An A to Z of Theory | Walter Benjamin: Art, Aura and Authenticity
In Theory, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, June 14, 2013 17:59 - 25 Comments
Perhaps Benjamin’s best-known work is ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. This short piece provides a general history of changes in art in the modern age. Benjamin’s insight here is that each human sensory perspective is not completely biological or natural. It is also historical. The ways people perceive change with social changes, or changes in ‘humanity’s entire mode of existence’.
In Marxist fashion, Benjamin sees the transformations of art as an effect of changes in the economic structure. Art is coming to resemble economic production, albeit at a delayed pace. The movement from contemplation to distraction is creating big changes in how people sense and perceive. Historically, works of art had an ‘aura’ – an appearance of magical or supernatural force arising from their uniqueness (similar to mana). The aura includes a sensory experience of distance between the reader and the work of art.
The aura has disappeared in the modern age because art has become reproducible. Think of the way a work of classic literature can be bought cheaply in paperback, or a painting bought as a poster. Think also of newer forms of art, such as TV shows and adverts. Then compare these to the experience of staring at an original work of art in a gallery, or visiting a unique historic building. This is the difference Benjamin is trying to capture.
The aura is an effect of a work of art being uniquely present in time and space. It is connected to the idea of authenticity. A reproduced artwork is never fully present. If there is no original, it is never fully present anywhere. Authenticity cannot be reproduced, and disappears when everything is reproduced. Benjamin thinks that even the original is depreciated, because it is no longer unique. Along with their authenticity, objects also lose their authority. The masses contribute to the loss of aura by seeking constantly to bring things closer. They create reproducible realities and hence destroy uniqueness. This is apparent, for instance, in the rise of statistics.
The traditional work of art is experienced mainly through distanced contemplation. In declining bourgeois society, this became an asocial stance. In contrast, modern cultural forms such as photographs, TV shows and film do not lend themselves to contemplation. They are imperative, challenging and agitating the viewer, putting up signposts.
Benjamin argues that distraction became an alternative to contemplation. Distraction is fundamentally social. It replaces the viewer’s thoughts by moving images, stopping the viewer from thinking. Benjamin criticises the usual account whereby true art is contemplated and the masses seek only distraction. For Benjamin, contemplation is a kind of domination by the author: the work of art absorbs the audience. In contrast, distraction involves the audience absorbing the work of art. Reception of art now normally happens in a state of distraction, especially in the case of film. ‘The public is an examiner, but an absent-minded one’.
This echoes contemporary discussions of how media exposure reduces attention spans and may even produce stimulus overload. Most often, this takes the form of right-wing concerns that people are losing the ability to pay attention or concentrate on tasks. But radical authors, too, usually analyse it in terms of a debilitating submersion and a loss of space and time to think.
The loss of aura seems to have both positive and negative effects for Benjamin. He sees the aura, authenticity, and uniqueness of works of art as fundamentally connected to their insertion in a tradition. The reproduced work of art is completely detached from the sphere of tradition. It loses the continuity of its presentation and appreciation.
Art was originally derived from ritual, and depended on it for its aura. The earliest works of art might have been items such as totem poles, cave paintings, and fertility dolls. (In One-Way Street, Benjamin provides a list of differences between art and ‘fetishes’, suggesting the latter are ‘documents’ of subject-matter). In the modern age, art is ‘liberated’ from its dependence on ritual. As a result, the experiences connected with ritual and tradition are lost. The autonomy of art is also lost.
Tradition and ritual have mainly negative meanings for Benjamin. But they could also be taken to connote the density of local knowledges, of particular lifeworlds, and of the uniqueness of each person and their personal world. In his works on flânerie and collecting, Baudrillard is melancholy about the impending loss of these personalised forms of ritual and tradition.
On the positive side, this loss of tradition brings the work of art into the distinct life-situation of the reader, viewer or listener. The work of art can be disconnected from its past uses and brought into new combinations by the reader. Think of memes as an example of this. Some memes take artistic images – such as the painting of Joseph Ducreux or a passage from Lord of the Rings – and recreate them endlessly, through different reconstructions. In his day, Benjamin saw film as having a similar effect on culture.
According to Benjamin, art is now gaining ‘entirely new functions’. The liberation of art from ritual frees it for connections to the practice of politics. Responses to art are also increasingly collective – as in audience responses to film – the individual reaction is produced or compounded by the reaction of the entire audience. Earlier artworks, even when exhibited in galleries, did not lead to an ‘organised’ mass response. (This difference is probably less relevant in the era of television).
Film feels as if it frees the viewer from the confining modern environment, by gestures such as speeding-up and close-ups. It expands the available images immensely. Benjamin argues that film meets the need which Dadaism tried to create by earlier, inadequate means. Dadaism is usually taken to have aimed to ridicule and portray as absurd the modern world, and to emphasise the role of unpredictability in creativity. Dadaist artists rearranged everyday and artistic objects and conventions to subvert dominant assumptions. They are a forerunner of subvertisers such as Adbusters and the Deterritorial Support Group. Benjamin believed that film – which, in this period, included slapstick comedy such as the work of Charlie Chaplin and montage-based works such as those of Eisenstein– played a similar role.
Benjamin also writes of a triumph of the tactile or actively lived appreciation of art over the optical or contemplative side. He makes the distinction in relation to architecture. A tourist contemplates a building, whereas a user appropriates it in a tactile way, living or working within it. Benjamin seems to be suggesting that art should be participatory and interactive, as in theatre of the oppressed. However, he also suggests that a tactile appreciation occurs, not consciously, but through habit. Even a distracted person can form habits. Hence, today’s art takes the form of the education or construction of habits. This dual process of destroying and renewing meanings is the flip-side of the crisis and renewal of humanity. For Benjamin, the positive aspect is inconceivable without the negative.
Reactionaries attempt to revive the old, ritual function of art. Film, for instance, is assigned the function of expressing supernatural and mythical phenomena. This view is central to critiques of special effects. Benjamin thinks this attempt is ultimately untenable. The viewer of films or photographs takes the position of the cameraman. This is a standpoint which cannot be mystified.
Films, TV and photography are also unusually prone to spectacle. They provide a scene which appears credible only from the exact angle at which they are shot. From any other angle, the visibility of props and cameras would render the image unbelievable. Only from the exact view of the camera is it credible. The equipment-free reality, appearing as credibly real, is paradoxically only the effect of extensive artifice. Yet it appears more equipment-free than, for instance, painting. This parallels the fate of immediate reality in a technological world. Works of art themselves are also recomposed from fragments. For instance, a traditional artist paints an entire scene. In contrast, a filmmaker cuts up and reassembles a film. Films also have dream-like characteristics, and allow the detailed analysis of each frame, allowing a fragmentary reproduction of (for instance) the act of walking.
Art has always been reproducible – for instance, early books could be copied by hand. Mechanical reproduction, however, is new. TV and radio provide images on tap, much as electricity and water are supplied. They can easily be switched on and off, starting and stopping the flow of images. In One-Way Street, Benjamin prefigures today’s concerns about information overload. He argues that children are now bombarded with printed letters even before they can read. The effect is that they can no longer experience the ‘archaic stillness of the book’, instead being overwhelmed by ‘locust swarms of print’ which ‘eclipse the sun’ of the intellect.
Benjamin also discusses the impact on actors of performing for a machine instead of a human audience. He suggests it is an uncomfortable experience in which the body is deprived of substance. There is a feeling of strangeness, similar to looking in a mirror, but with the mirror image separable and transportable. (The idea of the mirror is central to ego-formation in psychoanalysis, and the idea of an alienated double is widespread in fairy tales). The experience is of the capture of one’s ‘heart and soul’, not only one’s labour.
The aura of the actor, and of the character portrayed by the actor, vanishes because the camera is substituted for the audience. In place of the aura, film studios build up a cult of the star as a constructed image. This is not a true aura, but the ‘phony spell of a commodity’. What’s more, art is no longer semblance. It fuses with reality. Benjamin’s example here is that filmmakers will sometimes actually startle an actor, so as to get the startled reaction on film. There are also echoes here with the feminist critique of pornography.
How does this affect social life when – through CCTV, reality TV, Facebook, YouTube and home videos – most people are being turned into film actors? Does the public undergo this same desubstantiation, and lose its aura? Is this why people are increasingly constituted as ‘false selves’, identified with their Facebook profile, and increasingly desensitised to issues of privacy and creativity? And what happens when people take their models for living from soap operas, adverts, or porn? Perhaps everyone (in the mainstream at least), to an increasing degree, turn into commodities voluntarily, through media exhibitionism, or involuntarily, through surveillance – while also copying commodified ways of acting from the media. An analysis in this direction will be taken further by Virilio and Baudrillard. In Benjamin’s portrayal, it is as if cameras actually steal a part of our souls, casting this part into alienation.
However, Benjamin’s view is more optimistic than this extrapolation suggests. He also observes that, with expanding publication (and this is even more true in the age of the Internet), nearly everyone can publish if they want to. Hence the division between author and public disappears. It is simply a functional division – the author is whoever happens to be writing at a particular time. Any reader can become a writer. Hence, modern humans have a claim, perhaps a right, to be reproduced. Everyone can now claim to be the subject of culture, as in more recent theories of “a right to narrate”. According to Benjamin, the capitalist media, such as the film industry, seek to prevent such claims. They seek to supplant ‘illusion-promoting spectacles’ for mass participation.
This gives a different slant to phenomena such as YouTube, in which people reclaim the ability to represent (though not necessarily to be viewed). It also prefigures issues around intellectual property, as the right to narrate spreads into the reworking of media products, the creation of fanfiction and fan art, AMVs and computer game modifications.
But how does this positive power to represent oneself contradict or combine with the alienating force of mechanical capture? Is it possible, when in control of the images, to turn this capture into a means for autonomous sorcery? Or does it necessarily become inscribed in the Spectacle, as the lack of ‘authentic’ relations to others reproduces alienated social relations, mediated by the machine?
This text must be read alongside its epilogue, and other pieces on fascist aesthetics, to understand how Benjamin differentiates progressive and reactionary/fascistic uses of modern media. Not every use of modern technology is progressive. The text of ‘Work of Art…’ is intended to provide a theory of art which is useless to fascism and reactionaries, but useful to revolutionaries in the politics of art. There are continuities between phenomena Benjamin treats as progressive (massification, the claim to be represented, distraction, fragmentarity, reproducibility) and all forms of mass and new media. Yet only in certain circumstances do such phenomena produce a politicisation of art.
Humanity becoming a spectacle or contemplated object to itself, or subordinating itself to an aesthetic for an external gaze, is taken by Benjamin to be alienating, reactionary and fascistic. Hence, there seems to be a direct, political effect of technological changes, and a distorted, fascistic effect which occurs when this direct effect is truncated and contained. A Benjaminian reading might suggest that this fascistic ‘distortion’ has now become the normal form of the production and consumption of culture. The progressive force of new media has been thoroughly contained, as this particular appropriation has been normalised.
Perhaps this pattern of radicalisation followed by recuperation has even happened with each emergent technology – newspapers, novels, film, (pirate) radio, the Internet. Each time, the new medium has a progressive force, dehabituating people from expected relations, offering new channels for experimental activity, mediatised subcultures, and the spread of dissenting perspectives. Each time, corporations and states have gradually remoulded the mainstream use of the medium to commercial and repressive purposes, pulling back into conformity the line of flight which the new medium initiated. Each time, the new medium became an integral part of an entirely habituated reproduction of the present – as tabloids, mass fiction, blockbusters, commercial radio, Web 2.0. Each time, paradoxically, the new emergence has left the system stronger than it was before.
Benjamin also calls in this work for a ‘politicisation of art’. The politicising of art refers to the depiction of life at its most ephemeral. This is part of Benjamin’s broader project of the ‘redemption’ of the everyday through a small split which makes a world of difference. The object, detached from the fields of tradition and of conventional, operational use, can be recombined in new ways. Life is politicised in becoming a set of fragments which can be rearranged by an active user. This is Benjamin’s response to the aestheticisation of politics. Art is to be reconstructed as something to be used, recomposed, combined rhizomatically, as a montage. This style of art is radically counterposed to the integrity and wholeness of the artistic spectacle.
Benjamin might be wrong that originals have disappeared entirely. (Original artworks, historic buildings, first editions of books, even film stills and props retain immense power). But the culture people experience in everyday life is generally of a mass-produced type. Some is even simulated, with no original to refer to. In earlier times, even everyday objects, such as clothes and cutlery, would often be hand-made and unique.
Ritual is not necessarily reactionary. The communion of ritual practices may be necessary for the formation of non-massified social groups, as in Peterson’s account of activism as neo-sect. An example would be the use of puppets in protests. On the other hand, the ‘liberation’ of art from ritual may not free it for progressive politics. It may, instead, become a property of the society of the spectacle.
The change Benjamin saw was the growing propaganda or mobilisation potential of images. He saw this as positive because it lent itself to progressive propaganda, to revolutionary newspapers, pamphlets, placards and flyposters. Yet this propagandist function may be even more available to construct myths, especially when the means of cultural production are monopolised by the powerful. What’s more, the overwhelming pressure of constant imperatives from all-pervasive signs may create a world of generalised anxiety, and a death of private reflection.
The loss of distance between meaning and its deployment in immediate propaganda may produce a flattened world in which revolutionary possibilities become invisible. If the audience absorbs the work of art, but the audience is itself trapped in mythologies and alienated subjectivity, then the revolutionary power of art is truncated. The absorption of art becomes tautological, and the lines of flight available are correspondingly reduced. Authors sympathetic to Benjamin’s analysis might see in this a reproduction of ritual aspects of art.
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