From time to time, I’ve been asked if I’ve read Walter Benjamin’s celebrated essay, “The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Written in 1935, it remains one of the mileposts of critical art history. Benjamin argues that over the centuries when it was necessary to see a work of art in person, viewers felt a direct connection to the artist from being in the same room with something that had actually been in the studio, had known the artist’s touch, giving it a feeling he named its “aura.” But the advent of photographic copies in the 19th century diluted the singular importance of the original. So while some still look for Leonardo’s fingerprint in Mona Lisa’s paint, most modern viewers register disappointment that she’s so much smaller than they expected: proof that the original suffers from excess familiarity.
Benjamin, who died in 1940, could not have imagined the eagerness with which today’s artists flock to social media to circulate copies of their art that are so much like the ones that so unsettled him. Emails invite a potential audience to the 23rd-annual President’s Art Show at Salt Lake Community College, where the works are real, but on returning home, carrying a catalog illustrated with thumbnail images of all 94 works, another email, from a different source advertising an archive of community artists, contains more photos of the same works. If nothing else, all this easy movement between originals and copies of widely varying quality argues that our perceptions have evolved. In place of the unique work of art, we have a more useful, more portable concept of the work, somewhat approximate, but existing across different media and examples in a richly represented world of objects and appearances.
Yet the value of the original remains undeniable. One of the more popular works at the President’s Art Show, Alison Neville’s “Last Tasmanian Tiger,” provides one example. Scarcely larger than the sardine tin that contains it, the work’s appeal lies in its ability to become so much larger in the mind than its physical size, an effect largely due to the amount of effort required just to see it. Its small size, intricate detail, and even the presence of a glass dome usually covering it (though sometimes removed for the photographer) require considerable movement on the part of the viewer to fully apprehend it. The effort to see it parallels the effort required to grasp what befell the Tasmanian Tiger, along with so many other living things. A work of art brings the viewer closer, even inside the event, but paradoxically, in the same encounter, precisely reconstructs its remoteness in time and place. Its ability to do both is what makes the original so compelling.
Mixed media, so effective in Neville’s and so many other works here, was unknown to Benjamin, who could not have anticipated its paradoxically positive impact on the originality of artworks. Abraham Kimball and Jason Lanegan, two prolific Sanpete County artists, defy reproduction by the use of found materials, which despite elaborate alteration remain recognizable under careful scrutiny. Yet photos of their complex objects, which provide numerous points of view, cannot capture all their intricate avenues of visual and aesthetic entry. In “Upon This Rock,” Kimball stands a deceptively multi-faceted but ultimately hollow building on a whole collection of questionable supports, in the midst of which the titular rock can be seen not to support the structure, but to hang from it on a chain, a legitimation one can carry like a wallet to wherever it’s applied. Whether seen as a church, as the title suggests, or a government, or any other large organization, it may be argued that only by exploring it in person can a viewer hope to grasp its significance.
Even flat work, like the paintings that Benjamin probably took for the sum of art, may need to be seen in person to reveal themselves fully. Animator and illustrator Kylie Millward’s screen-printed zine, “Worthiness Interview,” is seen here in two versions: the framed and hung original in which the parts seem disjointed, which is an artifact of their having been intended to be seen folded into books or the boxlike, three-dimensional versions sitting on the pedestal in front. Publication here serves two purposes: first to enable disseminating information she deems useful for those faced by her chosen subject, and then to reward, even require, some effort on the viewer’s part to decode her critique of the simplistic notion that sophisticated and subjective values can be usefully contained, whether in a nutshell or a box.
Other flat artworks that elude photographic exposure include Cynthia L. Clark’s “A Pair of Royals,” an encaustic pun on social and commercial categories. The encaustic wax technique, which delivers a translucent depth visible to the eye but not the camera, had fallen out of use centuries before Benjamin’s day, but became newly popular a few years later. Jolysa Sedgwick’s stained glass “Sunflower” represents an entire genre — considered in the Gothic age to be the queen of the arts — that not only requires seeing in person, but at all hours of the day as its illumination changes. Not every work here foregrounds such challenges, but they all offer some degree of reward for a viewer who comes to them in person.
It’s unlikely that the five judges who did the hard work of selecting these 94 works from over 300 submissions, and then awarding $5,000 in prizes, gave even a thought to Walter Benjamin as they worked. In fact, such selections are routinely made from photographs. But there’s a previous evaluation at work, everywhere art is experienced. This one operates in the studio and the gallery, the classroom and the home, wherein what appeals to artist and audience alike is the intricate, multi-dimensional interaction between the live viewer and the present object. As shown by The President’s Show, we have enough good art available in Utah that we can all come to know that dance.
2023 President’s Art Show, Salt Lake Community College, South City Campus (Mulipurpose Room), through Nov. 27.