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Kirk Varnedoe, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Famed art historian and curator Kirk Varnedoe's lecture The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction was delivered on October 25, 1990 at MoMA. It inaugurated the controversial exhibition High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture, which was organized by Varnedoe, the then Director of the Department of Painting and Sculpture, and art critic Adam Gopnik.

Varnedoe uses German theorist Walter Benjamin’s essential 1936 essay as a starting point for his analysis of the relationship between modernism and popular imagery. Benjamin had written about the fate of art with a sense of urgency driven by the historical political crisis of his time (Hitler was in power), celebrating mechanical reproduction’s destruction of the regressive notions of genius and authenticity. Here, Varnedoe re-examines the debate to present ways to recover and reinvigorate notions of originality, authenticity, tradition, and individuality.

Displaying an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of art, Varnedoe draws on examples from across the Modernist movement to present popular culture as the shadowy twin of modernism. With scholarly and inspired insights, and an attention to minute details and inside jokes, Varnedoe demonstrates how the vast world of mechanically reproduced second hand imagery that surrounded the 20th century artist resulted in interpretations, appropriations and transformations that led to a new world of form.

In a self-reflexive conclusion, Varnedoe also addresses the potential role of museums and exhibitions as not relying on the support of ideas of tradition and the unique aura of art and, instead, providing a new kind of order and ambiguity and affirming the power of objects and their individual experiences.


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