Many artists proffer a seemingly legitimate reason for being anxious about viewing copies: their works are supposed to be seen under very specific conditions in a gallery space. While this desire for “proper” installation complies with the art world’s mystificatory economy of exclusivity, which still uses as its ultimate model the unique cult image in its sacred precinct, it is of course understandable that artists would want their work to be seen under the right conditions. However, it is a mistake to think that these must be the only conditions under which a work can ever be seen. In an age in which everyone is used to seeing moving images in incredibly degraded forms online, viewers have a great capacity for “correcting” these conditions in their mind, for imagining the “proper” presentation. Seeing shaky illegal copy of the latest blockbuster on a laptop does not really damage the film; if anything, knowing that it must be so much better when seen under optimal conditions can only increase its aura.
The dialectic of de- and re-auratization is thus rather more complex than Benjamin allowed. As tempting as it may be to try to match the fervor with which he posited “right” and “wrong” ways of dealing with film—allowing it to unfold or curtailing its ontological promise, respectively—there is no reason to assume that the near future will bring us anything other than a hybrid culture in which cult value and exhibition value develop in an increasingly complex interplay. A culture, in other words, that resembles the present, but not without a little difference that is worth fighting for: an emancipation of the viewing copy, resulting in a different distribution circuit alongside that of limited editions. In such an economy, the availability of works would be less dependent on personal connections and clout, and while one should not have exaggerated expectations of art becoming “popular,” let alone—Benjamin-style—of the public’s reception becoming more “progressive,” such a development would certainly increase access to certain pieces for those who are interested, which cannot be a bad thing.