(1) Walter Benjamin discusses the weakening of the ritual aura of works of art in "The Work of Art in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction," in Illuminations (edited by Hannah Arendt, New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1968). Benjamin did not fully perceive how the "original" Monet or Van Gogh would keep their aura and become objects of pilgrimage, and attract to blockbuster shows huge audiences who already had available reproductions of the originals.

(2) Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, translated by Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), and The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays,translated by William Lovitt (New York: Harper and Row, 1977).

Commodity Art

Museumized artworks such as paintings Monet or Van Gogh are both strengthened and weakened in their special aura today (1). Iconic originals become distant shrines to be visited reverently, while their reproductions become commodities, sold as stimulators of feelings (when, as Heidegger says, the art business becomes a service providing feelings on demand) (2). In these circumstances art can have little transformative power because the demand of the consumer assumes control of the artwork, which is leveled down to meet the desire to repeat a familiar feeling.

It is true that reproductions of art works do not need to function this way -- one could have, for example, a full-size reproduction of a Rothko painting that might challenge one in daily life just as might the original in Houston, but it is more likely one would have a photograph or a poster of the painting, much smaller and confined. The encounter would be safely defined and limited. The art work would be under control, stimulating standardized responses, fitting into one's color scheme. And, large or small, the reproduction would also be serving as a token of one's taste and status.

A sign in a mall, and the living room in a show house.

So far Arakawa and Gins' art and architecture have successfully avoided such commodification. Yet this depends on their works being full size and immersive. It's not then clear whether the wide distribution of their work is possible. They have escaped the art market into the world of building, but there the cost factors rise so steeply that it is difficult for their work to have the kind of widespread effect they hope for. Trying to make their work have a wider effect, they share the modernist dream of designing total environments, as in the "making dying illegal" project.

Would partial interventions and samples inserted into existing spaces just become commodities, the latest art fad, a style of decorating, something to be admired as signifying status and avant-garde positioning, and so be insulated from challenging people's lives?

Arakawa and Gins have managed to avoid commodification of their total architectural surrounds because those structures still have the status of unique experiments. There is no way that someone living in their Mitaka lofts would not be distinguished as someone living in an experiment with an avant-garde spirit. The lofts are too distinctive and rare to become commodities. They still function like singular artworks.

But the danger of commodification would be much greater for small interventions. These would be multiple and probably not individually designed for each place. If one could pick up an Arakawa and Gins carpet or mirror or piece of furniture at a store, there would be a delicate balance between it becoming something representing your avant-garde taste, or becoming an investment, and it actually functioning to challenge and modify the way your body forms and inhabits space.