Thinking about Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, I found myself thinking about the concept of beauty and how we define what is beautiful. The excerpt from Paul Valéry’s book Pièces sur LʼArt (Valéry, 1931), with which Benjamin opens his essay, also reflects on this:
But the amazing growth of our techniques, the adaptability and precision they have attained, the ideas and habits they are creating, make it a certainty that profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the Beautiful. (Valéry, 1931)
I’ve also been thinking about the idea of the monstrous-feminine, and found myself considering how the idea of human beauty has changed as technologies and techniques of body modification have advanced.
Diving into the internet wormhole I found Orlan and the Work of Art in the Age of Hyper-mechanical Organic Reproduction (Akman, 2006):
The French performance artist Orlan has risen to an extraordinary position in the contemporary art world. Her motto: “art is a dirty job, but someone has to do it” is given incredible meaning in the surgeries she has carried out on her body to make art. In these artistic performances or “Carnal Art,” she transforms her body and her face in an enactment of a critique of the beauty concept which she feels is embedded in male power and its construction of female-subjects in modern Western societies. In order to better understand Orlan’s artistic philosophy and her artistic production I wish to discuss concepts from both the Western and the Eastern intellectual worlds. (Akman, 2006)
Akman’s article was published in the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, a journal based on the works of theorist and philosopher Jean Baudrillard, who wrote about how progress in science and technology effects social change. Akman references several of Baudrillard’s writings in his article, linking them to Orlan’s art. From The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures (Baudrillard, 2003):
The fashion model’s body is no longer an object of desire, but a functional object, a forum of signs in which fashion and the erotic are mingled. It is no longer a synthesis of gestures, even if fashion photography puts all its artistry into re-creating gesture and naturalness by a process of simulation. It is no longer strictly speaking, a body, but a shape. (Baudrillard 2003, p133)
Orlan share’s the manifesto for her Carnal Art on her website. She descrbes her art as “self-portraiture in the classical sense, but realised through the possibility of technology.” (Orlan, 2014)
Akman describes Orlan’s art as anti-totalitarian, in that it rejects the authority of a totalitarian, patriarchal society over the female body. He goes on to link Orlan’s art through this anti-totalitarianism to the work of other theorists including Deleuze and Foucault.And Akman speculates that we have progressed from Benjamin’s age of mechanical reproduction and are now living in an age of hyper-mechanical organic reproduction. Orlan produces art using both mechanical and digital reproduction techniques, but if the original and the reproduction inhabit the same space (that of Orlan’s body) and can be said to be the same object, how does this affect Benjamin’s concept of authenticity and the aura of the original? The history of the reproduction is now one and the same as the history of the original, the authenticity of the reproduction has been maintained, its aura is intact. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, if the concepts of authenticity and originality are based on a quality of uniqueness, then what is more unique than a human body? (Even one unmodified by technology.)
Yet Orlan’s art, despite maintaining its authenticity, can also be thought of as democratic; everyone has a body and anyone can choose to modify it. Even if the expensive operations undertaken by Orlan are out of reach, piercing, tattooing and other forms of body modification are possible for most. This concept of authentic but democratic art appears to contradict the tenets of Benjamin’s work, which theorizes that the democratization of art almost certainly foreshadows a loss of authenticity.
Some might see Orlan’s self-modification as an example of the monstrous-feminine. Instead I see it as a reclamation of the female form; its progression from the subject of art to an object of art, an artifact in its own right.
Akman, K., (2006) Orlan and the Work of Art in the Age of Hyper-mechanical Organic Reproduction, International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, 3 (1)
Baudrillard, J., (2003) The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures, London: SAGE
Benjamin, W., (1936) The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, London: Penguin
Jean Baudrillard – Biography, The European Graduate School, Available from: http://egs.edu/faculty/jean-baudrillard [Accessed on 5 March 2016]
Orlan, (2014) “Carnal Art” Manifesto, Orlan, Available from: http://www.orlan.eu/texts/ [Accessed on 5 March 2016]
Valéry, P., (1931) Pièces sur l’art, Paris: Gallimard