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Cult vs. Exhibition / section II

Along with the change in reproducing artwork, the way people experience the work has consequently been altered. There has been a drastic movement from cult to exhibition value. As Benjamin describes it, the importance of cult value is that works of art “are present, not that they are seen.” He uses examples such as cave paintings or certain Christian statues, which were created for the purpose of worship and were only seen incidentally by outsiders. These examples stand at the very core of the art object’s cult value but can be extended in a more modern scenario to artworks in a museum. Both cave paintings and works in a museum demonstrate cult value, to varying degrees, because they are placed in a specific location designated entirely to experiencing the work. However, Benjamin argues that with “the photographic image, exhibition value for the first time shows its superiority to cult value.” Reproducibility takes the original object away from a fixed location and redistributes it in a more accessible way, making it available to a wider audience. Benjamin’s criticism lies in the fact that the masses are “seeking distraction in the work of art, whereas the art lover supposedly approaches it with concentration.” In this way, technologically reproducing a work of art takes away a space for contemplation that was originally so important to art viewing, making the contemporary artwork available to a wider yet more distracted audience. It comes down to a matter of accessibility versus reverence. While it may seem desirable to have an ardent audience, it is no longer entirely possible. The reality is that the general audience is already distracted and this is why the cult value of an artwork is no longer relevant or desired. The way human beings now receive information is more similar to the schizophrenic acts of scrolling, clicking, and opening new tabs than that of sitting in one place, or thinking about one thing. Therefore, artwork that accommodates this mode of functioning is the only kind of artwork that can survive.

The fact that all art, no matter its original medium, is doomed to enter the digital realm only elevates the importance of exhibition value. “Digital work is omnipresent, moving and changing. Unlike a traditional work of art made for the cult, such as a fresco stuck on a church wall and thus fused to one place forever, a digital artwork can only move, from one exhibition to the next, one screen to the next, one viewer-user to the next one.” The whole existence of the digital work becomes dependent on its ability to be perpetually redistributed to as many people as possible. In this regard, it is very difficult for an artwork to proliferate in the digital age without visibility. Whereas if the original artwork had attained a cult value it might have gained historical significance through an air of mystery and anonymity, in contrast, the digital artwork “becomes historical through its sheer circulation.”

Although not technically a work of art but still a photograph, writer Jennifer Allen proposes the infamous 2015 “Oscar Selfie” as an example of this phenomenon. The photograph is a simple iPhone “selfie” showing a group of influential celebrities at the Oscars ceremony. The prominence of its subjects, however, is not what elevated the photograph to a revered image. According to Allen, it has more to do with the fact that the photograph was “retweeted over two million times—making history as the most retweeted photograph in the world. The cult value of this now-iconic image was born through its unparalleled exhibition value.” Through digital existence and redistribution, the exhibition value of an image becomes so powerful that it essentially redefines cult value in a present-day context. This is no longer a cult based on the veneration of the lone original but one akin to the contemporary reverence of ubiquity and social relevance.

Image courtesy of the author.