Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Little Boxes

Break on through (to the other side)

These days, pretty much anyone with an interest in art and aesthetics will be aware of Walter Benjamin's essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction".  Quite a few will even have read it.  It's become a classic, though one which is much misunderstood, for the simple reason it is a pretty incoherent mish-mash of half-baked ideas, developed by someone whose sensibility was formed on the "wrong" side of a crucial historical divide in the development of what would then have been termed "mass culture".  Benjamin, and the Frankfurt Group in general, were like Dylan's Mr. Jones, aware that something was going on, but fated never to know quite what it was.  I know how they felt: social media are doing much the same thing to me.

The main takeaway that people get from Benjamin's essay is the idea of the difference between a reproduced work of art, which can have many contexts and uses, and the "aura" of the unique Real Thing, hanging on one particular wall somewhere.  John Berger picked up this and other ideas inchoate in Benjamin and ran with them in his TV series Ways of Seeing, broadcast in 1972 and perfectly timed to blow my teenage mind.  Overnight, aesthetic theory became cool and edgy, though I think I would more likely have called it "far out" at the time.

One major effect of growing up in a New Town like Stevenage, entirely populated by working and lower-middle class families and without any galleries or museums to speak of, is that you get all your "culture" from the town library, or from Sunday colour supplements.  Until I travelled to Europe in 1971 at the age of 17, and despite an intense interest in visual art, I had never actually been inside an art gallery until -- like some barbarian entering Rome -- I visited the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.  Until then, every famous picture that I knew I had only seen in book or magazine sized reproductions.  That a Rubens painting might be bigger than the kitchen of our flat had never occurred to me; that a Dürer engraving might actually be smaller than its reproductions was equally a revelation.  But I found something else, too: that I was curiously immune to the "aura" of the Real Thing.  In many ways, I preferred a reproduction, and still do.

I was reminded of this when I went up to London to see the Joseph Cornell exhibition at the Royal Academy on Saturday with an old college friend.  It was incredibly crowded -- something I'd not expected at 2:30 on a Saturday afternoon in early September, in the last weeks of a show's run.  Gallery-going does seem to have become a very popular activity in recent years.  The problem is that contemplating works of art is hard to do over someone else's shoulder, or with an impatient queue building to your left.  Next!  You tend to gravitate to the less popular items, just to be able to spend a reasonable amount of time with them.  This is not ideal.

I've known about Cornell's boxes for a long time, but only ever seen the same few items regularly reproduced.  Small and in two dimensions these assemblages of cut-outs and bric-a-brac have an indefinable, intimate magic, not unlike the covers of the Junior World Encyclopaedia I posted about some years ago.  But at full size and in three dimensions -- for me, anyway -- a lot of the magic is lost.  It doesn't help when they're displayed behind multiple layers of reflective glass, or you are feeling under constant pressure to move on.  I was expecting to be enchanted; in fact, I was bored.

Oh, well; they still look pretty good in the catalogue.  And, ironically, some of the best items, it turns out, are two-dimensional, after all.

The same message twice: for Joseph Cornell

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