Digital scholarship blog

19 August 2014

The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Production

When Walter Benjamin published his seminal essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in 1936, he was far from imagining how technology would become not only the vehicle through which art would be transmitted to a wider audience but, more interesting, how technology itself would provide the very source from which art in the 21st century could be constructed. For Benjamin mechanical instruments for reproduction of art works, for example the reproduction of paintings through photographs or music through recordings, would affect the perception of the ‘aura’ or uniqueness of the work of art to its audiences. Reproduction, in his concept, would diminish the power of art, transforming it into common images through which we would be constantly exposed in our everyday lives annulling, so to speak, the very ethos of the aesthetic experience.

Let’s take the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci as an example. This particular painting has been reproduced continuously and applied to many contexts completely alien to its original aesthetic framework: we see the image of the Mona Lisa not only in books and framed reprints hanging on walls but also reproduced in everyday objects such as table cloths, curtains, coffee mugs and - who would ever thought it - toilet paper!



Mona Lisa on Toilet paper -

The wide diffusion of the image transforms the uniqueness of the painting into the banality of an everyday object. Originally conceived as an unique portrait, the reproduction of the painting becomes completely disassociated from the aesthetic intent of its original creation.  

But, what if Benjamin were to revise his essay given today’s technological context: would he still hold to the same ideas about the uniqueness of the work of art? Or would he adapt his theory to encompass artistic expression in a digital environment taking into consideration the way in which digital objects are accessed, re-worked and shared through various social media channels? What would be his opinion about the use of Big Data in today’s art? These are some of the possible questions that will be debated in our next Digital Conversations event to be held at the British Library on the 10th September 2014. Leading UK artists and researchers will come together to discuss the influence of digital data in contemporary artistic expression. Speakers include Anthony Lilley (Chief Creative Officer and CEO of Magic Lantern and a professor of Creative Industries at the University of Ulster), Ernest Edmonds (a pioneering digital artist and professor of Computation and Creative Media in the University of Technology, Sydney and professor of Computational Art at De Montfort University, Leicester); Michael Takeo Magruder (a visual artist and researcher who works with digital and new media including real-time data, immersive environments, mobile devices and virtual worlds);  Julie Freeman ( artist who translates complex processes and data from natural sources into kinetic sculptures, physical objects, images, sound compositions and animations) and Kevin Walker (researcher, designer, writer and artist working at the boundaries of digital and physical and head of the Information Experience Design programme at the Royal Academy of Arts).  Attendance is free and places are strictly limited. Book your ticket now at  to avoid disappointment.


Aquiles Alencar-Brayner

Curator, Digital Research



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