Sunday, April 01, 2007

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, "Bomb. Repeat. Bomb." or, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction?"

By Charlotte Deaver
Wow -- this is a great video. I saw it first on Stereogum today, watched it three times, and then several more times over on YouTube.

Meanwhile, I've been rereading Walter Benjamin's famous essay, "Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," and can't resist the impulse to plant it right alongside this video. In the essay, Benjamin confronts the idea of a work of art's authenticity, its "aura," tracing its basis, historically, in ritual (from cave drawings to religious artifacts, where the work of art preserves its "cult value"). Later in history, a work of art begins to also serve a different function, with increasing value placed on its "fitness for exhibition." Still, "the original preserved all of its authority," since "[t]he presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity."

Mechanical reproduction, however, as in photography and even more so, film, "substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence." Benjamin cites this as basically a revolutionary historical shift, because mechanical reproduction "emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual." Furthermore, "the instant the criterion for authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic reproduction, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice -- politics."

And then there's this crazy epilogue on Fascism which I forgot about, I think because it confused me. Fascism gives the "masses . . . a chance to express themselves? Wait, Fascism enables expression? Without changing property relations? Huh? It only makes sense in the context of Futurism, a movement centered mainly in Italy that led up to WWII, which I don't really know much about. But he specifically addresses the "Poets and artists of Futurism," who, unlike Benjamin, were anti-Marxist, who obviously believed in maintaining the traditional, capitalist economic and property system, and effectively introduced "aesthetics into political life." Hence, an aesthetics of war.

But it's this next passage, with it's brilliant rhetoric and clear-eyed conscience, that will keep me from forgetting, ever again, the epilogue:
"War is beautiful because it establishes man's dominion over the subjugated machinery by means of gas masks, terrifying megaphones, flame throwers, and small tanks. War is beautiful because it initiates the dreamt-of-metallization of the human body. War is beautiful because it enriches a flowering meadow with the fiery orchids of machine guns. War is beautiful because it combines the gunfire, the cannonades, the cease-fire, the scents, and the stench of putrefaction into a symphony. War is beautiful because it creates new architecture, like that of the big tanks, the geometrical formation of flights, the smoke spirals from burning villages, and many others."

And so, returning to the video, its proliferation of images, image consuming image, a mis en abyme, almost. Is it effective? It makes me wonder, was Benjamin right? He's interestingly anti-nostalgic; this is no elegy for the "authentic." Rather, the mechanically reproduced image is liberating because it elevates the "masses" to the role of critic, a role that had previously belonged to an elite, ruling class. He has such faith in humanity! And in Marx! Maybe the jury is still out. I'm just not sure. I love to think that YouTube and Google and blogs and freer access to music and art are exactly what Benjamin was talking about. But then I think of the war machine depicted in the video, and I'm just not convinced that mechanical reproduction will have the positive power Benjamin imagines.


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