Since its inception, the term avant-garde has evolved to fit the times and attitudes of the people who employ it. Despite such shifts, the term has always been akin to transgression, the pushing of boundaries, and novelty elevated from the status quo – until now. The 21st century demands a reevaluation of what avant-garde means today in both art and culture. In an age unparalleled to any other in terms of interconnectivity, communication, and innovation, the original avant-garde can no longer be deemed relevant in a society that feels like it has “seen it all.” How can an artist produce something that feels new when technology has placed the whole world at our fingertips? This troubling question leads to the proposition that, perhaps, the avant-garde should no longer be based on novelty. Instead, art and culture might benefit from openly accepting and experimenting with the overly reproduced, socially saturated archive of visual and intellectual language that is already available to the masses in this digital age. This idea unfolds here in five sections, which build up and rationalize the need to abandon novelty in the field of contemporary art. A procession of concepts, case studies, and visual material allows an in-depth exploration into the uncertainties of not art in the digital age, which draws a parallel to the larger evolution of societies during this time of perpetual innovation.
Decay of the Aura
As with all writing about art and technology, an introductory mention of scholar Walter Benjamin is inevitable. Benjamin is the father of the aura, which he describes as an art object’s “uniqueness” or originality. Writing at the advent of photography and film, Benjamin was concerned that this “technology of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the sphere of tradition…it substitutes a mass existence for a unique existence” and therefore causes the “decay of the aura.” While it is a valid point that technological reproduction creates unoriginal copies of an original object or idea, Benjamin’s concept of aura might be entirely outdated. Does an object need an aura to have an impact on the contemporary art context? The problem is that since the arrival of film and photography, technology has multiplied exponentially. Therefore, technological reproduction is no longer the only factor to worry about. With the rise of the Internet, communication devices, social media (you name it)—the realm of reproduction must be expanded, but not limited to “digital production, post-production, distribution, critical evaluation (Likes, Dislikes) and commentary (retweets and others), archiving, quotation, collaging, even animation (GIFs).” The list is exhaustive and frankly leaves no room for preoccupation with originality.
Any attempt to give Benjamin’s aura credibility in the context of today’s art production fall short because, essentially, even artists working with traditional artistic mediums are still working digitally. “Whatever kind of art one makes—whether photoshopping by mouse or weaving by hand—an image of the work is sure to wind up being shown online. In that sense, we are all digital artists now, whatever medium we choose.” Therefore, even the most traditional, auratic painting will fall “victim” to the countless methods of reproduction that accompany an image’s digital existence. Just as digital reproduction can no longer be viewed in isolation, neither can the person in charge of this reproduction. It is no longer a matter of one individual taking a photograph or a crew shooting a film. With present technology, everybody is able to take part in reproduction. “Every viewer is a potential user, reproducer, redistributor, and transformer of the work.” A sixteen-year old boy can Google a picture of say, the Mona Lisa, edit in some glasses, maybe a neck tattoo, re-distribute it on the web, and voilà—the most original of paintings defaced of its aura in a few sequences of clicks, copies, and pastes. As artist Hito Stereyl succinctly puts it, “one could of course argue that this is not the real thing, but then—please, anybody—show me this real thing.” With these new capabilities, the relevance of the original is ever decreasing. People no longer relate to original artworks because they are indulged in a faster way of viewing; one that imbues both the power of omnipresence and omnipotence in the user. An important artwork no longer equates to “the real thing—the originary original. Instead, it is about its own real conditions of existence: about swarm circulation, digital dispersion, fractured and flexible temporalities. In short: it is about reality.” And the reality is that in this digital age, a .GIF of a photoshopped version of “the original” which has been shared on Instagram, infinitely hashtagged, and received a few hundred likes is more relevant to the contemporary individual than a tangible work housed at a museum in a different country, which charges 18 euros for admission. Accordingly, artwork should not reject but embrace this contemporary reality in order to advance rather than digress.
Image courtesy of the author.