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Remix Aesthetic

In my last Kill Bill post, I wrote “I much enjoy the collage aesthetic (I usually call it a remix or DJ aesthetic), but I prefer the playful expressiveness of, say, Moulin Rouge to the cynical play of Kill Bill.” Now, it’s possible I’m a little obsessed with Moulin Rouge, so I’d better say more about it!

Walter Benjamin, in 1935, wrote an essay called The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Here’s what he had to say:

The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced. Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter. And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object.

One might subsume the eliminated element in the term “aura” and go on to say: that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art. One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And 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 which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind.

And a bit later:

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. […] With the emancipation of the various art practices from ritual go increasing opportunities for the exhibition of their products. It is easier to exhibit a portrait bust that can be sent here and there than to exhibit the statue of a divinity that has its fixed place in the interior of a temple. The same holds for the painting as against the mosaic or fresco that preceded it. And even though the public presentability of a mass originally may have been just as great as that of a symphony, the latter originated at the moment when its public presentability promised to surpass that of the mass.

With the different methods of technical reproduction of a work of art, its fitness for exhibition increased to such an extent that the quantitative shift between its two poles turned into a qualitative transformation of its nature.

Benjamin’s idea is that a work of art loses its intangible “aura” of authority and authenticity when it becomes mechanically reproducible—the Mona Lisa becomes a little less special when you can get it on a refrigerator magnet and don’t have to go to the musée du Louvre to see it. The quality of a work of art, which used to be all about its special aura of artness, now becomes much more a matter of its exhibitionary and entertainment value.

This may lead to one a big question of (post)modern thought: nihilism or anti-nihilism? When fundamentally authoritative things lose their authority, does that mean there is no authority—or that everything has authority? Nothing is worth anything, or everything is worth something?

There’s another consquence: if art loses its authority, we no longer have to ‘respect’ it. The original isn’t what’s important, what’s important is the exhibition of a reproduction of the original which “meet[s] the beholder or listener in his own particular situation” and “reactivates the object reproduced.” Interpretation may supersede original meaning. Recontextualization may supersede original context. The text stops being a cathedral and becomes a playground. We get Troy and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (hilariously referred to as Wiliam Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet).

And there’s another thing to consider: information overload! Meme invasion! Thanks to the Internet and mass media, we have access to a ridiculous amount of information. What do we do with all of it? There’s no way we can process it all. Things are decontexualized. A lot of kids probably think “Revenge is a dish best served cold” really is an old Klingon proverb. What to do?

Remix aesthetic is a response to all this. Mash-ups. The Grey Album. Moulin Rouge. For artists like Luhrmann, everything is worth something, but not for whatever it’s ‘supposed’ to mean. Decontexualization and crises of meaning provide opportunities to play in the text, recontextualize, make new meaning.


  1. me says:

    very true

    — 26 December 2004 at 9:31 pm (Permalink)