Douglas Crimp: The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism

So firstly I find Douglas Crimp to be an digestible writer that I can follow. It is not laborious to read his text. The fascinating thing about On The Museum’s Ruins is that it has three contemporary resonances to me and my practice.

  1. As a continuum from Walter Benjamin’s thoughts on ‘aura’.
  2. In the displacement of traditional aura in contemporary performance art and sculpture (an area of declared interest of mine).
  3. The role of the museum.

Crimp defines the shift from modernism saying “Postmodernism is about art’s dispersal, its plurality,” (Crimp, 1993, p.97). Something I considered in reviewing Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Moving into a more spatial and time conscious mentality means that there is a democratisation of the viewers experience being his or her own, meaning “this fantasy of freedom can be maintained because every work of art is held to be absolutely unique and original.” (Crimp, 1993, p.98).

I previously alluded to how Benjamin’s thoughts on ‘aura’ was actually more postmodern in its theory. Benjamin included photography, albeit selectively in having an aura. Crimp picks up on this thread much more succinctly saying “It is not something a handmade work has that a mechanically made work does not have.” (Crimp, 1993, p.101). What he says depreciates the aura is the overuse of mechanical reproduction. Conversely my question here is; If an individuals first encounter with a work is due to mechanical reproduction, is that a bad thing?

This is hard to be definitive about because many more will know of the Mona Lisa (the example Crimp uses) by reputation and via mechanical reproduction than will have visited the Louvre. Without the reproduction and reputation, would more people care about its ‘aura’ or relevance?

Crimp addresses this by distinguishing the aura he is referring to is a historical one, saying “The withering away of the aura, the disassociation of the work from the fabric of tradition, is an inevitable outcome of mechanical reproduction.” (Crimp, 1993, p.102). I agree with this, I believe some works can maintain a sense of mystique or reverie without history, if their premise is altered.

Perhaps here Crimp inadvertently brings my interest in constructivism and minimal sculpture together. While the constructivists were from the modernist era, the process that underlines their work is based on experimentation. A kinaesthetic exercise. The process was paramount to the artist and I wonder if my curiosity to this period is due to a lack of acknowledgment of the development of craft in postmodern work. 

James Turrell and Richard Serra are examples of “…the industrially manufactured, repetitively structured works of minimal sculptors,” (Crimp, 1993, p.104). The potential ‘aura’ of minimal sculpture comes out of an interaction between the spectator and the work. It is a physical act. Together with visual interaction, kinaesthetic activity is how I learn. In short I don’t listen to receive.

Finally it makes me consider the way people receive information. I have been both engaged and bored attending exhibitions or reading artist statements. The displacement of artwork to a white cube is just as important a consideration as its reproducibility.

There is more to say about the role of museums, but for now I want to limit the relevance of Crimp on how it relates to my practice. I see this more suited to the role of Sustaining your Practice.


Crimp, D. (1993). On the Museums Ruins. Massachusetts: MIT Press.