The Lockdown Chronicles 35: Walter

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Walter livestreams.
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Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) was a German Jewish philosopher, cultural critic and essayist. Benjamin made enduring and influential contributions to aesthetic theory, literary criticism, and historical materialism. “Theses on the Philosophy of History” also known as “On the Concept of History” is often cited as Benjamin’s last complete work. The Institute for Social Research, by then relocated to New York, published it in Benjamin’s memory in 1942 [Wikipedia entry].

Text sources: Kwai, I. (1 June 2020). “U.S. Protests, Coronavirus, SpaceX: Your Monday Briefing”. The New York Times, NYT.com; ADPH Presidential Blog (31 May 2020) “ADPH Presidential Blog: “A time for steady leadership, careful preparation and measured steps”, https://www.adph.org.uk/; Benjamin, W. (2003) [1940] “On the Concept of History”, Selected Writings Vol. 4, Harvard.

Source image: photograph of Walter Benjamin, 1928, Akademie der Künste, Berlin, Walter Benjamin Archiv, via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain. This comic strip CC-BY-NC-SA.

References

Kwai, I. (1 June 2020) “U.S. Protests, Coronavirus, SpaceX: Your Monday Briefing”. The New York Times. Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/01/briefing/us-protests-coronavirus-spacex.html [Accessed 1 June 2020]

ADPH Presidential Blog (31 May 2020) “ADPH Presidential Blog: A time for steady leadership, careful preparation and measured steps”. Available at https://www.adph.org.uk/2020/05/adph-presidential-blog-a-time-for-steady-leadership-careful-preparation-and-measured-steps/ [Accessed 1 June 2020]

Benjamin, W. (2003) [1940] “On the Concept of History”, Selected Writings Vol. 4, Harvard. Scanned PDF version via Warwick University at https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/currentstudents/undergraduate/modules/fulllist/second/en229/benjamin_on_the_concept_of_history.pdf  [Accessed 1 June 2020]. HTML version via Simon Fraser University at https://www.sfu.ca/~andrewf/CONCEPT2.html [Accessed 1 June 2020]

Photograph of Walter Benjamin in 1928, Akademie der Künste, Berlin, Walter Benjamin Archiv, via Wikimedia Commons, available at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Walter_Benjamin_vers_1928.jpg [Accessed 1 June 2020]

Additional Readings

Tomlins, C. (1 December 2010) “Lessons of History”. Perspectives on History. Available via https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/december-2010/lessons-of-history [Accessed 1 June 2020]

Kirsch, A. (14 August 2006) “The Philosopher Stoned”. The New Yorker. Available at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/08/21/the-philosopher-stoned [Accessed 1 June 2020]

The Lockdown Chronicles is a series of periodical comic strips made at night (in candlelight!) adapting and reusing openly-licensed or public domain items from online digital collections. Publication and tweetage are scheduled in advance. Historical sources are adapted and updated for the current pandemic; please refer to each strip’s references on each post for further context.  Catch up with the series at https://epriego.blog/tag/the-lockdown-chronicles/.

Meeting the Beholder Halfway

“…technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself. Above all, it enables the original to meet the beholder halfway, be it in the form of a photograph or a phonograph record. The cathedral leaves its locale to be received in the studio of a lover of art; the choral production, performed in an auditorium or in the open air, resounds in the drawing room.”

-Walter Benjamin, 1936

The other day walking down London’s Tottenham Court Road I was struck by the window displays at Heal’s. “Masterpieces”, read the blue lettering printed on the glass.

As part of the sofa displays, very large high-definition reproductions of Van Gogh, Rosetti… in the past such massive reproductions would have been either impossible or incredibly expensive to make.

Digitisation and large format digital printing suddenly announced here as the possibility of not only turning your home into a gallery– this has been going on for more than a century now, with both originals and reproductions of varying quality– but of enlarging art, reproduction as magnification. (Miniaturisation has had a longer tradition– art reproduced in postcards, t-shirts and the like, but high resolution digital files to be printed on plotters is fairly recent).  It all had the whiff of an aesthetic preference I tend to relate to drug lords or chain hotels, but hey.

At home I found a blog post on “Heal’s Reveals” (28 March 2013) about it:

At Heal’s, we like to think our sofas are works of art. Viewed from any angle, they are inspirational, sculptural artefacts created by master craftsmen. So that got us thinking… we decided to take some of our most iconic sofas and display them side by side with a complementary work of art – by the likes of Van Gogh, Gainsborough and Rosetti – exquisitely reproduced on large scale canvases by Surface View (creators of amazing bespoke interior print products). The result? Heal’s Masterpieces.

I thought these displays and the fact a company is dedicated to ‘creating bespoke interior print products’ that are giant enlargements of classic artworks was a poignant example of the decay of the aura of original art in the digital age. ‘The cathedral leaves its locale”: the religious image desacralised in its new digitally manipulated giant size, taken to the window display and presumably to the ‘drawing room’ of those whose budget and taste can afford it.

There is indeed an in-between-ness about this concept and images, the concept of department store sofa as a work of art, and the should we say arrogance of the technological power to reproduce, manipulate, enlarge, commoditise, turn into an interior design product. From outside the shop the displays and the images greet us back with our own reflection and the reflection of the city and its passerbys, here yet there, something but not quite that something that was supposed to be once, the promise of what meets us as beholders only ‘halfway’. ‘Masterpieces’: to this beholder, neither art nor interior design, niether here nor there.

I took some photos of the displays and I share them here with you. What would have Walter Benjamin written about them?

Heal's Masterpieces. Photo 1 by Ernesto Priego, taken 2013-04-02 17.23.55

Heal's Masterpieces. Photo 2  by Ernesto Priego, taken  2013-04-02 17.25.09

Heal's Masterpieces. Photo 3  by Ernesto Priego, taken  2013-04-02 17.24.08

Scraps: Needs of an Age

Honoré Daumier by Nadar
Honoré Daumier by Nadar

I have opened this category within this site to attempt some more or less frequent postings that may take the form of brief updates, random thoughts, research notes, quotes, whatever else that does not fit elsewhere.  I am not sure I will be able to keep the flow going periodically, so I am not making any promises.

For some years now I have been returning almost obsessively to the figures of Eduard Fuchs and Honoré Daumier, via Walter Benjamin. “Eduard Fuchs, Collector and Historian” (1937) seems to me to be an essential essay if one is to understand better Benjamin’s ideas on the reproducibility of art in specific and on historical materialism in general. It seems to me that those interested in the history of technology, the history of art, and specifically the history of caricature and comics, for example, could benefit enormously from revising this short but complex piece.

Benjamin cites some lines from Fuchs’ notes on Daumier:

“Every age has very specific techniques of reproduction corresponding to it. These represent the prevailing standard of technological development and are… the result of a specific need of that age. For this reason, it is not surprising that any historical upheaval which brings to power… classes other than those currently ruling… regularly goes hand in hand with changes in techniques of pictorial reproduction.”

One cannot but point out that the current political and intellectual upheaval (a word that Fuchs uses too) around open access publishing is indeed the result of specific developments in the techniques of reproduction (online publishing). Fuchs was referring to the reproduction of pictorial art (Fuchs was writing in 1927; Benjamin ten years later) but one should be able to transfer the motif to the Web as the almost all-encompassing multi-media platform of our times. It should be obvious that in many ways the Web has acquired (if definitely not everywhere at least in many places) a defining role in everyday life and therefore it is indeed one of the most singificant features (platform, medium, tool, symbolic space) of our “age”.

The tensions and frictions in what is developing to be a fierce battle over the nuances of open access publishing are indeed technological, which is to say they are also political. The same developments could lead to either a reinforcement of the status quo or to the possibility of a more or less radical transformation of the prevailing standards of scholarly communication.