As an Architecture student at Georgia Tech I studied a lot of history, art history, theory and art theory. Some of you engineering students who mistakenly signed up for an easy “Art History” A know what I’m talking about. The Penultimate Essay of all Essays on art in the modern age is Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. This essay is short and dense, and like all academic writings, after multiple readings and hours of discussion it finally dawns on you that theme of the essay isn’t all that complicated. Be patient, this will get around to football, eventually.
For all you Benjamin scholars out there, please feel free to rip my interpretation to shreds.
Back in the day, before “mechanical reproduction” (and we can know add chemical and digital to that), art object where pretty much just that, objects. There was one of them. No copies, no post cards, no photo graphs. The only way you could see it was to actually go some place and see it for yourself. In the case of religious art, which for the majority of human history most art was religious, you not only had to go some place, but you had to be there at the right time, like at the festival of the virgin marry. On that day the priest would actually take the statue out and parade it around town. And that was it man, that was your one chance to see it that year. Miss it and you’re done.
This inaccessibility, gave the work and “aura” in Benjamin’s terms. Works of art where known better for their ancillary characteristics, such as who owned it, as opposed to their inherent aesthetic s. In Benjamin’s understanding this created a cult around the object, a cult that was manipulated by a select few.
Mechanical Reproduction freed art from the cult of aura. Not only did it become possible for everyone to see images of any old statue of marry any old time they wished, but new forms of art, such as photography and film had no original. A copy of a Charlie Chaplin film viewed on the set where it was filmed was no more authentic than a copy shown in Berlin movie house. Benjamin interpreted this as a watershed moment for art. For the first time ever art was accessible to everyone. It spoke to the masses first. Objects would no longer be judge through the lens of their ancillary characteristics. Instead they would be judged through the lens of the reproductions of them.
At first reading Benjamin sounds like a typical socialist intellectual. Power to the People, all hale the machine! That kind of thing, but his feelings where really more ambiguous about his discovery. Mechanical reproduction did open up art to more people, and gave more people an opportunity to engage it on there terms, but the loss of aura also meant the loss of something. The cult which developed around an object magnified its power to coalesce individuals into a community, by creating a unique moment in space and time that only those dedicated to the cult would experience. It was a shared experience that existed outside the realm of normal everyday life. One could not be interrupted by a phone call or the pizza man at the door. You where there, and it was special. After the invention of mechanical reproduction things changed. The value of being there was undermined by the convenience of being anywhere.
Sport has dragged behind much of modern culture in this way. Despite the advent of live broadcasts, until recently, being there was the authentic way of experiencing a sporting event. Once it was done it was gone. Even into the mid 90’s most sporting events where not broadcast on television. The recent expansion of television, cable, and internet broadcasting means that a person can stay home, see more football games, and see the action clearer than some one in the stadium.
This boom in mechanical reproduction of sporting events live has shifted the understanding of sport from local, cult, experience, into a disincorporated consumption of sporting data. Through this dissemination the average fan has become more knowledgeable than ever, but at the cost of being less engaged with the actual games themselves, which is emotional and visceral in a manner that cannot be reproduced by mechanical means.
In college football this loss, or at least greatly decreased importance, of the visceral connection to an actual game has created a need for a new way of interpreting the results of a football game. It’s not surprising then that with an increase in the number of telecast games, and more exposure to more teams for the typical fan, that there has been an ever increasing demand for a college football playoff system. A play-off system would be a narrative device that would replace the visceral meaning of a live football game with intellectual meaning. A playoff system provides a common touch stone to which all fifty plus games played every week can be compared, but a playoff system would also accelerate the loss of the cult value of attending a live football game as the value of the game would not be defined immediately by the emotional impact of being there, but at a later, and in terms of its relationship to the playoff system, which can only be assessed in relation to all the other games that were played that week.
The end result would be a college football game more like pro-football in which the live games exist as a stage set for a day long television event and week long analysis. It would still be exciting to attend football games, but in a different way. Instead of being apart of a cult like act of unison, which is limited in scope, the excitement would be derived from the exhibitionism of being a part of a televised event, to be there and know that millions are watching you. From a competitive point of view, the games might as well played in an empty field house with no fans, and the results posted on line.