What does Authenticity Mean for Art in the Digital Age?

We face a defining moment in which digital technologies can break down barriers to the creation and experience of art. Is this the end of authenticity?

By Xische Editorial, April 19, 2019

Source: Cube29/ Shutterstock

Source: Cube29/Shutterstock

Art, or the act of cultural creation, is an endeavour infused with memory. We create works in the present informed by our past experience, and often in honour of how that knowledge instructs the present day. Writing in the 1920s, the eminent German scholar and intellectual Walter Benjamin argued that “memory is not an instrument for surveying the past but its theatre. It is the medium of past experience, just as the earth is the medium in which dead cities lie buried.”

Engaging with memory, Benjamin argues, is a physical task. Yet the advent of mechanical innovation has reduced the labor of memory, and Benjamin grappled with the mechanisation of memory and its cultural impacts through much of his work. Over the last decade, Benjamin’s writings on the influence of mechanical innovation on the creation of culture have become central to debates at the intersection of digital technology and art.

We face a defining moment in which digital technologies can break down barriers to the creation and experience of art. The democratisation of art through digital advances is a boon for innovation, yet as with most significant advances in human history, the digitisation of art contains its own unique challenges and roadblocks that are only now being flushed out.

The tragic fire at the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris brings the debate into sharp focus. As the rebuilding process begins, questions swirl about the best approach for the monumental task. Given the international prestige of the building, there are ample digital renderings of the structure. The Notre Dame is even realistically depicted in the popular video game Assassin's Creed. Will the next iteration of the Notre Dame be as authentic as the original because of the role of digital technology in the rebuilding process? Should the structure be rebuilt or simply restored?

A rebuilt Notre Dame won’t reflect the texture, knowledge, and detail that the old structure highlighted. While we can create a replica, it is not the same as the original and it never can be regardless of the level of digital sophistication we accomplish. Do we lose something by relying on these digital remnants to rebuild? These questions echo similar conversations happening at cultural institutions around the world.

Since the 1980s, museums around the world have wrestled with the best ways to incorporate technology to improve the visitor experience and assist the work of curators. Some curators rejected the use of digital technology as a possible assault on the position of the museum as the custodian of culture, and argued that the new technology would detract from an authentic experience. For centuries, the role of the cultural institution was solely to preserve culture and memory rather than explore how it relates to the future.  But the future is now, thanks to our digital-infused, constantly connected lives.

The more people who can engage with art directly, the better society’s overall cultural output. Digital technology makes this form of demonstration in art possible. Consider virtual reality (VR), as one example.

Without leaving your city, VR can transport you through space and time. In conflict zones such as Syria and Iraq, invaluable ancient ruins can be preserved and explored through VR technology. Children across Africa and South Asia who previously had no ability to engage with museum quality materials can now be transported to the world’s best collections from their school class rooms. The power of this knowledge in so many new hands will breed innovation like the world has never seen before.

The question now is not if cultural institutions should embrace digital technology but how can they embrace the digital age in a manner that enhances the visitor experience, promotes knowledge, and encourages innovation? And the answer to this question is perhaps the most perplexing aspect of the current shift. The difficulty lies in the ownership of the digital systems used to advance the museum experience. Museums have, by and large, operated for the public good but the digital technologies being deployed to bring them into the current age are generally owned by private companies.

Digital technology allows for the mass reproduction of art on a scale never known in human history. During Benjamin’s time, the advent of photography was enabling a similar advancement and he was concerned that something intangible would be lost if images could be reproduced so easily. With the benefit of hindsight, we now see that the mass reproduction of art is not nearly as dangerous as Benjamin once thought. Thus, the crux for museums, as custodians of culture, is to ensure they are equipped for the developments digital technologies will present. Museums can be on the avant garde of the future. They no longer have to be confined to the past.