (and India too – although Asia and Asian sub-continent had it its own ancient and ravenous appetite for elephant tusks.)
Elephant tusks for material use flooded the market. Though still valuable, the price of ivory plummeted compared to what it was when a rarity. Over the same period, metal casting techniques improved and demand increased. True to Benjamin’s thesis, fundamental changes in the structure of the market brought new hordes into the ‘game’ boosting aspirational buying, and changing the cultural value and meaning of ‘precious’ art.
What happens to the ‘aura’ of artwork when people’s ethical standards shift? Equally, what happens to it’s market value?
What happens to the ‘aura’ of such work in the context of current beliefs and values around the trade in elephants’ tusks? Does this shift in morality affect the value of the work in public collections? Should it be in collections? How do changes in public morality affect the status of artworks?