In Defense of Automated Creativity
In the 1966 Cuban comedy Death of a Bureaucrat, a young member of the Cuban communist party must find a way to legally rebury his uncle after accidentally exhuming him. While the film is excellent, I’d like to focus on the profession of the deceased uncle, who was known for being the most efficient producer of plaster busts in Cuba. He created a machine that could produce immaculate busts of Vladimir Lenin and Karl Marx in mere minutes, which in turn allowed the uncle to have a good reputation in Cuba.
While the film is a satire of life in the communist party, the unnamed uncle seemed to really enjoy tinkering with the machine that he would use to mass produce his art. At one point during the film, his nephew mentions that he put more passion into his invention than into his relationships, which caused him to be a popular sculptor, but not a very friendly person. It seems as though he was very invested in creating mass produced art.
While reading the excerpt from Walter Benjamin, I felt as though the takeaway of his writing was that reproductions of art, whether human or mechanical, lack the intrinsic circumstances and feelings of the original piece. While this may be true of many pieces of “art” that we can find gracing the shelves of our local Hobby Lobby, I think that we should still give value to art that isn’t necessarily limited to a single original. The uncle in Death of a Bureaucrat may not have been directly creating the mass-produced busts, but he still took the time to create the machine that created them.
The nature of art is always changing due to technological improvements that allow for different styles of creation. Impressionist painters became able to practice “plein air” painting, which is the painting of final drafts while on location, because paint began to be sold in tubes. This mobility allowed the impressionists to develop art that may not have been possible for artists of earlier time periods.
Another example of technological advancement driving creativity was when Albrecht Dürer began engraving lithographic faces in 1494. The development of the printing press several years earlier allowed Dürer to reproduce his art dozens of times with little effort, instead of the painstaking process of copying his hyperdetailed sketches. The ability to mechanically reproduce art was paramount in elevating artists in the Northern Renaissance, because it made art accessible to the lower classes. Instead of art only being commissioned by nobility, merchants and hunters were able to begin purchasing and enjoying art, leading in part to low class enlightenment.
So what makes Dürer’s prints any different than the shlocky wall art you may find in the home section at Wal-Mart? Is it the fact that Durer’s prints are much rarer than the cheap reproductions? This makes it feel as though we value art like we value Pokémon cards, with rarer pieces being more expensive because they are rare, and not necessarily because of the content of the painting.
While I am not condoning going to Hobby Lobby for your wall art, I think that as long as the content of the art has worth to the individual, then it should still be considered art. Cheap reproductions of famous art may not have the soul of the original, they can still have meaning to those that purchase them. Some people don’t have the resources necessary to see the original version of a painting, but that is okay.
Art is meant to be seen by anybody who wants to see it, and while seeing the original piece in a museum may be amazing, sometimes we just want to have nice pictures hanging in our house. Mechanical reproductions are a way of making art more accessible to the common person, which in turn creates a society that values art more deeply.