We’ve all joined the exclusive ranks of consumerdom, yet most of us don’t even realize it. Well, we may, but the majority of us certainly seem unaware or at least unappreciative of the vast privilege made available to us by file sharing over the Internet. Most of us can hardly remember a time when a desired song wasn’t a few costless clicks away. This ease of acquisition has been amplified by programs like Torrents, transforming the Internet into a field of artwork to be had and experienced by anyone.
A song has long been defined almost as much by its ability to be reproduced as by its effect on a listener. What good is a song if it’s available only to a closed audience? The Internet has heightened this reproduction by not only allowing the endless multiplication of a work but by making these copies universally accessible. The online gallery charges nothing and is open to all so long as one possesses the necessary technology, and that technology is rapidly becoming less privileged.
I’ve clearly done away with the pretense that everyone pays to access this work — let’s not kid ourselves. We’ll proceed from the assumption that every online patron is well-versed in navigating the typically calm seas of Internet art “piracy,” whether they make it a habit to do so or not.
Equally essential to the notion of the online gallery is teaming up with contemporary popular technology to make all art portable in ways it’s never before been. The laptop is the Metropolitan Opera, the Louvre, the Library of Congress and the Globe Theater, all in a mobile, rechargeable object.
Now that the work of art is in our possession — ready and eager to be unwrapped and consumed — we might want to consider the circumstances of our impending “encounter” with it. In the age of the online gallery, the art experience is essentially an exercise in freedom. I’m seriously considering heading to the playground down the street and watching the first half of “Citizen Kane” on the swing set and the second half (when Orson Welles is at his portliest) in the sandbox. Could audiences in 1941 have dreamt of this freedom in constructing the terms of one’s experience of the film? Could Welles?
Walter Benjamin could. In his 1936 deified essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin chased the fog from the concept of reproducible art in relation to its modern audience. For some time now, the work of art has been without what Benjamin called its “aura” — its embedded function of generating a sense of exclusivity and distance between the object and the audience. If the aura had somehow survived being stomped out by Benjamin, then it was vaporized by the advent of the Internet. All that’s left is the audience and the aura-free object.
But with the destruction of the aura, we’ve acquired a somewhat misleading freedom. It’s all too convenient that Benjamin pointed to movies as the prototypical reproducible work of art: One can now watch a film on their laptop anywhere, anytime. Where the missed opportunity occurs is in deciding when and where to have the art experience, the failure to dive headfirst into the freedom of the modern audience.
Literature has been a portable art forever: How many of us require a soundless, solitary environment to read a novel? Certainly it can be pleasant, but without the ambience of inadvertently eavesdropped conversations or the reality-disrupting scream of a siren, I begin to wonder if I’m alive or if I’ve lackadaisically dissolved into the work I meant to approach with care and consideration. This is a far more distracting detour than what those exterior phenomena could ever achieve.