In his famous 1936 essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin describes how art was historically used for ritual purposes. Because the ritual value of art was tied up with its uniqueness, it was unthinkable to reproduce a work of art.
In some respects, this phenomenon continues to exist today, particularly in religious contexts. Every year, up to a million pilgrims walk to the town of Fátima in Portugal to witness a parade in which the statue of Our Lady of Fátima is displayed.
The development of technologies of mechanical reproduction means that it would technically be possible to produce a close copy of this statue, and of course, with photography, millions of images of the Lady circulate around the world freely.
However, as Benjamin explains, the use of original art works in ritual contexts gives them a uniqueness that is not replicable; none of these reproductions can ever capture the "aura" of the original. People travel from far and wide to see the Lady in her original, miraculous form.
Of course, the vast majority of works of art that we produce and consume today are not originals and arguably never were. This is particularly true of digital technologies, which unlike film stock can be copied without losing quality. Does this mean that the images we use are not authentic? By using reproductions, are we losing sight of tradition?
Walter Benjamin argues that when we consume reproductions we are indeed moving away from tradition. For him, this shift has both positive and negative implications. It is potentially revolutionary because when works of art are disembedded their from ritual context they also become independent from authority.
This means that they can be appropriated to make political statements and spread a diversity of messages. But the easy replicability of images also makes them more vulnerable to appropriation by totalitarian forces. For example, nationalist discourses depend heavily on images to convey a sense of collectivity.
Popular culture in the age of mechanical reproduction
Today, artworks and photographs are heavily appropriated by commercial interests. At times it seems that there is truly nothing sacred any more. The Mona Lisa, Van Gogh's Starry Night, Che Guevara and Bob Marley can all be found printed on mugs, toilets, and t-shirts. They are made into dolls and featured in advertisements for completely unrelated products.
Does this endless reproduction signify the dilution of the original art, its tradition and politics? Or is it a sign of democratization? After all, commercialization plays a key role in bringing art out of the galleries and into popular culture.
In this paper I draw upon a material culture perspective to explore the implications of digital reproduction. I'd like to suggest that the Internet has brought something new to our engagement with art and popular culture, something that does grant us a significant ability to appropriate images and bestow them with our own meanings, despite the existence of widespread commoditization and the continued existence of an artistic elite. The Internet allows us to display our own collections of aesthetic forms publicly in a way that was never possible before.
I have come to think of this process as the "curation of the self." By this I don't mean to claim that everything that everyone posts online is a kind of curation. The word "curation" implies that different aesthetic objects are put together deliberately to create a cohesive story.
Simply posting the odd picture on Facebook, or even a collection on Flickr, may not count as curation in the sense that we normally associate with galleries and museums, because many pictures are posted without a great deal of thought about how they fit into an existing collection.
However, there is a certain sense in which we are always engaging in curation, because when we appropriate aesthetic forms we are generally constructing a story about ourselves.
Popular culture as material culture
This appropriation of forms is a topic that anthropologists who study material culture have covered in detail. In his work on material culture, Daniel Miller has discussed at length how we use material forms, such as clothes, bags, tattoos, and hairstyles to create our social identities. Our use of material forms for social purposes is one of the most prominent characteristics that separates humans from other animals.
Unlike Benjamin, who views reproduction as a negation of authenticity, Miller argues that the mass production of consumer goods expands our possibilities for self-creation because it gives us access to an almost endless array of goods that we can combine in the expression of our own, unique identities.
The fact that we might choose to wear a pair of jeans or a headband that are worn by thousands of people world-wide does not detract from our original identity, because when we appropriate goods we invest them with our own meanings. The result is creativity, not homogenization.
This doesn't just apply to the things we wear. We use a wide variety of aesthetic forms, drawn from a wide variety of sources, to engage in self-creation and to express ourselves socially. These include images, sounds, textures, and tastes. Some of these we make ourselves, some we buy, others we borrow.
We incorporate some of these forms more consciously than others, and what we choose to represent ourselves can change on a daily basis. But, together, this aesthetic collection helps us to feel human, and to express ourselves as social beings.
Images and the Internet
Before the Internet, curatorship was dominated by a tiny subsection of the global populace, made up of professional curators, television executives, big studios, and perhaps the occasional renegade street artist. Most people had very little choice of how to display their aesthetic preferences, or to whom.
The development of mass techniques of reproduction meant that people could display art works and family portraits on the walls of their own homes, but they had very little impact outside of the domestic sphere.
The Internet breaks down those boundaries. No longer confined to the prints sold in the local shop, or the photographs that one can produce oneself, today we have access to millions of artworks and billions of images. By displaying our curated collections on sites such as Facebook, Flickr, and Pinterest, we expand our potential audience to the entirety of the Internet's user base. And for the first time ever, we are not dependent upon a creative elite in order to do this.
But the Internet doesn't just open up a smorgasbord of images that we can use for self-creation. It is a game-changer, because it gives us an unprecedented ability to curate our own collections and present them to a global public. This is a truly new phenomenon. I've chosen to use the term "curation" in order to emphasize the importance of this capacity to display a particular kind of self.
This is not to say that the elite have ceased to be important in the art world. In fact, one of the primary effects of mechanical reproduction has been to increase the price value of original works of art. It's hard to imagine that the Mona Lisa would become invaluable if it hadn't become famous through its reproduction. And elite curators, collectors, and dealers are still dominant players in setting the symbolic and quantitative value of original works of art.
But the curation of the self using the Internet doesn't depend upon our ability to pay, once we have access. This gives us an independence from the art world elites. We don't need cash to appropriate images and show them to others. So, how are we using this new-found ability?
If recent media attention is anything to go by, we seem to be using social media a lot to post pictures of ourselves. In fact, I'd argue that selfies today are the quintessential popular culture. What could be more popular than the mass production, dissemination, and consumption of images of the self?
Some people take selfies so seriously that they have built careers out of it, mimicking the much older phenomenon of the socialite. In a recent article on PopAnth, Crystal Abidin discusses how Singaporean lifestyle bloggers use photographs and hashtags to document their daily lives. Of all the selfies that circulate on the Internet, these carefully-crafted images probably come closest to being a truly curated collection.
Celebrity bloggers such as Naomi Neo are followed by thousands of fans, and receive lucrative sponsorships that can amount to close to a million dollars a year. Neo admits to having "no idea what am I known for in majority's eyes."
But what people like Neo are doing is essentially creating their own aura and sharing it through social media. Neo's aura is expressed through numerous photos and texts, and her audience demands new material to learn more about her story. Just like a painting whose value is increased by the fact that millions of reproduction have made it famous, Neo's value rises as she shares her self with the world.
The selfie has been accused of being the product of an individualistic, self-obsessed culture. It's sometimes seen to represent the worst of the Internet, as a space characterized by shallow social interactions and not much more than a vehicle for self-promotion. But others argue that there's far more to the selfie than the self.
In an article in The Conversation, Marianne Hardey (2013) claims,
"The selfie is not just a narcissistic exercise, it has become part of our social interactions and a way to place ourselves in our surroundings."
Hardey explains that as we interact online, we often lose control of how we're portrayed, and the selfie is a way of taking back that control. Through the selfie we can display ourselves as we see ourselves and as we wish to be seen.
In fact, selfies are nothing new. Artists have been making self-portraits throughout the history of art. That today the vast majority of the world's population can make and share their own selfies doesn't negate this continuity with artistic tradition.
Curating the self
But there's far more to the curation of the self than just selfies. People are creating collections using different kinds of images to express their social selves. They post them over multiple media: different platforms engender different kinds of collections. We can read the images together, in a similar way that you might analyse the material contents of a handbag or a house.
Of all the social media platforms, Facebook is probably the one that most fulfils the function of the family photo album. It's where many of us post photos of our holidays, major life events such as weddings and new babies, and i''s where we record your participation in collective ritual events such as Christmas.
Facebook timelines, irrespective of their privacy settings, tend to have an intimate, domestic feel to them. Depending on an individual's friending strategies and privacy settings, these collections are generally at least semi-public.
But Facebook timelines are also a major site for engagement with popular culture. Memes, popular music, street art, DJ-ing cats, films, and the latest twerks of Mylie Cyrus all end mixed together with the intimate sphere of the self.
It's also important to note that collections cross social media platforms. For example, Facebook timelines link with Twitter feeds, feature reposts of people's favourite songs from SoundCloud, and integrate with personal blogs.
Software such as Buffer helps people to coordinate their posts, so that they can manage multiple social media platforms simultaneously. People can create posts ahead of time and Buffer will post them for automatically at pre-set times of day.
These posts are often carefully crafted to look spontaneous, even though they're pre-planned. The result is that a collection of posts that does not look curated to its audience may have been very carefully thought through.
This is an apt point to return again to Walter Benjamin. Benjamin talked about how film can seem to represent reality more than paintings. Although films are made up of all kinds of different elements, the way they're brought together as a final product gives the audience a sense that the events taking place are real.
Benjamin argues that this is because films obscure the nature of their production. In contrast, with paintings, you can see that it is just a representation of reality. This is evident in things like its static nature and the visibility of brush strokes.
Social media are a bit more like an un-edited film: they often appear to be random collections of things that people posted spontaneously. Hence, like paintings, they reveals the elements that create the whole. But like film, there is a whole production mechanism behind these posts that is often unseen. In a sense, then, one purpose of curation is to mask itself.
Curating the future self
Pinterest is designed to be largely visual, using little text. Users create collections of images around themes by pinning images to boards. These can be anything, but a common use is to make "boards" featuring products and experiences that one would like to consume in the future. Wedding paraphernalia, exotic travel destinations, handbags, art, and domestic items are some of the more common themes, especially by female users.
Although Pinterest is a highly commercial social media platform, the collections that people create tend to be more aesthetically-driven, and more highly curated, than collections on other social media.
Whereas Facebook helps us to tell a story about our current lives, Pinterest tends to be used to imagine and communicate out aspirations. Material culture studies have generally focused on how people use the things they possess to represent themselves in the present. With Pinterest, we have a window into how people would like to construct themselves as future consumers if they could afford to do so.
This doesn't mean that users are not constructing an image of themselves in the present. Even though users in many cases don't own the things they post, and may never buy them, users curate collections very carefully to create a certain aesthetic and promote themselves as people who possess taste and style. As a result, many of the more vulgar, banal, or tongue-in-cheek aspects of popular culture get left out.
This is a rather different way of gaining "distinction" than that discussed by Pierre Bourdieu. Pinterest users may not own the items they post, and may never be able to afford them, but appropriating the images is a way of consuming without having to pay the price of the goods in question.
This is a good example of how the lowering of monetary barriers allows for the broad dissemination of cultural products. These become the materials of popular culture.
Art and the self in community
Sharing images via social media is also a way to engage with forms of popular culture and expand their reach. Street art is a great example of this. By definition, street art is a public, popular art that does not depend upon elite-controlled spaces and fashions. Long before the Internet existed, street art has provided a way to extend the material presence of the self beyond the body and the domestic sphere.
The Internet has tended to expand street art's public audience, blurring the online / offline spaces as people curate collections of street art images and encourage each other's work. For example, "De mi barrio a tu barrio" is a project involving around 300 artists from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. They are running an online competition to create murals in a number of countries around the world. Local artists, designers, and cartoonists can send in proposals for the murals.
This project takes communities as its point of reference, making the assumption that art painted on walls in communities is not the property or product of any single individual, but of all of a community's residents. Here, the self is situated as part of a collective, with the curated artworks acting as a metaphor for social relations.
The kind of community reflected in the group's Facebook posts is one that is connected, politically engaged, and democratic. It encourages a creativity that is dependent neither upon elites nor upon commercial interests. As such it represents quite a different kind of curation to personal Facebook timelines, which are focused on a kind of expanded domesticity, and Pinterest boards, which posit a future consumer.
The implications of online curation
So, these examples show three very different forms of the appropriation and popularization of images. Each medium provides different tools for self-expression, and different ways of connecting to audiences. Through them, people engage in self-curation and build traditions. In the age of the Internet, we are the authentic original.
But this does not mean that our online representations are somehow inauthentic. Material culture theory states that our personal identities are created out of a fusion of ourselves (the subject) and the things we use (the objects). Similarly, it makes little sense to claim that our physical selves are the authentic original and our online selves are simply partial mirrors. Rather, subject and object create the whole.
What does this mean for art and popular culture? Online curation doesn't really pose a challenge to the world of elite art, in which the aura of the original still influences its price. But nor does the capacity for auto-curation depend upon this market.
This is why self-curation in the age of the Internet matters: irrespective of the elite forces of production of art and popular culture, it is a space in which people can engage with art and popular culture at will, and put these forms to their own social uses.
This paper was presented at the IUAES / JASCA conference in Tokyo on May 16, 2014. Thanks to the AAA for inviting me onto the panel. Thanks to John McCreery for early comments on my paper plan, Gawain Lynch for listening to me think aloud, and to Catherine Eagleton for helping me think through what curation actually is!
Benjamin, Walter. 1936. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.
Hardey, Mariann. 2013. Note to selfie: You're more than just a narcissist's plaything, November 21,
Miller, Daniel. 2014. The no-makeup selfie. UCL Social Networking Blog, April 29.
Miller, Daniel. 1987. Material Culture and Mass Consumption. Oxford UK and Cambridge USA: Blackwell.
Sinanan, Jolynna, Connor Graham and Kua Zhong Jie. 2014. Crafted assemblage: young women's 'lifestyle' blogs, consumerism and citizenship in Singapore. Visual Studies 29(2): 201-213.