Thursday, November 8, 2012

Plan 9 From Walter Benjamin

Art as an expression of citizens within a capitalist society is commonly viewed as an outlet, like a vent, through which people can healthily subscribe to variation from the system. Particular artistic endeavors serve to assist those with aspirations to live in a manner that is uncommon amongst average careers (desk jobs, customer service, etc), and yet still helps one to accumulate some form of finances to survive in our society. Art as a form of this kind of health has come to be seen as customary, and as such, acceptable within everyday practices of capitalism. Given this, the average reaction is simply to accept matters as such, and to view art as one career amongst many. Is it not problematic to take the side of the demon as opposed to attempting to thwart the monster's endeavors? The imposed necessity for finance and property accumulation can serve as a restriction on those types of expression that may not be useful for financial gain, but regardless are honest as to the feeling of the citizen. Art has taken many forms over the course of its existence through various types of cultures, and one of its most prominent features has been the assistance of ritual, and traditional foundation. This paper will discuss the dilemma Benjamin views our artistic careers as, and will include his criticism of art's origin in ritual. From this discussion I will offer a glance at the directing style of Ed Wood, as challenge to capitalist systematization as it has been proposed here.
The examination of our predicament will focus on Benjamin's text, “The Work Of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, the start of which includes a proposition of a certain theses of art:

However, theses about the art of the proletariat after its assumption of power or about the art of a classless society would have less bearing on these demands than theses about the developmental tendencies of art under present [capitalist] conditions of production. Their dialectic is no less noticeable in the superstructure than in the economy. It would therefore be wrong to underestimate the value of such theses as a weapon. They brush aside a number of outmoded concepts, such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery—concepts whose uncontrolled (and at present almost uncontrollable) application would lead to a processing of data in the Fascist sense. The concepts which are introduced into the theory of art in what follows differ from the more familiar terms in that they are completely useless for the purposes of Fascism. They are, on the other hand, useful for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art.

Rather than for the artist to cooperate with our capitalist system, that Benjamin identifies as Fascist, such practices are proposed as being a possible weapon against the system. Thinking in terms of what it would be like for art to exist in a society in which the proletariat has prevailed does not assist our current condition. Benjamin wishes to build on a style of art that challenges any kind of rational participation in financial gain to the extent that one's practices seem to jeopardize one's chances at success. At first glance, some may be troubled by such notions. Current artists might even take offense at such criticism that any sort of participation in financial gain affiliates one with Fascism. As stated above, artistic enterprises are often viewed as a type of variation from systematization. This doesn't seem to be the case for Benjamin in that such practices do not succeed, or in some cases do not even attempt to disrupt the system, but instead seek compromise. Another aspect that may seem troubling is what is proposed as “brushing aside” ideas like creativity, genius, eternal value, qualities often seen as essential to art and its practitioners.

The customary foundations of art are placed on the chopping block as Benjamin seeks to cut away from attributes that are usually viewed as essential for artistic practices. Seeing as current art participates in financial gain, which indicates one's allegiance to the system, one cannot hope to sabotage fascism through current practices. The system is only fed by our desire for financial security, and that desire is driven by success. There can be only specific ways in which one can be successful in our modern age, and thus the face of art is determined by financial desires. The finished product of one's work has to have a certain appearance that is assisted by specific aspects of personality: creativity and genius are two. As he states, Benjamin also thinks that the product itself must harbor particular attributes to acquire success: eternal value and mystery to name a few, but these are key in that they signal to audiences the special quality that the product has is the result of unique personal attributes. Access, by audiences, to art is thus limited to those with such attributes. This is not to deny that anyone can be audience to such works, but the understanding of them as art is for the unique few who then offer authoritative commentary over any given interpretation. Traditional thought concerning the given properties and personal attributes are more a weapon against the masses rather than being marks of accomplishment by a society for they indicate a dichotomy between certain people in which one set is elite, in that they are successful, and the other is lacking in some degree. An art project that is seen as qualitatively poor by society cannot be an example of success, so it's thought that its creator cannot be an instance of genius. Society is driven to this judgment by a history that has put the dichotomy in place, but how is it that it acquired so much force in the first place? As Benjamin examines the history of art within ritual, he paints a picture in which the creatively plentiful elite are placed in a position to command while the lacking masses are subject to obey.

The interpretation of history that is offered is saturated by Benjamin's notion of “aura”. His analysis of the aura is rather vague, but what can be gathered is that the aura of an art object consists of its being situated within its particular time and space of origin. One way he helps us to understand is to consider newer practices of mechanical reproduction due to advances in technology. Photography is one he places great emphasis on, and with the development of the camera, one is able to sneak a picture of what some culture may consider a sacred object. An example would be to consider statues of the virgin Mary, and how they are covered in order to maintain that only those with the proper sight, which can be translated as the proper “understanding”, are permitted to see them. This sort of treatment assists in embedding certain objects into the framework of ritual, as the objects are taken to be sacred and available to only a select few. With the advent of the camera, however, one can capture the image of an object, and take it home to treat as eye candy regardless of whether such a person has the unique attributes that grant access. While the photograph, as an instance of reproduction, may grant one sight in one's own home, it fails to capture the aura in that what cannot be reproduced is the object's unique existence within a certain time and space. It's in this way that Benjamin notes that instances of reproduction always depreciate an object's “historical testimony”.

The primary way in which we are assisted to grasp the idea of the aura is to consider it as that which is lost in the process of mechanical reproduction. While tradition may see this as a bad thing, Benjamin will ultimately come to say “good riddance!”. The aura does not travel with the image produced by a camera because a crucial aspect to the aura is that it is marked by distance. More will be said about this when we return to the idea of “eternal value and mystery” as necessary properties of an art object, but for now consider mechanical reproduction as a technique to bring closer what was once distant. With the example of hanging the photograph in the room, this is an attempt to erase the gap between a sacred object and the public, but reproduction depreciates an object's aura in that it cannot capture its historical testimony. We can think of this testimony as the object's use in ritual within the time and place it was initially created. An object's use within ritual grants it authority: only that object will do, and it must be used and thought about in a certain way; it is also a beacon for particular values that participants seek to embody and teach. Its authority is maintained by its authenticity, which holds so long as the object is accessible by a select few who use the object to conduct rituals. Any attempt at reproducing the object outside of the context of ritual diminishes its authenticity, which in turn injures its authority. This last idea is crucial to Benjamin's critique in that this is exactly what we want to do.

The process and structure of isolating a unique factor of an art object from the public has helped to develop people into a systematization that pushes them into subjecting themselves to the authority of those who claim to have access to the authenticity of the art object. This is the tradition of expertise and knowledge that Benjamin identifies with fascism. Glancing back out our initial examination of creative personal attributes, affiliating genius with artistic practices assists in instigating the notion to any onlooker to a work of art that she only wishes she can do that. If we were to question the onlooker as to why her participation is dubious, the response would most likely appeal to standards of success. We can identify those properties that an object must have in order to maintain success as the ones listed before: eternal value and mystery. These are both key aspects of the aura that is meant to imply distance. Regarding natural objects, while we may be able to see a mountain range, we are unable to grasp or fully harness it. What slips through our fingers is the aura. Seeing as the aura is something that does not give itself over to reproduction, its existence can be thought of as eternal in that while the reproduced object decays in time, the aura is something that does not travel with it. As it concerns an object's mystery, this is to return more to the personal attributes in that not everyone can fully access the object given that its authenticity is aligned with its distance. Similar to ritual, only those with certain expertise can understand an object as being a work of art, for everyone else the matter is an unsolvable riddle. As long as art remains the best kept secret of those with the understanding, the onlooking public will always be held captive by the authoritative relationship between genius and mystery.
Returning to our example of the onlooker, we can imagine she makes an attempt at art, but very few, if any, appreciate the work. Furthermore, we can suppose the attention it receives is one of disdain. The onlooker's doubts are confirmed: lack of success is clearly an indication that she is not a creative genius, and the gap between her and the authenticity of art works is wider than she previously imagined. Her old attitude is amplified, she now leaves art to the “experts”, the evidence of their status being held tightly in their wallets. The onlooker succumbs to the system by acknowledging that the evidence is didactic. Genius and mystery aid in systematization by substantiating, or representing, certain values that the onlooker is necessarily inclined to submit to. Even though the minute details of ritual may not be as common as they used to be, the same exploitation of mystery is still expressed through the arbitrary allegiance between authority and success.

Film and photography may not be the first instances of new technology making reproduction of art works more common, but they are huge steps toward possibly shattering the authoritative foundations of aura and financial success. For values in ritual to manifest there must be an autonomy between the art object and the cult figures. This is similar to the autonomy maintained by the successful in regards to accumulated wealth and creativity. Benjamin expresses great faith in film's ability to disrupt such autonomy by its ability to shatter the distance, and show that an arbitrary organizing of fragments is what's at work. There is no doubt that contemporary works of cinema are thought of in terms of success and failure, and that film can also assist capitalist structures, but Benjamin believes that it is in a better position than other art mediums to exhibit weakness in the autonomous structure between the elite few and art. In this sense art has political purpose and acquires the capacity to have social significance. Art as it pertains to its place in ritual has significance more for the isolated elite in that their access is direct and managerial: it is prepared for the public so as to better express systemic values.

The production of film involves the arbitrary piecing together of recorded fragments that are the visual reproductions of particular environments and actors. The final product is a constantly changing array of images that prevents audiences from perceiving any type of aura. Instead, audiences are placed into the position of developing a critical attitude. The goal of reproduction is to eradicate the distance factor, bridging the gap between different aspects of reality, such as our case of the photograph brought home, and when it does not seem to do so a critical attitude takes shape, and the public becomes more aware of the fragmented plight we are in. Simply put, in our capitalist system, it is those arts that fail, that are not marketable, that serve a political purpose. In the practice of cinema, I find no better example than Ed Wood. Pop culture regards Wood as the worst movie director of all time. His magnum opus, Plan 9 From Outer Space, is viewed as one of the worst movies ever made. The elite attitude considers his work to be vacant of any of the necessary properties of success, and thus Wood cannot be consider a genius in any way. Certain films are considered successful, and because of which these features obtain an authority that enables a judgmental juxtaposition to take place. However, what failure pieces do is help indicate that successful works are involved in the same kind of reproduction that failures are. The only manner in which failures differ from successes is that the latter is profitable. Otherwise, all films are involved in optical testing: audiences are brought “closer” to the environments and actors through the fragmented recordings of the camera.

Both actors and environments lose any sort of authority in front of the camera. These notions of aura and authority attempt to support that the artist is creative and exhibits genius because the product has qualities of eternal value and mystery. Film is not the only reproductive technology, but it does well to indicate that geniuses are involved in reproduction like anyone else. Oscar winning films are essential in supporting the authoritative foundations that genius and mystery purport. Failed works, like Wood's, have the potential to pull away the curtain and show that the distinction between “author and audience” is not so clear. Wood's films incorporate tons of stock footage from unrelated films, single-take shots, poor lighting, crude sound recording, cheap sets, and actors whose skill is definitely in question. Each of these aspects is more than obvious to any eye, elite or not, and yet the product is a feature film. Any audience member is able to see that something is amiss as the different pieces of the filming process are glued together in way that indicates that a piecing-together process is at work.

The photograph and other forms of reproduction may be able to better fool those who obtain such works that they are in touch with unique authoritative content. A failure film strips any objects that are being filmed from having any authoritative power. The actor is separated from the audience, and is unable to adjust to the mood of the crowd, as one might on stage. An adjustment seeks to stabilize authority, and does so by accommodating to the mood of the audience. The audience is unable to perceive that something is amiss amongst the authoritative figures as their so-called genius is really a kind of “playing to the crowd”. A similarity can be drawn between the stage actor and the cult figure within ritual, as the latter is more able to bestow values to a crowd if the figure's genius eludes all doubt. Before the camera, the actor, and everyone involved, has no idea how the audience will react, and if the temperament of the people is not accommodated to, then critical emotions may arise. The film attains social significance in that the public comes to be distracted by the critical attitude and starts to apply it towards their living environment. Our cities are filled with streets, buildings, sidewalks, sign posts, all sorts of edifices that are meant to direct the movements of people so as to allow better participation within the system. The design of these different entities work very much like art in that they exhibit an authoritative power given that they come from the minds of geniuses. The average citizen is not qualified to put up a sign post, it requires someone with expertise that understands the framework of the city; expertise offers the position of telling others how to move. Wood was trying so hard to be one of these figures within the aesthetics of cinema, but his inability to glue fragments of filming together left visible gaping holes through which audiences are able to question authoritative foundations—the onlooker is now able to say to oneself, “I can do that!” Seeing as Wood was so emotionally inclined to organizing fragments in the manner we see in his films, what enables us to think that those experts are doing anything different? It's in this way that Benjamin feels that the divide between author and audience is blurred, and that anyone can take up instruments around them are start piecing together the fragments of our world together in any which way they please. An awareness of the arbitrary nature of the construction of cityscapes begins to stir as the public questions the genius of the art around them, as well as the success that tends to follow.

Wood's films failed to acquire any sort of financial success, and so his films were useless in establishing any authoritative foundation. His reproductive processes are viewed as nonsensical, such as in scenes in which characters are knocked over in a graveyard, taking down the plastic tombstones beside them. These kinds of blunders are shocking for audiences in that they are used to being accommodated to: we all thought we were in the hands of experts! The disruption of comfort presented by Wood's features makes salient the discord between filmed fragments, and one begins to wonder “if a yahoo like Wood can gain access to cinematic processes of capturing and gluing visual fragments together then why can't I?” The political significance that comes about is the undermining of the artistic autonomy of genius and mystery. The language of aesthetic criticism, then, is nothing more than an appeal to marketability. Wood's films are bad insofar as they do not secure profits; genius and mystery are simply a way to keep intact the capitalist structure in which profits are the goal.

The critical eye that accumulates within audiences potentially aims itself at environmental structures and authoritative figures—if Wood is involved in arbitrary construction of elements, then perhaps everyone else is as well. The critical response towards art works helps the public in collecting courage to administer the questioning eye towards cult figures, and doubt is placed on whether or not such figures possess the genius that they claim to, or if the mystery of an art object is not just some ploy produced in the process of piecing together fragments of reality. It's clear that Wood is no authoritative figure, and if we interpret his works as being involved in similar processes of those we thought to be authoritative, then the authenticity of such figures and works is jeopardized and loses its value administering power over people.

Wood, by ironic consequence within the framework of capitalism, is a revelatory hero by passing authorship amongst the public. Art is not for the special few, but is for anyone who has the will to create. Mechanical reproduction cripples the soundness of the aura, but this is all for the better. Anyone who takes up a camera is an expert—the processes and motions of the elite few are made more available to the public in the advent of new technology. Similar to how reproductive processes devalue an object's authenticity by removing it from its historical testimony within ritual, the elite lose their grasp on authority the more removed their practices become from genius and the distance factor. As the quantity of experts increases in the wake of mechanical reproduction, the fight over quality starts to shift, and those works that stray away from aspirations of success are a crucial weapon against an oppressive system that demands of its public to excel in a way in which wealth determines value.