How Facebook and the Photograph Define Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

I just checked: on my Facebook page, I have been tagged in 508 photos over the seven years that I’ve had my profile. This number I consider modest, for my 20-something-year-old cousin—who has been a member of Facebook for five years—has been tagged in 1,615. Both of these statistics would be considered enormous by any generation other than my own, but what I’m most interested in is the difference between the number of my photographs and hers. I grew up using a film camera on class field trips, but my cousin was born into the age of the digital, the age which defined the transience of the image.  As the digital camera allowed the number of photographs available in our society to increase, and as Facebook became available to publish them all, the public’s reaction to the mechanical reproduction of the photograph has followed a very similar trajectory as predicted by an author named Walter Benjamin in his 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”

In this essay, Benjamin doesn’t deny that photography is an art form, although this was a hotly-contested issue before the 1900’s. (If the photographer doesn’t create a new item with his hands, such as a sculpture or a painting, is a photograph still art?) Benjamin contends that the framing of a particular shot allows photography to be art; however, photography remains for Benjamin a representation of reality that is mechanical in its ability to be reproduced an infinite number of times, a process that destroys the “aura” of the original representation, like “prying an object from its shell” (1236). Of the two forms of art Benjamin that defines, the purpose of photographic art is decidedly exhibitionistic, meaning, the photograph is an art form that is meant to be seen (as apposed to being a representation of worship). For him, therefore, photography is an art form with very specific implications.

Benjamin’s definition of mechanically-reproduced art is 75 years old, but the millions of photographs posted on Facebook fulfill his definition troublingly well.  Via Instant Upload, photographs can now appear on Facebook seconds after they are taken. Digital photography on Facebook is so exceptionally exhibitionistic that it is not uncommon for one to take a photograph for the specific purpose of posting it to one’s profile. It is also equally acceptable to “Facebook stalk” by indiscriminately browsing someone else’s uploaded photographs in rapid succession. The surplus of photographs available to be viewed has indeed leveled the playing field between subject and viewer as Benjamin predicting, causing all of us to find fame within reach. The following comment appeared yesterday on my friend’s wedding photo:

Dawn You look like a model, Kelsey – perfectly beautiful! Yesterday at 12:52am

After distinguishing between exhibitionist art and cultish art, Benjamin claimed that an excess of exhibition can eventually lead to worship, as in the case of models or movie stars. Evidently, in the case of Facebook, the turning of a photograph from something seen to something worshiped or revered remains true.

Benjamin concludes his essay by saying that mechanical art can ultimately lead to social war, and this may not be as extreme as it sounds. Hints of it are visible whenever Facebook viewers compare photographs not with the stars of Hollywood but with themselves. Browsing other people’s Facebook pictures, which all depict laughing groups of friends, close-knit families, well-cooked dinners, and foreign countries, the modern Facebook viewer is prone to experiencing a variety of emotions; most of my girlfriends cite inferiority, jealousy, and frustration as being the top three. The happiness portrayed through Facebook photos is selective yet holds the subtle message that if we all traveled more, bought better-fitting clothes, and drank more martinis—in other words, if we consumed more, perhaps by clicking on one of Facebook’s advertisements—we too could find the source of this happiness. Facebook and the mechanically-reproduced photographs are in this way nothing more than another capitalistic tool, not one that leads to physical warfare but one that enhances the social struggle that we claim to escape.

The previous essay was written for FR 2400 Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory at the University of Pittsburgh, October 2012.


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