Category Archives: Coursework Notes

The Work of John Constable in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

W are asked to consider some comments from Kracauer about the potential for objects to become known by their photographic appearance and compare this with Benjamin’s thesis about mechanical reproduction.

In December 2014 I visited an exhibition about John Constable at the V&A which illustrates perfectly my thoughts on these texts.

The Hay Wain is one of Constables most widely known works…you can find reproductions of it in books, as prints to hang on your wall and probably as paint by numbers versions for all I know. A such it is a perfect illustration of Kracauer’s point. I was fully expecting it to be about 18” wide, and was completely taken aback to discover it is at least 6’ wide! My expectations were driven by the reproductions. I doubt I am alone in this …people remark on how small the Mona Lisa or Stonehenge are for much the same reason.

By contrast, I’m not sure that Benjamin’s suggestion about democratisation holds true in that it’s meaning does not appear to have changed much with the advent of reproduction. Why is this? One reason may be that Benjamin’s thesis is most applicable where it is to all intents and purposes impossible to distinguish the original from the copy.

By way of a second illustration, one of the most fascinating aspects of the exhibition for me were Constables notebooks, which were as small as the Hay Wain was large. I have to take it on trust that they were the originals, but given that assumption of authenticity they had a power to fascinate that an admitted reproduction would not. None of that aura would have been destroyed by the existence of reproductions.

This supports my view that Benjamin’s thesis is not applicable to artworks in general, and the large queues at blockbuster art exhibitions would seem to support that. The artworks are not  “emancipated from ritual” as he suggests…the ritual has simply changed from having a high priest as the intermediary to having a curator or museum director as the intermediary. No longer do we have to bow down before the image..we have to hand over our credit card. No longer do we take bread and wine…we take souvenirs home with us. Ritual is ritual by any other name.

Even photography has not been as widely affected as Benjamin proposes…people still have an urge to visit Tate Modern or the Taylor Wessing prize exhibition to see the originals…setting aside that we don’t even know what an original is when it comes to a photographic print.

None of this is to say that Benjamin’s ideas were not relevant at the time he wrote then down…he cannot have foreseen blockbuster art shows…and he cannot have foreseen just how all-pervasive and democratic photography would become…indeed it might be possible to argue that it’s sheer commonplace-ness has restored the aura to the originals – at least as far as art goes.

Music makes an interesting counterpoint. A concert, of whatever variety, is one off. The only “authentic experience” is being there. But mechanical reproduction brings it into our living room. One consequence of this has been that people have established favourites…”Nessan Dorma” for example. This has fed back to the producers of “authentic experiences” or concerts as they are more often called, so that now concerts will sometimes consist of edited highlights of full works of art – the aural equivalent of going to see a favourite corner of the Hay Wain. In this instance the wide scale availability of mechanical reproductions has undoubtedly had an impact on the way music is perceived and used.

So, in summary, I’m with Kracauer but think Benjamin’s analysis, in as much as I understand it, is not fully supported by subsequent events.