Re-Printerview: Steve Grasse of Art in the Age

The following interview appears at Printeresting courtesy of the Mid America Print Council. I was invited to contribute the interview to their MAPC Journal, Volume 17, Nos. 3 & 4, On Democracy and Print. It was originally published in January and full PDF versions of both the mailer and the regular edition are available online for FREE.

Benjamin’s Ghost: An Interview with Steve Grasse of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction by Jason Urban

For better or worse, our notions of democracy and capitalism are often intertwined. Both place value on the importance of individual freedom and the power of choice. Both celebrate one person’s ability to make a difference regardless of class or status. Citizens are consumers but they are also entrepreneurs; they have the right to vote with a ballot… and with their wallet.

Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (AITA) is a Philadelphia-based retail, brick and mortar store, gallery, and brand that sell a range of micro-produced products, from prints and t-shirts to soaps and alcohol. There is an emphasis on limited edition objects coupled with an obsession for their history. As their name implies, they use Walter Benjamin’s famous essay, Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, as a point of departure. From a printmaking perspective, Benjamin’s text is a rare example of pertinent required reading for printmakers. It seemed worth investigating this twenty-first century, commercial interpretation of the much-discussed document.

The following is series of questions posed to AITA owner Steve Grasse and his responses:

JU: Does Art in the Age recognize any distinction between art and design or between art and fashion?

SG: In our context, “art” is a way of life… it is a lifestyle. Anything that fits into that lifestyle is featured. It goes way beyond fashion… it goes into what you eat, drink, read, smoke, etc. The art that you do everyday… living well. Living morally, ethically, is an art form unto itself. This is what we strive for.

JU: In Benjamin’s essay, which was written in 1935, he refers to an artwork’s authenticity as its “aura” and laments the loss of this aura through reproduction. Do you share this glass-half-empty view or do you see an upside to the multiple?

SG: Yes, I agree with Benjamin regarding the loss of aura. This is why the brand’s focus is on returning to a simpler time of micro-production and craft. We apply the “loss of aura” to people’s overall lifestyles… AITA is a reaction against the Walmartization of the world. Cheap shit from China is killing us. This is why we make soap, preserves, and small batch organically certified liquor… There is an art to living. If you live in a McMansion and spend your days at a strip mall buying cheap shit from China, dude, you have lost your fucking aura…


JU: Benjamin also states, “mechanical reproduction of art changes the reaction of the masses toward art.” How does Art in the Age define “the masses” and in what way, if any, is it affecting its reaction to art?

SG: Essentially, we are agreeing with Benjamin… mechanical reproduction isn’t the culprit. MASS REPRODUCTION is the culprit. Our aim is to restore the “aura” of everyday life through everyday objects. There is an art to growing organic produce. There is an art to the way things were done before the world went mad on hedge funds and cheap credit.

JU: One more quote from Benjamin… reproduction creates a situation where “instead of being based on ritual, [art] begins to be based on another practice – politics.” Does Art in the Age have a political agenda?

SG: I wouldn’t say that AITA has a political agenda… it is more of a lifestyle agenda… or even a spiritual agenda. I am firmly convinced that the world is going to hell in a hand basket. And those with the basic skills… the craftsmen are going to be the ones who survive. AITA is a vision of that future. The purpose is to celebrate people who actually make things. And to connect the dots between today’s artists and the craftsmen of yore. This is why we have partnered with people like the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the community supported agriculture (CSA) group Greensgrow, to name a few.

JU: With museum stores playing an ever more important role in the museum’s economic life and more small retailers selling “fine art” art objects, is the gallery/boutique hybrid the future of art venues?

SG: To me, it is merely a space that we have rented. I ask myself, what are all the things I can do in that space that I can have fun with, that bring my concept to life… and help me pay the rent. If I just do a gallery, I might fail because that is a tough business. If I just sell products, I am not living up to my mission… the idea to me was to create a space that I personally would want to spend time in…. I am not sure if it is the future or not… Most stores are so focused on the bottom line that I bet they wouldn’t “get” why the gallery makes sense… that is because most stores have no fucking “aura”!!!!

JU: While Benjamin’s essay is obviously the source of much inspiration for Art in the Age, in many ways Warhol’s “cult of personality” and the merging of art and life seem equally influential. Would you agree and to what extent do you see art as an extension of lifestyle?

SG: AITA, as a brand, is totally a lifestyle… but not in a Warhol way. Not at all. I see Warhol as a “cult of personality”… where the personality becomes the brand or product. AITA has a totally different vibe. What we/I have done that is very Warhol is the Arcadia Project. What we have done with AITA is almost a reaction against the Warhol “pop will eat itself” ethos…

JU: Some of your t-shirts carry the tag “Art in the Age of Limited Edition.” Only a few years ago, the notion of a limited edition t-shirt didn’t exist. Can you talk a little about this phenomenon?

SG: It goes back to  “aura”… the more something is reproduced, the more it loses its aura, don’t you think? How much can you recreate something before it loses it power?

JU: What kind of relationship does Art in the Age have with its artists… is it a collaborator, a facilitator/patron, an agent?

SG: Pretty much all of the above… except agent. We provide income by buying their work. Give positive exposure for their work and provide a space to show their work. They get a lot out of the arrangement, so do we.  Artists like to work with us because we pay fairly and we let them do their work.

JU: How important is the artist and the artist’s hand in the work? Do you credit digital technology with a resurgent interest in handmade objects?

SG: I credit the impending doom of global collapse with the resurgent interest in handmade objects… Again, I think the world is going to hell in a hand basket… What has been true for our entire lives is now collapsing… People want something real, something they can believe in. They sense the end is near. The fear is real. Yes, the internet makes it easier to access what people are doing all over. And people can work remotely (for example, I am writing to you from my farm in New Hampshire).

JU: What is the number one deciding factor in choosing artists to work with at Art in the Age? Do you find artists and then decide on a project, or do you have projects in mind and then decide which artists might work well with a given framework?

SG: A little bit of both……

JU: As a proudly Philadelphia-based endeavor, can you speak a little to the role the city’s history plays in your projects? Why is Philadelphia the right place for Art in the Age?

SG: Philadelphia was the birthplace of the American industrial revolution. There are vast swaths of the city that are industrial ghost lands from the 19th century. It is awesome. It makes a world of sense that a new kind of thinking would be born here… where it all began in the first place. I think that people have forgotten their history… I see a role in educating… I feel it is important. I am very earnest about this. History is a key regaining what has been lost. Plus, it is cool as shit.

JU: Can a somewhat exclusive shop/brand (in terms of price and/or cultural cache) like Art in the Age speak to the general public?

SG: I think as the world continues to change, meaning as it gets crazier out there, our values become less radical and a more “general” public will discover us. To go after the “general” public would be a mistake. It is interesting, the spirit that we just came out with ART IN THE AGE ROOT… has a very broad appeal… which is really wild since it is organically certified and therefore expensive. I guess everybody can relate to the “art” of tasty booze… for instance, my 70 year-old dad loves ROOT… but I don’t think he’ll be wearing one of our shirts any time soon or coming to one of our gallery shows. But he is totally buying into the ethics of the brand at large… which goes back to my point of it being a lifestyle and movement.

The AITA brand is “inspired” by our interpretation of the Walter Benjamin essay. We have taken our interpretation of what the essay is saying and applied it to an overall lifestyle philosophy… creating our own unique ideology.

JU: What would Walter Benjamin make of Art in the Age?

SG: I think he would dig it. It is not like we are just exploiting his name to build a brand. To us, it is a lifestyle, a movement and a calling…

Thanks to Mid America Print Council President Charles Beneke, MAPC Journal Co-editors Mary Hood & Erik Waterkotte, AITA’s Julie Ahn & Laura Price, and AITA artist Robin McDowell. Photo credits: Jon Kolby.

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4 Responses to “Re-Printerview: Steve Grasse of Art in the Age”

  1. Ben says:

    benjamin would be disgusted by you. you actually misread the entire essay. you are using benjamin to promote the retention of aura through an expensive and class-status signifying brand, limiting reproduction to increase market value, essentially producing value through denying art to the masses. your version of an apolitical lifestyle-conscious elite fits neatly into late capitalism, but it is a far cry from anything that walter benjamin would ever support. further, you are borrowing his cache to establish your brand as hip and aware. essentially, you are making che guevara t-shirts for snobs.

  2. Che says:

    I LOVE YOUR STORE? CAN YOU SELL ME SUSTAINABILITY AND EFFETE VALUES? THANKKS HUN> BIG KISSES>

  3. AK says:

    I swear to god nobody involved with this article has read the essay in question.

    The “aura” is for art objects, and descends from their initial connection to ritual and worship. Aura has to do with uniqueness, distance, and ritual/religious/cult value. The stuff of day-to-day life – say, soap or liquor – is entirely outside the realm of Benjamin’s conversation, because it never held an aura to begin with.

    The decline of aura is also not something that can be reversed. It is a decline that is specifically tied to changes in the relationship between art and viewer, as brought about by technology. The aura of art decreases in general, even for the singular art object, as cult value falls and new modes of artistic appreciation rise – see Benjamin’s discussion of the doctrine of l’art pour l’art.

    Making fancy soap with a classy graphic design team does not imbue anything with “aura.” This is because lifestyle-as-art is a postmodern concept that has nothing to due with the premodern ritual art objects that Benjamin describes. Art is distant, unique, and permanent.

    What I’m saying is that this is more embarrassing hipster appropriation, where fragmentary and neutered concepts are attached to oneself like so many bits of flair.

    Embarrassing.

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