On tracing Benjamin’s aura todayNovember 2016
One of the most influential concepts introduced by Walter Benjamin in his seminal essay The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility is that of the aura. In charting the various impacts that the advent of mass technological reproducibility had on art, its effect, and the cultural constructs around it, Benjamin coins the word to refer to the special, or rarefied, place in culture that art holds as a result of a variety of factors. The aura, as Benjamin understands it, seems to be dependent not necessarily on the content or aesthetic characteristics of the art object itself. (Although, of course, such a distinction between an artwork’s “aesthetic content” and its existence as a physical and historical object would itself, in Benjamin’s view, constitute an auratic position.) Rather, the aura is constructed and solidified by external factors, to do namely with the ways art is disseminated and received, and its relationship to specific ideas of function, usefulness and value—both before and after the advent of technological reproducibility. Famously, Benjamin posits that it is precisely this aura that disappears as a result of the mass reproduction of art. But is it true to say that art has lost any auratic dimension in our time? We will posit that the aura, rather than being destroyed by technological reproducibility, has transformed with it and, in direct analogue with the accelerated means of reproducing art, has been split and reproduced in order to cope with the ways of engaging with art that have emerged in recent times.
What is this aura and how can we speak of it? For Benjamin, the artwork’s aura is brought about primarily by the uniqueness of the physical object itself. As he notes, in previous times, in order to be able to see a work of art, one had to be able to physically travel to the place where the object was located. He writes that ‘[i]n even the most perfect reproduction, one thing is lacking: the here and now of the work of art’.1 The fact that art objects existed and could be viewed only in their physical locations created a sense of awe that could only be felt there. Moreover, art at this stage was intimately tied with the physical space of its exhibition and the function it would fulfil therein—what Benjamin refers to as ritual. Paintings, sculptures, music, and all manners of art would be created with specific spaces and occasions in mind—the altar in a cathedral, the ballroom of a royal palace, a coronation mass, etc. But not all the factors that solidify the aura have to do with the object itself or its presence before an observer in a specific physical location. As Benjamin writes elsewhere, referring to Goethe, ‘[t]he beautiful is neither the veil nor the veiled object but rather the object in its veil’.2
This description of the aura, independent of the object’s own physical characteristics, harkens back to Marx’s writings on the fetishism of the commodity. For Marx, this reification of the object, its ‘mystical character’ which makes it into into a ‘thing which transcends sensuousness’, has no real links to its form. Rather, it is imbued with a value and an otherness that is entirely dependent on external constructs. As Marx puts it, ‘it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.’3 This same sense of something metaphysical and almost mystical about the aura pervades Benjamin’s writing on the subject. This is best typified when Benjamin refers to the concept of tradition. The physical presence of the object and the feeling of being before the authentic work of art carry with them the weight of the object’s passage through time and history. He writes that ‘[t]he authenticity of a thing is the quintessence of all that is transmissible in it from its origin on, ranging from its physical duration to the historical testimony relating to it.’4 For Benjamin, it is here where the cultural notion of “tradition” can arise and effect its weight. He writes that ‘what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object, the weight it derives from tradition.’5
This notion of tradition is, for Benjamin, an integral part of the auratic dimension of art, and it is intimately linked with the concept of authenticity and uniqueness. He writes, ‘the uniqueness of the work of art is identical to its embeddedness in the context of tradition.’6 However, similarly to the way that in Marx’s analysis the notions of use and exchange value are constructed in a manner that is external to the specificities of the objects themselves, Benjamin acknowledges the externally constructed status of the notion of tradition, one that is ‘thoroughly alive and extremely changeable.’ But it is precisely this mixture of historicity, tradition, and awe at uniqueness that grants the aura one of its most potent qualities, what Benjamin describes as ‘a strange tissue of space and time: the unique apparition of distance, however near it may be.’7 This sense of distance or remoteness, entirely independent of the physical distance between the subject and the artwork, opens up a separation between the work of art and the everyday existence of the people. Here, art exists in what appears to be a different realm to ours, never to enter our own fully.
So how does this aura survive in the age of technological reproducibility (and especially in the age of digital reproduction)? Benjamin writes that the technology of reproduction ‘substitutes a mass existence for a unique existence.’8 In this move from the existence of a single object to be viewed in a specific place to a culture of endless reproductions to be viewed anywhere at any time, Benjamin affirms that the value placed in the authenticity of an artwork withers, and with it the aura it carried. It is true that, more than ever, we can access more or less any work of art instantaneously and from the comfort of our own homes. Yet, paradoxically, we see in mass culture an ever-intensifying importance placed on the notion of the original object. There is a sense in which one cannot be said to have really seen a painting or a sculpture unless one has actually been in the presence of the original object. Since the playing field has now been normalized and we live in a time where simply everyone is likely to have seen the Mona Lisa in reproductions, it ironically becomes that much more awe-inspiring to see the real thing. Of course, one must not forget that these cultural attitudes arise and are effected in response to certain needs. Artistic institutions rely almost entirely on this aura being preserved, in an age where there would otherwise likely not be any convincing reason to pay for the privilege of seeing these works of art in the flesh. Similarly, at a time when seemingly all recorded music is available for free on the internet, musicians and bands come to rely on preserving the aura around the live performance. We queue for hours to see a Leonardo, to hear the Rolling Stones, not because seeing or hearing them in this way will necessarily reveal anything new to us, but to make them real in our experience. The object itself might well be exactly the same as any reproduction, but the auratic character arises in the promise of a unique experience of the object. An experience pervaded with our own subjectivity. The object no longer effects its uniqueness on us, rather, we attempt to imbue the object with the uniqueness of our individual experience of it.
Benjamin speaks of a new kind of function that arises in art as the old ‘parasitic subservience to ritual’ is eliminated, namely, the artwork that has been created with its very reproducibility in mind. As Benjamin writes, ‘the work reproduced becomes the reproduction of a work designed for reproducibility.’9 Nowhere is this shift in intention as marked as in the emergence of film, which was already for Benjamin, writing in 1936, hugely important. It is clear that it makes no sense to speak of an ‘original’ copy of a film—that is simply not the way the format works. While there may in fact be an original roll of film that was used in the filming of any given film (though this may be increasingly untrue in the age of digital technologies), there is no auratic interest in it. To see a reproduction of the film is to see the film itself. As Alexander R. Galloway points out, ‘we have moved from a condition in which singular machines produce proliferations of images, into a condition in which multitudes of machines produce singular images.’10 Benjamin could perhaps have not foreseen the prominence in mass culture that film would attain, and its ubiquity in the everyday lives of people whose experience would otherwise be devoid of any contact with artistic expression. As such, we know that film now fulfils a wide variety of functions in our society, which are not always limited to the artistic, and that is something that Benjamin could and did foresee, when he wrote:
‘Just as the work of art in prehistoric times, through the exclusive emphasis placed on its cult value, became first and foremost an instrument of magic which only later came to be recognized as a work of art, so today, through the exclusive emphasis placed on its exhibition value, the work of art becomes a construct […] with quite new functions. Among these, the one we are conscious of––the artistic function––may subsequently be seen as incidental.’11
And this, for Benjamin, points to a crucial new functioning of art in the wake of the aura’s destruction—no longer the ritualistic, but the political. Of course, we scarcely need to point out the ways in which films and the film industry as a whole operate as a massive and self-renewing ideological apparatus, to invoke Althusser’s terminology. In actuality, we seem to be living in a historical moment where people are keenly aware of film’s functioning in this way—the current ubiquity of “meta” forms of filmmaking, both in the commercial side of film (Hollywood, advertising, etc.) and the artistic (arthouse cinema, video art, etc.) is enough to awaken us to this fact. This is key to understanding the new auratic dimension we find in dealing with film today. Early film seemed to put its artifice front and center, while paradoxically engendering in the audience the feeling of heightened reality. (One is reminded of the widely disputed anecdote of the first showing of the Lumière brothers’ film L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat, where the audience is said to have been struck with terror at seeing a train coming towards them on the screen.) Hyper-stylized histrionic mannerisms, make up and set design, the lack of color and sound—these are the things that make early cinema appear so affected and dated for us today. And yet, these films relied on this apparent dislocation from observable reality (the world is not, after all, in black and white) to establish what Vlada Petric calls its ‘ontological authenticity’. He describes this as ‘the illusionistic as well as factual denotation of motion picture photography, giving the viewer a strong feeling that the objects and events actually existed as such at the time when the image was exposed.’12
In this sense, we can see an inverse turn in modern filmmaking. Films have become increasingly naturalistic in their style, even in Hollywood productions. We see a move towards more natural styles of acting, towards a higher prevalence of handheld camerawork that puts the viewer “in the scene”, as it were, and towards writing and dialogue that feel more conversational and intimate. Film, with the use of these devices, is signalling an effort to assert itself as ontologically authentic, and yet, we are more aware than ever of the inauthenticity of what we are viewing. And this is where the aura arises yet again, in our willingness to suspend disbelief for the duration of the film, to forget that we know who these actors are in real life, that we can almost see the film’s crew just outside the frame of the film. Christopher Yates, referencing Dufrenne, describes this as reduction, ‘the mental operation of placing transcendent, transphenomenal aspects of experience […] in “brackets”’. As Yates points out, ‘in the aesthetic experience of art […] the spectator grants such a reduction spontaneously, almost as a reflex.’13 Even when the illusion becomes apparent, we try to hold on to the notion that we really are viewing something real. Think about how strange it becomes to see “behind-the-scenes” footage of a film, especially a familiar one. We see a familiar scene being played out from a different vantage point, the actors looking unnatural due to the heavy makeup they are wearing. While on the screen we might see Neo flying impossibly and impressively through the air, in the behind-the-scenes footage we see the uncomfortable truth of Keanu Reeves being awkwardly flung by wires and rigs in front of a green screen.
So, we see, the aura is active here in two separate realms. In the subjective realm, it effects a bracketing of reality. And in the cultural realm, it perpetuates the notion of uniqueness—no longer that of the object, but of the individual’s experience of it. Perhaps in its last instance the preservation of this aura becomes no longer about the object viewed, but about placing oneself in view of the object, in a world in which we increasingly feel observed but not seen. As Stanley Cavell writes:
‘How do movies reproduce the world magically? Not by literally presenting us with the world, but by permitting us to view it unseen. […] In viewing films, the sense of invisibility is an expression of modern privacy or anonymity. It is as though the world's projection explains our forms of unknownness and our inability to know. The explanation is not so much that the world is passing us by, as that we are displaced from our natural habitation within it, placed at a distance from it. The screen overcomes our fixed distance; it makes displacement appear as our natural condition.’14
And this is, perhaps, the true auratic dimension of art today. We go to midnight screenings of new films, we wait anxiously for our favorite band’s new album so we can listen to it as soon as it becomes available, we “binge watch” entire seasons of shows on Netflix. We know that the same experience is available to everyone around us, but we hold on to the idea that there is something special in being one of the first people to experience said thing. We stand in front of the Mona Lisa and feel as if we are now part of its history. And thus, rather than revealing something to us, or offering us a unique aesthetic experience, art in its aura now becomes a canvas onto which we attempt to inscribe something of ourselves, to see our own fleeting existence as becoming, however briefly, part of something that appears before us as indelible.