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Cult vs. Exhibition

“Works of art are received and valued on different planes. Two polar types stand out; with one, the accent is on the cult value; with the other, on the exhibition value of the work. Artistic production begins with ceremonial objects destined to serve in a cult.” (Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction)

There has always been a debate over what constitutes art. Many philosophers over time have provided insight with regards to arts “true definition”.

So what is art? According to Morris Weitz, “Each age, each art-movement, each philosophy of art, tries over and over again to establish the stated ideal only to be succeeded by a new or revised theory, rooted, at least in part, in the repudiation of preceding ones”. (The Role of Theory in Aesthetics) As time progresses, so does artistic expression and representation.

Benjamin discusses the evolution of art from hieroglyphics, to paintings to lithography to photography and finally to film. Lithography gave way to reproduction of art, which according to Benjamin, was the deterioration of art’s aura.

Within The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Benjamin parallels magic and surgery to painting and film. A magician maintains a “natural distance” when making a disease disappear from an ailing patient, while a surgeon invades “natural distance” dissecting the flesh to remove the disease. Likewise, the “painter keeps a natural distance from reality; the cameraman penetrates deeply into its web. There is a tremendous difference between the pictures they obtain. That of the painter is a total one, that of the cameraman consists of multiple fragments, which are assembled under a new law”. (Benjamin)

While I agree with Walter’s notation, that reproduction gives way to capitalistic gains, removing inspiration and raw emotion from the art experience, it is difficult to prove that film cannot be art. Movies within popular culture definitely have cult value and exhibition value. Films are depicted based on the vision of the director, so why can’t the director be seen as the painter, the camera be seen as his brush and the film studio as his canvas?

While art has no criteria, it is not true that films can maintain a cult following based on monetary measurements?

Office Space, which debuted in theaters is 1999 “grossed over $4 million dollars within the opening weekend”. (Wikipedia.org) Famous lines from the film were later “featured in shows like Family Guy, and was later referenced in a Facebook app developed by RockYou”. (Wikipedia.org) In my opinion the film itself maintained an aura and not a specific character, as each actor within the film played a critical role that led to its cult following.

Can one not say that film is a “transformation within the dominant culture economy that is adapted to fit the director’s interest”? (DeCerteau, General Introduction) Is there really any significant difference between is film displaying in a theater versus an artist’s work(s) being displayed and sold in a gallery exhibition?

Pinpointing a universal definition for art gives way to additional criteria, making the scope of art broader than ever. I truly believe that Morris Weitz was ahead of his time as he placed emphasis on art as a concept as opposed to a single definition. As technology continues to evolve, it will give way to new art forms and concepts.


About everchangingL

Currently a graduate student at The University of Texas at Dallas


2 thoughts on “Cult vs. Exhibition

  1. The following words represent my interpretation of the texts read in class. I make no claim of correctness or authority in the following statements.

    First, I must say that you get double-plus bonus points for referencing a movie that is near and dear to me, one of my all-time favorites, Office Space. Its significance to me goes beyond its cult status for a number of reasons: its creator, Mike Judge, is intimately connected to my home town, Garland; it was filmed in Dallas and Austin; it came out right at a time in my life when I was going through the same office work hell as the main characters. But I digress.

    I am here to agree with you on calling out Benjamin on his restrictive definition of art. Too much time has passed since he wrote Mechanical Reproduction that it is time to update the ideas presented in it. [It goes without saying that such updates have been undertaken. Of those I am aware, there are Bill Nichols’ The Work of Culture in the Age of Cybernetic Systems and our own professor’s essay, “The Work of the Viral Structure in the Age of Networked Transmission.”] I am not one to believe that art cannot be in possession of both “poles” of “value” – cult value and exhibition value – at the same time. They are not, I feel, mutually exclusive. As we discussed in class the other day, reproduction or replication (modes of exhibition) of a piece of art (e.g., Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa) can in some cases serve to amplify its aura. As Kim herself confessed, the irony of Mona Lisa is that the painting’s aura is nearly impossible to experience or enjoy when one goes to see it “in the flesh” in the Louvre when there is a non-stop throng of tourists pushing and shoving you to get a but a fleeting glimpse of it.

    Perhaps Benjamin makes the mistake of crediting the artistic object with too much agency or power. What about the intellectual/aesthetic/?? capacities of the viewer or audience (the subject)? The subject lends a great portion of the power of the aura as the art object itself. Perhaps it’s better to use the language of Parikka and Fuller and consider instead the affordances of the art object. The affordance of aura will be different for each subject, regardless of the type of art. For some, the aura’s power will be completely lost on the subject. For others, the object’s aura will be monumentally affecting. For example, I think of the mass produced Coke bottle in The Gods Must Be Crazy. For the African native with no connection to modern urban civilization, the bottle is a divine object. For the typical modern city dweller, it’s another piece of rubbish s/he couldn’t care less about. While I will not go to the extreme to say aura is entirely in the eye of the beholder, it definitely does not lie entirely in the art object either.

    Perhaps it is better to conceive of the art object – whether a mechanically/digitally mass produced object or not – as part of the aesthetic experience of aura, which just as strongly depends on the subject/audience as well as set and setting (place and time). Doesn’t the same piece of art (a book, a painting, a movie, a song) – its aura, specifically – change over time during subsequent views by the same viewer at different times and in different places? As hinted at in your quotation from Weitz, the definition of art (and by extension of aura) is hardly static; art doesn’t simply is, it becomes.

    Posted by mattutd | March 28, 2012, 9:34 pm
  2. Lauren, Office Space is quite possibly my favorite film of all time as well. I literally can’t count the number of times I’ve seen it. Matt, I’m pretty sure the first movie I have any recollection of seeing as a child is The Gods Must Be Crazy.

    I’m in complete agreement with the both of you on Benjamin’s shortsightedness in largely being unable to see film as an authentic artform. While it is true that the medium of film has been greatly commercialized since its early days, I think it is still possible, depending on the circumstance, to have a deeper connection to a piece of film or filmmaking regardless of how far removed you are from the original copy. I think the same goes for music as well, regardless of how far removed you are from the original master.

    While these days, we can celebrate auteurs like Mike Judge, Spike Lee and Michel Gondry for having an aesthetically distinctive through-line in all of their work in a way that closely resembles the artists of the era that Benjamin romanticizes about, I think a better approach would be to treat every little piece of artistry that contributes to the production of film as individual artforms that just so happen to contribute to a whole that has great potential to be commercialized.

    “In my opinion the film itself maintained an aura and not a specific character, as each actor within the film played a critical role that led to its cult following.”

    What you said here is part of what I think makes the medium of film susceptible to cult value and exhibition value at the same time. As a graphic designer, many times I’ve found myself utterly impressed by the opening sequences of a film I couldn’t care less about. To refer to a film as a singular work of art, you would have to be referring to the work of a filmmaker so far down below the radar that they handle all the production work himself or herself.

    Pre-production, production and post-production of most films employ a vast array of “artists” who contribute in their own way to the finished product. From screenwriters to actors to directors to musicians to make-up artists to production designers to special effects gurus to camera operators to costume designers to graphic designers, every film has something in it for a certain cult of followers.

    It is possible to go watch a film simply because you perhaps enjoy the work of an actor or a director or a musician or a make-up artist or a screenwriter or a designer who was involved somehow in the process. That the sum of it all leads to a highly commercialized product shouldn’t take away from the smaller artistic endeavors present in each film.

    So piggy banking on what Matt says, the experience of aura in filmmaking depends heavily on the audience member. Some people enjoy Office Space because they have a strong connection with Mike Judge’s directorial and screenwriting work (I count myself among this group of fans), others enjoy it because they happen to have enjoyed the Milton animated shorts long before they saw the movie, and others enjoy it for a wide array of reasons tied to the smaller bits that make up the finished film.

    Posted by wordtoyourmedia | March 30, 2012, 10:17 pm

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