The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Ubiquity

If what was lost from a work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction was its ‘aura’, then what is lost today in the age of digital ubiquity? Few works of art are reproduced at all, but most are made digitally permanent and multiform—created not with paints and canvas or woodcut or lithography, but often with strokes of the finger upon a screen. In those cases where oil paint is still revered, the artwork is photographed once and then seems to exist not in space but within a billion screens. 

‘Aura’, the attachment of an art object to its tradition, is certainly lost, but what more? What is lost when works of art are primarily viewed not as material objects—whether reproduced as a print or as a painted ‘original’—but through a 4-inch screen? What is lost when the principal means of viewing art is through Instagram posts? (I was planning to fly to Art Basel, the centre of contemporary art, but decided not to since the galleries displaying there had posted photos of their booths online).

I’m asking about the gulf between an artist’s print like a photograph or a lithograph and that same lithograph viewed through an Instagram post. Even a film has lost its material existence on a tape or a slide. Benjamin could write those fifty years ago that “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” But now in the age of digital ubiquity this fragment seems to hold true to our own day and not Benjamin’s: the digitally reproduced artwork is severed from time and space in a way that a perfectly reproduced lithograph is not. The roll of tape that holds a Dziga Vertov film still has its unique existence at the place where it happens to be, as does any number of reproductions of, say, Goya’s Caprichos. But a photograph of that same Capricho? Just where, exactly, does it happen to be?

Maybe it’s something like spirit—aura, but with feeling and heart. A mechanically reproduced artwork seems to me still to have something like spirit, even if it has less aura than the ‘authentic’ painting it is based on: you can pick it up, you can move it, you can hang it, you can damage it, you can gift it. Even a printed photograph carries with it the material traces of its existence, though it may not have the authenticity or the aura of seeing Guernica, say, in the flesh (the room at the Reina Sofia in Madrid even seems to smell of the paint). But an artwork discovered through a screen has lost more than ‘aura’, more than the connection to its tradition, as Benjamin describes it—in losing its materiality, even the materiality of a print or a copy, a work of art in the age of digital ubiquity has lost all relationship to the artwork’s past or its future. It’s as though it has been severed from time itself, bound to exist forever and everywhere, but refusing to carry with it the history of its creation or its existence.