Borrowed Sources

Thoughts on Walter Benjamin, Appropriation, Technology and Landscape

Walter Benjamin

Published in 1936, Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is the first commentary on the ways in which technology changes the conditions of art. Benjamin’s tightly written essay continues to generate debate and has spawn thousands of critical interpretations. In he Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Benjamin outlines his concept of the aura of a work of art. The aura for Benjamin is a perceptual relationship with a work of art which allows the viewer to experience the unique history of a given work of art, and by extension, the viewer’s place in tradition. Benjamin’s associates the aura with looking, “as the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be. If, while resting on a summer afternoon, you follow with your eyes a mountain range on the horizon or a branch, which casts its shadow over you, you experience the aura of those mountains, of that branch.”[1] For Benjamin, the aura is situated in a specific object, time or place, as well as present within the viewer in the contemplation of the work.

Benjamin believed that with the separation of art from ritual, first experienced in the Renaissance, the function of art changed—art becomes a product designed for exhibition. For Benjamin, the Renaissance period substituted a cult of beauty for a lost ritual tradition of art where a “secular cult of beauty…clearly showed that ritualistic basis in its decline and the first deep crisis which befell it.”[2] The cult of beauty mentioned by Benjamin is prominently on display in contemporary art museums and can be seen in the elaborate viewing experience presented at large exhibitions, aided by dramatic lighting we experience a simulation of the ritual associated with the previous religious tradition. Benjamin also discusses how the reproduction of works of art in posters, magazines and books changes how we experience art and how technology supports our desire “to bring things “closer” spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction. Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction.” [3]

  • Borrowed Source: Sailboat Detail, Joseph Mallord William Turner, English, 1775-1851), Van Tromp, Going About to Please His Masters, 1839, Getty Museum.
    Sailboat Detail, Joseph Mallord William Turner, English, 1775-1851), Van Tromp, Going About to Please His Masters, 1839, Getty Museum.

Appropriation and Technology

Benjamin argues that the accelerated mode of mechanical reproduction changes the way that art is experienced. Benjamin believes that mechanical reproduction “emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.”[4] An authentic work of art for Benjamin is dependent on its function in ritual, housed in a specific location which forms a relationship characterized by distance and provides the context for generating meaning. The withering of aura through reproduction diminishes the quasi-religious or cult status of art, which opens the door to the new forms and uses of art. Benjamin discusses in Work of Art, a group of early twentieth century artists, the Berlin Dadaists, who intentionally performed “a relentless destruction of the aura of their creations.”[5] Here Benjamin refers to the art practice known as appropriation which means to take over another work of art. The Berlin Dadaists took reproductions from newspapers and magazines and used them as source material for their own works. The Berlin Dadaists along with Marcel Duchamp were the first to reintroduce the longstanding practice of appropriation into modern art.

After initially restricting photography in galleries, museums are now encouraging photography and smart phones use to aid the viewer’s experience with art. No clear guidelines exist across museums as restrictions on the use of cameras and mobile devices within galleries remains unevenly applied, still the trend is for the transformational aspects of technology to continue to reshape the museum experience. The use of technology to bring the experience of viewing art closer is in full evidence, including gallery tours guided by smart phones. In galleries where photography is permitted, visitors appear to photograph as much as they look at painting, and viewer’s appropriations support Benjamin’s prophesy, “the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction.” [6] Whether intentional, museums encourage the appropriation of works of art via smart phone photography and sharing across social media. What was once a revolutionary art practice in the hands of the Berlin Dadaists and post modern artists is now common place.



Several recent studies have investigated the viewing patterns of visitors at museums and have concluded that visitors spend between 2 and 32 seconds viewing paintings and reading wall text. A Metropolitan Museum of Art study found that the median time viewers spend with a work of art is 17 seconds.[7] Studies conducted at the Louvre found that visitors spent only 15 seconds viewing Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, the most popular painting in the history of the planet.[8] As Benjamin’s example of the aura suggests, time spent viewing any subject does not fully quantify our experience of viewing, as even brief periods of time spent looking may led to lasting impressions. Nevertheless, the small amount of time spent viewing exhibitions of works of art has led museums to support further research into the viewing patterns of visitors, including using eye tracking equipment and software to provide empirical evidence to better understand their how visitor experience art on display.[9]  Possible questions for future studies could include does smart phone technology draw people closer to the works of art? And does the use of smartphones and social media sharing encourage a closer viewing of works of art? Unanswered are the questions of why so little time is spent with works of art and if we are witnessing aspects of withering of the aura which Benjamin detailed nearly 75 years ago.

The series, Borrowed Sources employs the art practice of appropriation to comment on the process of looking and viewing art within a museum context. While walking through galleries, painting details catch our eyes and merge with other works on display—small details jump to attention, while others fall away. Using a lens designed to shift the focal point to one small area of the image and rendering the majority of the surface space out of focus, Borrowed Sources references how the eye scans works of art while strolling through museum galleries.[11]  Borrowed Sources considers the process of interpreting works of art through the processes of looking and photographing them. Sixteenth through nineteenth century landscape paintings created prior to the introduction of mass photography were selected for their association with the appropriation of visual space propelled by the invention of linear perspective, a function taken up by photography in the nineteenth century.




Landscape is a term bound to the notion of space. The English term landscape originated in the German landschaft, where it first appeared. The German term referred to an area of “shaped land, a cluster of temporary dwellings and more permanent houses, the antithesis of the wilderness surrounding it”[10]. The term, at this time, was without any particular aesthetic or artistic or visual connotation.[12] The Dutch in the 16th century used the term landshap to refer to a tract of land. With the invention of linear perspective, landscape became a subject suitable for paintings.  By the end of sixteenth century after Dutch painters began to produce paintings featuring land, landship was used to refer to a painting of a place, as a “perceived as a scope or expanse.”[13] The word was introduced into English to refer to a painting and over time, the English term would be used by geographers, in a neutral and scientific sense, and by artists to refer to a particular kind of painting. Landscape provided new ways of evaluating the tracts of land as well as a ways of perceiving the world. Within these connotations, landscape took on aesthetic and emotional content.[14] Today the term is largely connected with the terms place and view, and often refers to scenery. Landscape now contains its early associations with tracts of land, yet refers as well to representation of particular tracts of land favored by artists in their paintings and later photographers in their photographs. The term landscape in the visual arts is connected broadly to the term nature, and today, landscape is associated with beautiful scenery or with picturesque largely rural scenes.



Landscape painting grew from the enlargement of scientific knowledge and is linked directly to the Renaissance invention of perspective drawing. Surveying, mapping and the exploration and colonization of new lands, each expanding at this same time, are directly linked to the concept of landscape. Denis Cosgrove defines landscape as “the external world mediated through human subjective experience.”[15] Landscape in the broadest sense became a new way of seeing and structuring the world. At the center of this new visual space was the individual. Linear perspective became the visual representation of a rationalist conception of the world. Surveying, mapping, and new mathematical formulations of space were used to measure individual estates, and later the entire world. Linear perspective became the guarantor of visual realism in the landscape painting, and the tool by which the artist represents and appropriates the external world.



Perspective painting was crucial to the development of landscape painting and a key factor in the powering the desire for photography.[16] Linear perspective, and in the same way that photography has come to dominate our visual world, assumed authority and control of space. Linear perspective provided the certainty of the reproduction of nature into art, underlining the power and authority of the work of art and the creativity and authority of the individual artist.[17] This too, is a role photography was happy to assume. As Susan Sontag states, “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge — and, therefore, like power.” [18]Landscape painters would come to provide breathtaking illusions of depth and controlled entry points into the picture plane. Immediately after the invention of photography, these examples would inform the new medium of photography. Early photographers, many who first trained as painters, employed the same conventions of composition to their photographic appropriations of the landscape, and in landscapes of great beauty, in the forests of Europe and in Yosemite Valley, photographers worked side by side with the landscape painters to depict the external world. With linear perspective, as Cosgrove suggests, “Realist representation of three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface through linear perspective directs the external world towards the individual located outside that space. It gives the eye absolute mastery over space.”[19] By the 17th century, landscape paintings were often commissioned by wealth landowners, and depicted a visual space doubly owned through possession of realist painting of his land. The realistic landscape painting became a prized and expensive object,  and like the landscape itself, a property,  which affirmed the control and appropriation of the external world.

By extension, linear perspective allows the viewer to appropriate the visual space of the painting, a role that in the nineteenth century, the new medium of photography assumed. Borrowed Sources investigates how the eye, aided by linear perspective, travels through painted landscapes and by extension the external world. Borrowed Sources concerns the appropriation of visual space predefined by landscape painters working prior to the twentieth century. By treating landscape paintings as landscapes from the external world, Borrowed Sources traces the source of our concept of landscape in common details found paintings, as well as searches for ideas expressed by Walter Benjamin in The Works of Art. In particular, Borrowed Sources tests Benjamin’s association of the aura of work of art with looking and examines the desire to use technology to close the distance and get closer to the work of art through its reproduction.  Borrows Sources looks to those painted details, those mountain ranges, those horizons, those trees and twigs and branches, which carries the eye through painted landscapes and engages the viewer in a dialogue with the past.


David Arnold, July 2014.


[1] Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, II.
[2] Ibid, IV.
[3] Ibid, III.
[4 Ibid, XIV.
[5] Ibid, IV.
[6] Ibid, III.
[7] Jeffrey K. Smith and Lisa F. Smith, Spending Time on Art, Empirical Studies of the Arts, Volume 19, No. 2, 2001.
[8] Amelia Gentleman, “Smile Please,” The Guardian, 10.18.2004.
[9] Museum and the Web 2013, Capturing Visitors’ Gazes: Three Eye Tracking Studies in Museums, 4.2013.
[10] Lucy Lippard, The Lure of the Local, p. 8.
[11] Technical details: All images were captured using a Sony A-900 full frame digital camera equipped with a LensBaby Composer and a Sweet 35 Optic set at F2.8. The ISO setting varied  between 1500 and 6400 ISO. All images were edited with Adobe Lightroom 5.0 and Adobe Photoshop 2014.
[12] Denis Cosgrove, “Prospect, Perspective and the Evolution of the Landscape Idea,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series, Vol. 10, No. 1 (1985), p. 56.
[13] Lucy Lippard, The Lure of the Local, p. 8.
[14] Christopher Ely, This Meager Nature, p. 8-9.
[15] Quoted in Lucy Lippard, The Lure of the Local, p 7-8
[16] Denis Cosgrove, “Prospect, Perspective and the Evolution of the Landscape Idea,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series, Vol. 10, No. 1 (1985), p. 48
[17] Peter Galassi, Before Photography, p. 11-31.
[18] Susan Sontag, On Photography, p. 4.
[19] Denis Cosgrove, “Prospect, Perspective and the Evolution of the Landscape Idea,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series, Vol. 10, No. 1 (1985), p. 52.

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