DATE: 10/7/2010 | BY SHARON HELGASON GALLAGHER
Following is the first portion of ARTBOOK and D.A.P. Executive Director Sharon Helgason Gallagher's talk, "The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Publication," delivered at The Frankfurt Book Fair on October 5, 2010.
"Captions have become obligatory," wrote Walter Benjamin in his now classic 1936 essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, continuing "… [a]nd it is clear that they have an altogether different character than the title of a painting." For Benjamin, the title of a work of art belongs in a sense to the earlier, decaying age of the aura, when the work of art was an object of contemplation to be seen at a distance. With mechanical reproduction, for example of photographs in the picture press, the image is brought "closer" to the viewer, Benjamin tells us; it becomes local to him, living on his same plane of action rather than pointing to a beyond. The viewer is less passive in the age of mechanical reproduction: as Benjamin explains, "in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced. These two processes lead to a tremendous shattering of tradition."
The same shift applies to the sphere of the word - where Benjamin uncannily presages the blog and the twittered tweet: "With the increasing extension of the press… an increasing number of readers became writers – at first, occasional ones. It began with the daily press opening to its readers space for “letters to the editor.” And today there is hardly a gainfully employed European who could not, in principle, find an opportunity to publish somewhere or other comments on his work, grievances, documentary reports, or that sort of thing. Thus, the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character. The difference becomes merely functional; it may vary from case to case. At any moment the reader is ready to turn into a writer."
And what of the image in the digital age? I suggest that what we find in the digital space is the increasing iconization of the image. The trajectory that Benjamin identified in mechanical reproduction has only accelerated, so that now the image is not just closer to the viewer, as it was in the picture press; the image has become so close now that the viewer can reach out and touch it. The image in the age of digital reproduction is certainly no longer something to contemplate at a distance, but it is no longer even simple evidence of an event that took place in the real world, as in Benjamin's 1930s picture press. The image is even closer to us now. It is tangible. You can click it. You do click it.
In digital space, you can barely stop yourself: you are driven to click the image. It is an icon. If western art took centuries to move away from the kissable icon to the modern work of art, the image has now come full spiral back, as it were, to the clickable digital icon. Contemplation? No longer an option. Evidence? We no longer trust it anyway in the era of digital manipulation. As reader becomes writer, so viewer becomes manipulator. In the language of the digital space – its lingua franca – the image, perceived as an icon, has become a call to action on the part of the user to… to what? To go somewhere else in the space.
So, how today can we digitally publish texts that are about images? How do we keep people in the same space with the image for long enough that they can see the image and read the text before clicking away?
Sharon Helgason Gallagher is the President and Executive Director of ARTBOOK and of D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, Inc. in New York, a publishing and distribution company she co-founded in 1990. D.A.P.'s museum publishing clients include the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Walker Art Center. Sharon is a graduate of Yale University, summa cum laude, and holds a Masters degree in Philosophy from Columbia where she was a University Fellow.