Thinking about Awe

As a photographer, or even protégé photographic artist, I think that like many others I had the notion that Benjamin was writing about the ‘new-age’ that was beckoned in with the advent of photography, when in fact, after re-reading it again recently, it appears to me it is about a new age – a new mechanical age – that whilst encompassing photography, critiques all other art forms equally. Considering, for instance, music performance at the time when Benjamin wrote his now famous essay in 1936, the year that television was first trialed by the BBC in the UK. Sales of records were having a dip due to the depression but would soon rebound, and continue to climb for decades to come. Theatre though would see an inexorable decline in attendance as first cinema and then television would send in the wrecking ball of ‘progress’ to demolish the dream theatres of live performance and then cinemas themselves. Film and music, like imagery, now reside in the ether. It might be said that the very medium that subverted the painter’s place at the high table of art – film based photography – is now the very medium that is venerated as ‘high art’.

Galleries and museums both stand accused of complicitly in working to contrive a ‘market’ that maintains the market of art; capitalism, hedge funds, neo-liberalist economics and artists have a vested interest to foster that bubble and the arguments are all now well rehearsed. But I wondered about other artforms outside of the gallery walls that stood alongside the framed visual media when Benjamin penned his essay. Is the essence of the personal strong enough to elicit still that sense of ‘awe’, or was the auratic experience a conjured occurrence to distance those with the currency of knowledge and coin from those who could only aspire without ignorance?

Whilst the ‘Great Depression’ was a critical economic backdrop in 1936 and sales of records had slumped, recovering only later in the decade as economies improved, the record of an audio performance was, and is still to this day, culturally accepted as a means by which this art-form might be disseminated to brows high and low (we might discount as an aberration the Music Union in the USA issues of 1947/8). The acceptability of a mechanically re-produced – and transmitted – simulacrum of a performance, be it a reproduction of a concert performance or that of a private/intimate facsimile matters not. The ‘original’ has very little currency mediated by whichever means, and perhaps still less so today when the recording is ‘given away’ with mobile ‘phones and suchlike. The static visual image (and to some extent the three dimensional object) has a separate place in the cultural psyche, which is perhaps steeped in the twin hegemonies of the commercial aspects of capitalism and the galleries structural framework. And this is interesting if compared to music. The best (an arbitrary term) ‘live’ performance ticket prices are likely to be no more than four or five times that of a recording – and often very similar, whilst the still image reproductions can be many orders of magnitude different. CD and vinyl reproductions tend to be less than provisional theatre ticket prices, similar to that of a ‘round of drinks’ for four friends in a pub. In, I would hazard a guess, the vast majority of cases, the experience of music is via a reproduction, and not generally considered the worse for it (it has to be said that performances by some artists have been viewed as worse than the recordings – Bob Dylan being a case in point). Recordings are reliable, Bob Dylan isn’t, you can always rely on Nina Simone’s reproduction on a functional audio system, less so in a performance engagement – though these artists fragility may add a patina of edge that provides a sense of awe?

During my time as a theatre critic I once happened on a performance by one of the ‘Great Dames’ of British theatre; it was early in the season and there was a considerable requirement for the prompt to be in attendance; a sense of ‘awe’ wasn’t what I noted in my notebook at the time. However I have found a sense of ‘awe’ in the theatre many times, maybe it is the edge of performance – that interplay between players and audience that provides it I am not sure – it is of course possible that having a sensibility to it might provide it. Theatre productions in that respect are always original, movies though are meant to be consistently similar (disregarding various ‘cuts’ etc). Performance is real, recordings are predictable. But are they? Are reproductions predictable? There are those who demand that analogue representations of are more honest than digital, but that is a whole different argument which is likely to cloud all these various issues. However for me when ‘she says, come in I’ll give you shelter from the storm’ I know precisely the storm she is referring to, she asks it in the same way everytime, the one that I want shelter from, not some other, it ignites a similar emotive reaction everytime. I seek that predictability, that storm that I run from is bigger than any other squall that might else rise on my horizon.

And so to the visual; to pictures, prints and other two dimensional artefacts on walls. I applaud Benjamin’s proposition that the auratic quality of the great ‘Masters’ has been diminished by whatever means. Whether the intervention of modernism’s mechanisms or now post-modernism’s unstructured commitment to universality. I welcome the notion that that sense of ‘Awe’, an artificial appliqué of value (both fiscal and intellectual), an exclusivity where entrance wasn’t based on egalitarian values, but one of hierarchical and/or a sense of intellectual didactic righteousness. I’m reminded again of Michael Kenna and those, ever-so-pretty prints (typical RRP £2500 each) that I saw recently and wondering why he hasn’t reached Gursky standards – perhaps it’s a size thing? Having said that Kenna is probably more costly on a square inch valuation! The reproductions of Kenna’s work in books and calendars &c makes me wonder why anyone invests in them, they are so removed from the original’s qualities as to defy even imaginative comparison. But sell they do and their value continue to appreciate. Kenna also doesn’t inform the public how many print copies he makes, limiting the earning potential only by his capacity to occupy his darkroom and the strength of his self limited awe-inspired market. Supply/demand, demand/supply.







2 thoughts on “Thinking about Awe

  1. Reading this caused me to muse on cinema, theatre and looking at photographs. Our local cinema now gets excellent attendance at filmed, real-time Cinema performances of West End productions – plays, ballet etc. There’s even an interval just like at the theatre. Regarding plays. It always takes me at least the whole of Act I to forget that it’s acting and enter into the story. Is it the same with photographs? Does one have to look and look and keep going back to look to absorb the message of the image?

    • When I was a critic I went to the theatre at least once a week, sometimes three times and what I found was that wanting to be immersed helped a lot. Some classic theatre takes a bit longer to sync’ with the metre and language, but usually I became involved very quickly. I think this is what I was trying to put over on Saturday, a language that people might recognise?

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