Witness kitsch. Witness high rise 'atrocities' posturing as architecture, totally devoid of narrative and sensuality: rather like the human corpse without sensual and mental functions. Mechanical reproduction has taken the craftsmanship out of artwork. No doubt remains: art is dead, and technology has killed it.
Or has it? Can we possibly decry the impact mechanical reproduction has had upon art by liberating it from meaning? Meaning, so intertwined with a craftsman's thought and intention, has been blithely shunted aside by the technology of mechanical production.
If you say that art is not devoid of meaning today, you need to look no further than Damien Hirst's diamond covered skull which has taken meaning (defined as having an interpretable intended signification) and turned it into a cute conceptual toy.
At first, the Futurists and Constructivists romanticised the machines of reproduction. Machines had positive, warlike characteristics of brute force, virility and sensuality. But the glittering machines of war, like soldiers themselves, have long since been rusted-out and broken down and assumed innocuous civilian functions.
However, Walter Benjamin remained optimistic about 'art in the age of mechanical reproduction' and thought that the photographic and cinematic image would end romanticised narratives. As a Jew who died fleeing the Nazis, he hoped for a world with less ideology. He would be pleased that, in the post-modern age we have attained art 'free from ideology', being cleansed and purified by mechanical means, via electronic enema.
Benjamin was prophetic, as Warhol, who said, 'I think everybody should be a machine', made mechanically reproduced art the stylistic norm for the next half a century. He did this by taking reproduced commercial products, labelling them art, declaring 'art means nothing' at the top of his lungs and finding it hilarious, (probably because he was on LSD at the time).
And last we are presented with the internet, a new era in the reproduction of art with a potentiality, perhaps Pan-modern, for the great synthesis of everything within a locale, if not within a narrative. Is there a possibility of pan-modernist art within the internet?
We see warnings from Gibson and Dick of the cybernetic future of art: digitized stars, androids given synthetic memories, confusing our sense of what is human. This confusion comes partly from the indirectness of the referent and the hidden hand of the artist; from image capture, to commercialization, to cyberspace, we are thrice removed from from the sensual experience of the artist creating artwork, and so from original meaning.
One problem facing artists drawing from the cybernetic glut of information is that they find it difficult to narrow down possible meanings and convey them in the short time for which they hold the viewers attention, and thus they must rely either on clichés overburdened with meaning or on the shock value of scary randomness. The question remains: how can art convey meaning in the postmodern age?
Meaning is bound within the artistic process. To know what the artist meant, we must be able to re-experience how they created the artwork. This is because the artist's process of production and distribution communicates the intention of the work itself, as much as the meaning of a found object placed in a gallery differs from a soda can found in the street.
For example, a photograph does not always have an elaborate artistic process. The intended effect upon the audience, therefore, cannot be interpreted clearly and its meaning is confusedly subjective, as described by Roland Barthes in Camera Lucinda.
I was impressed by a piece I saw at the Gargosian's Homage to Ballard the other day, a constructed space called 'Preface to The 2004 Edition' by Mike Nelson. It was a simulation of an old hotel hallway. I could imagine the artist creating this piece, and though envisioning him scraping the walls by hand and putting it together from refuse, I could establish his intent by envisioning his process, and found his positive valuation of the subject readily conveyed by the sensuality in the first hand experience of a piece which, smelling of cigarettes and requiring me to open old doors, was tactile and olfactory.
With reference to pan-modernism, perhaps in such an artwork there is a return to the past by reconstituting it. There is memory and human thought echoing off of Nelson's piece, like what Benjamin once called the 'aura'. Perhaps this is the attraction to the bodily specimens, such as taxidermy and bloody undergarments, found in works by Emin and Hirst: We want to experience history first hand, wonder at an artistic process, and understand the artist's feeling on the subject.
Technology's critics and champions agree as to its impact upon art, and that the outcome has thus far been a post-modern commerciality, sterility and meaninglessness. We will create meaningful art when we find a way to combine technology's productive potential with a new sensuality in art and artistic process.