Painting is an art form. So are music, prose, and dance. No one argues otherwise. But photography, since its very inception, has had to justify itself as a legitimate art form.
One argument against photography was the case that it had no aura. Here, aura was defined as a "unique position in time and space." You only have one of a painting or one of a carved sculpture. There is only one original of the Mona Lisa. There is only one original David by Michelangelo.
The Case for Context
This argument for aura is not contemporaneous. Think about it: sure, there’s only one original Mona Lisa, but through technology, we have all been able to "see" the Mona Lisa through digital and reproduced images.
Similarly, with music or performance, it may have been the case that a piece was performed for a particular audience at a particular time. But with audio players and video recorders, a performance can be experienced over and over on many different devices.
Sure, there is always some sort of "original," but that’s almost a moot point. If I’ve experienced the thing, I’ve experienced the thing. Does the original even matter? Perhaps it does or doesn’t, but that’s a much more prolonged discussion.
Critic John Berger instead argues that a work of art is special precisely because it can be replicated. Now, instead of going to an art gallery and experiencing a work in a particular context of said gallery, you can see it anywhere.
Imagine someone who lives in an urban environment viewing an image of a natural landscape on their computer in their home. Now, imagine a different someone who lives in the country viewing the same landscape. The dissimilar experiences and the different contexts each person is viewing the work in change the work for each viewer.
Theoretical what-ifs aside, let’s try this as an exercise. I’d like for you to view the image below and then view your surroundings. How do you feel about the two together, the image and the space you are viewing it in?
Consider bookmarking this page and coming back to it when you are somewhere else. If you are out and about right now, consider viewing the above image when you are at home. Or, if you are at home, consider viewing it next time you are out somewhere.
This is precisely the unarguable case against the idea of a singular artwork or original. That is to say, being able to have viewership of a work by different people in different contexts is exactly what makes a thing special. This is vastly exacerbated by digital technology and smartphones: all of a sudden, anyone can view anything anywhere.
Historically, context was ingrained into the work itself. With consideration to European art, most works were commissioned either by religious institutions or by the wealthy elite. In either case, the works were painted or sculpted to be viewed within a singular context. A painting in a room was painted to be viewed in that room and nowhere else. No one saw it unless they went to that one room in that one building. Now, you can see almost anything anywhere; that changes how that thing is viewed.