In grad school at the Center for Book and Paper Art at Columbia College, Chicago — I was assigned the essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935) by influential thinker and cultural critic Walter Benjamin. The reading was part of our history of the artist’s book class; taught by Clifton Meador, it combined significant readings and discussions about making books as objects along with guidance about hand setting wood and/or metal type (or developing polymer plates) for printing on various Vandercook presses. As part of our deep dive into asking what printing editions of artwork does to the “value” of the individual piece, Benjamin’s theory of art that is “useful for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art” in a mass-culture society was a perfect reading. And it made a knot in my brain.
|type kitchen in the letterpress studio|
Here is why: (stick with me) Basically Benjamin argues that art made pre-industrial revolution was valued for the physical act of the artist manipulating materials to create an original work of art. These works were valued for their beauty and “Aura of Authenticity.” But in the modern era of mechanized production, cultural thinking about what is valuable in art must also evolve. The original art object's aura of authenticity is diminished with each reproduction made and distributed. (Here comes the twist) A lack of authenticity is now desirable to a mechanized society.
As someone with a great deal of handcraft skills and a lover of process-heavy production methods, I had trouble making that turn. I read most of the essay still believing the use of term authentic was a positive and not a negative. When I realized my mistake, I had to read the whole thing again and try to unlearn what I first thought Benjamin meant. This kind of thinking was popular at the time among growing fascists movements across Europe and in the US. The idea of the cold, mechanical, unrelenting power of industry holding a kind of moral cultural advantage over old ideas about human-scale individuality became powerfully popular. This gave us Mussolini. It influenced American industrialists' and politicians' arguments about the inherent morality of the free market. It helped in the rise of the Nazis. In art it gave us the Futurists.
"War is the highest form of modern art."
-Filippo Tommaso Marinetti
|Boccioni, Unique forms of Continuity in Space|
|Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase|
Why bring this up?
I was reminded of Benjamin’s essay recently when a friend suggested I read an article about the ways social media has shifted our definition of authenticity. To paraphrase badly, there are two types of authenticity, internally directed and externally directed. Genuine interest in pursuing unique areas of knowledge that nurtures our emotions and minds is what we (culturally) used to loosely agree were authentic activities. But largely because of social media, now, framing a series of eclectic, outwardly directed, and unique-looking interests and activities is how authenticity is largely defined. In the US, but generally as part of normal human psychology, this kind of thinking is easy to fall into — because we all want to feel special. Amplifying this is increasing glorification of celebrity over talent, fame over humility, success over the value a given activity imparts to the larger society, and the glorification of the individual over all else. The result is a nation where the people who teach our children are paid poorly, while others who make fortunes producing little other than more money are celebrated as the success stories of our system.
My point isn't to make a broad indictment of the way social media plies its evil influence on our society. Like the industrial revolution, it’s a mixed bag of good and bad, objectives aspired to and missed, aspirations professed but not delivered, and consequences unforeseen both good and bad. It seems worthwhile to note, when you hear the word authentic used, the semantic intent may be other than you first thought. What one thinks of as a warm and nurturing activity, may be a psychologically corrosive and increasingly desperate attempt to seem like a small scale, unique celebrity at the cost of the individual's emotional stability and understanding of their core-self. Or another way to say it, rather than revealing something true, the oversharing of things that were once considered private in order to give the impression of being honest, is in fact a mask of ones own creation, slipped on and projected as your digital doppelganger.
The reason for this discussion?
Basically, it’s a painfully complex explanation that my fear of outward facing authenticity has led me to a fairly long absence from this blog. The way I have come to frame my creative activities for public consumption on this blog is to only say things when I really have something worth saying, to not give in to the urge to seek support during long stretches of disappointment by posting gripes and needy complaints. Essentially, if I can’t think of anything good to say, I don’t add to the swirl of negative information that dominates social media. That goes double for 2020.
But I have good news after a long stretch and I'd like to share it.
My novel Half Dead is being published in August 2021 by Crooked Lane Books. Revisions and edits are finished, the cover design is complete, the typesetting is being finalized, I’ve turned in my dedication and acknowledgments, and the first of the cover blurbs has come in:
That’s a lot. But additionally, in part because a good number of you kindly preordered Half Dead, I learned yesterday that Dreamscape purchased the audio rights and will produce an audio book to be available simultaneous with the hardbound release, August 10, 2021.
Thank you for keeping me company in 2020. Thank you also for your support of Half Dead. The process has taken over four years. No wonder I feel beat up. I’ll try to be better about this blog.