Immersive Van Gogh: The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction


In 1935, philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote a famous essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, in which he described the way that photography and film had changed humanity’s relationship to art. Before these technologies existed, experiencing a painting or sculpture had meant engaging with an individual object that was located at a particular point in space and time. Each artwork also carried with it its own provenance, a history of its production by an artist and of its subsequent ownership. All this combined to produce what Benjamin called aura, the “unique phenomenon of a distance, however close” something may be. A painting’s brushstrokes were made by a particular hand, the canvas sold by a particular dealer, the frame chosen by a certain collector, and all of that made it what it was: an object for contemplation, in a manner reminiscent of art’s origins in sacred ritual. But photography and film had caused a decay of aura. If an image can be reproduced endlessly, the concept of “original” begins to lose its meaning; and when technology penetrates aesthetic experience—as when a stage actor’s continuous performance is replaced by a film, constructed by an editor out of many frames—contemplation gives way to distraction, a mere absorption of what is presented by the machine.

Exploring how these trends might develop, Benjamin cited a remarkably prescient vision of his contemporary Paul Valery, who predicted that in the future, “just as water, gas, and electricity are brought into our houses from far off to satisfy our needs in response to a minimal effort, so we shall be supplied with visual or auditory images, which will appear and disappear at a simple movement of the hand.” At the same time, Benjamin saw, technology was making it possible for more and more readers to become writers, and for ordinary people to realize their “legitimate claim” to see themselves represented in photography and film. In sum:  TV and cable and the internet and social media, video streaming and YouTube and cell phone cameras everywhere—none of it would surprise Benjamin much. And while he lamented certain aspects of the culture of distraction (like its erosion of our habits of concentration), he also said good-riddance to the cult of mysterious genius and eternal truth. Those had often been part of structures of domination, and Benjamin wanted art that liberates.

So I wonder what he’d think of Immersive Van Gogh, Van Gogh:  The Immersive Experience, Van Gogh Alive, and the several other similar exhibitions that are currently on display in over 40 US cities and many more around the world. On the one hand, these exhibitions mark a complete triumph of capitalist reproducibility: they are for-profit ventures based entirely on reproductions of images that are now in the public domain, and hence involve no actual paintings, and no provenance of ownership, at all. They also demonstrate the fact that, as Benjamin wrote, mechanical reproduction is more independent of the original than manual copies ever were, since techniques like enlargement and slow motion can bring out aspects of the original “unattainable to the naked eye yet accessible to the lens.” This certainly occurs in the enormous digital projections and animations in which van Gogh’s starry skies and hayfields surround the viewer, his brushstrokes magnified and at times, swirling as we watch. Attended by millions of viewers from outside the usual museum-going elite, the exhibitions might be said to satisfy what Benjamin called “the desire of the contemporary masses to bring things ‘closer’ spatially and humanly.”  Doubtless, many of the attendees have never seen the original paintings and if they ever do, will now find them small, static, and anticlimactic. One might think, therefore, that these exhibitions mark the complete destruction of the van Gogh oeuvre’s aura in the sense that Benjamin described.

And yet:  perhaps the “unique phenomenon of a distance, however close” persists, in a new guise. At the Boston exhibit I attended, commentary accompanying the immersive images stressed the intensity of van Gogh’s quest to capture form and color; his immense creative productivity despite—and as a defense against—mental illness; his fascination with the artistic otherness represented by Japan; and the value he placed on human connections, even when navigating them proved complex. These themes increase attention to the uniqueness of van Gogh’s life and his artistic outlook as a whole; and it may be in the contemplation of these ideas that his work’s liberatory potential for today’s audiences lies.

~ Kimberly Gladman ~