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February 21, 2004

Thursday's Excursion

This past Thursday was going to be a big time Art Day for me but I managed to sleep past noon (standard operating procedure for days off). I did, however, get out in time to squeeze in an hour and a half viewing of the Rembrandt show at the Art Institute before closing, giving about two-thirds of the exhibit a good looking over, so I'll try to cobble together some preliminary stray thoughts.

The exhibition is all but exclusively devoted to Rembrandt's masterful output in etching, drypoint and engraving. I expected a wealth of comparisons between the artist's painting and his prints. I was pleased to find that, to the contrary, the print work is allowed to virtually stand on its own, while many of the paintings in fact function more as signposts than as critical foils. Much more instructive comparisons arise between the prints and the drawings. The handful of brown ink drawings included in the exhibit are almost without exception executed in the manner of loose gestural studies, even when they are expressly not such. Beside the etchings, a clear contrast is presented; while clearly drawn with the same fluidity and sensitivity of the draughtsman's hand, the etchings evince far more care and attention—as much as, if not more than, do his paintings. In the hands of Rembrandt (as in those of such greats as Durer, Goya, Hogarth, Blake, etc), printmaking steps out of the shadows of the discourse of reproduction to assert itself as art in its own right.

While I can't at the moment recall exactly which writing it is I'm thinking of that keys the history of painting to the developments of reproduction, a brief jaunt into the land of Walter Benjamin might be adequate to get at my point. Benjamin, as I'm sure we're all well aware, imagined great progress for art in its loss of aura through the development of mechanical means of reproduction (he concentrates cinema in particular). Though his criticism may be on target, his ambitions and expectations were perhaps overshot. This begs a comparison to the Marxists' similarly Sisyphean task of stripping our world of all ideology and false consciousness: the aura is not so easily done away with as he might have hoped. Of course, the aura Benjamin wrote of was rooted in a very specific (if at times downright legalistic) conception of authenticity, so it may not really suffer in the hands of a more generalized account. While it does hint towards issues of reality, signification and mediation, the critique is for the most part social and institutional, rather than primarily aesthetic—and he certainly doesn't seem concerned with any phenomenal basis for aura. The true criticism falls, as is so often the case, more squarely on the disciples of Benjamin than on the man himself—those who dilute his vision beyond its own critical utility, taking the mere grounds and starting point of his critique, namely the growing ubiquity of the products of mechanical reproduction, to be the very proof of his conclusions. Over-cited and overextended.

Perhaps he had attempted to isolate the sole essence of traditional aesthetic worth, perhaps not. Either way it's kind of beside the point because after all, even if we accept his critique we need not accept the eidetic reduction (if it is indeed such) as necessarily decisive: Benjamin's "authenticity" need not be the only source of auratic force. As a matter of fact, all of my encounters with film, photography and other reproductive technologies (mechanical or manual) indicate that, even if Benjamin is correct in his assessment of the decay of the aura of singular authenticity, reproductive media partake of an aura of their own, distinct from but comparable to that which he described. Indeed I suspect that Benjamin's criticism provides only a partial account for the auratic or qualitative power of painting itself. This power goes by many names: expression, efficacy, qualitas, beauty, sublimity, vision, etc; and though Marxist criticism may be quick to denounce this as irrational fetishism and commodification, imputing such power to our objects is, in my opinion, a defining condition of art.

This somewhat labored digression notwithstanding, my point is a simple, and perhaps obvious, one: prints such as these are artworks unto themselves. Maybe this is made clear only in an exhibition such as this one, dedicated as it is to such works, whereas normally they might recede into the background of our consciousness (or, in the case of the Art Institute, be merely brushed past in the hallway on the way to the galleries), but I would resist such simplification and skepticism. (I am also reluctant to attribute it to the fact that etching and drypoint actually provide rather poor means of massive reproduction and are thus more "artistic"; these observations, I think, apply equally well to engravings, woodcuts, lithographs and photographs.) As I strain to look closely at a finely etched print on a delicate piece of warm-toned Japanese paper no larger than a pack of cigarettes, I find that this work—this dead object, somehow exhibits a power over me—I care about it and I desire it. This it achieves in spite of its obvious reproductive capacity—its lack of claim to authentic uniqueness. And this is the point: as far as I am concerned, as a viewing subject, it matters very little in the end whether a particular aesthetic object is a unique, singular object or just one among a million copies because in either case I find myself, here and now, confronted with a single discreet object of direct and undeniable power.

"Thursday's Excursion"
Posted by Dan at 12:12 AM

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Referenced in this post:

Art Institute: Rembrandt's Journey
The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction