Posts Tagged ‘walter benjamin’

As a philosophy graduate, I have to briefly share my thoughts on some philosophical theories of art, and how I applied them to my experience of Turner’s Dido Building Carthage. The main, and most important, difference in experiencing the painting digitally and physically is the difference in what Walter Benjamin terms the “aura” (The Work of Art in the Mechanical Age, 1935).  On viewing Turner’s masterpiece in real life, there is an experience of something that is difficult to articulate; a sense of specialness, uniqueness and history. It is unique as you experience awareness that the painting has been created by a unique human being; a human being captured in a moment of time, space and history that can never be reached again. The original Dido Building Carthage has a historic significance which provokes an emotional and intellectual response that simply does not occur when viewing the piece online. The original painting projects a sense of history which evokes a sense of fascination and emotional awe in the viewer.

There is a famous saying that ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’. The digital surrogate of the painting is solely composed of code and data and not of a human being’s brush strokes; and this must surely be at the foundation of why experiencing the digital Dido Building Carthage is not as emotive as the real life work. Something is lost in translation between the physical and the digital. When the digital reproduction of the painting has been created, the historical context and unique value embedded in the very being of the physical artwork has not been successfully copied over.

Knowledge of context and one’s awareness that one is viewing a mere reproduction of an artwork may also have a greatChuck Close Self Portrait effect on the viewer’s experience. A very clear way of illustrating this is to briefly analyse this self-portrait by the artist Chuck Close. It looks very much like a photograph, but it is actually a painting. The knowledge and context that this artwork is not created by an automated machine, but has been painted by a human being, changes drastically the very way we emotionally respond to it.

The promotion of the digital as a valid format of presenting art makes the assumption that the viewing of art is a purely visual experience. But it is not, as the role of imagination is absolutely vital in our experience of art, as Benjamin observes, “A man who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it. He enters into this work of art” (1935, p13).  But what exactly is this interactivity that is occurring between the viewer and the original that is missing with the digital representation? Walton argues in his make-believe theory that artworks function as a prop, and prescribe fictional truth and propositions to the user, who then psychologically participates and engages with the artwork in a fictional world of a game. When we are visually observing the artwork we are using it as a prop, and as we are doing so our visual experience and our reactions to it become part of the game. The world of the painting becomes a microcosm and creates an illusory fictional world. For example, Carthage is not being built in front of me, but I am seeing the building of Carthage in the game, and I am engaging with the artwork using my imagination. When the real life painting projects its aura of specialness, uniqueness and history, the user creates a connection with the painting in their contemplation of it; whether it is an imaginary or game-like connection or simply a connection to the artist and the painting’s history.


Benjamin, W., 1935. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. [Online] Available at: <http://design.wishiewashie.com/HT5/WalterBenjaminTheWorkofArt.pdf> [Accessed 23/12/2011].

Walton, K. L., 1990.  Mimesis as make-believe: on the foundations of the representational arts. London: Harvard University Press.


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