Benjamin and the aura

I’ve just read ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ by Walter Benjamin and won’t feel like I have done a Digital Arts MA at all if I don’t write a post about it. It says a lot of very interesting things, which have prescience today. I suppose that’s why people quote it all the time. I’m also experimentally putting a drawing on this post because lots of my posts are really long and have no pictures, which looks boring.

Cartoon drawing of Walter Benjamin

The transformation of the superstructure, which takes place far more slowly than that of the substructure, has taken more than half a century to manifest in all areas of culture the change in the conditions of production.” p212

In other words, when crazy technological advances happen, it takes a while for culture to catch up.

Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element; its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. … The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity … The whole sphere of authenticity is outside technical — and, of course, not only technical — reproducibility. Confronted with its manual reprodcution, which was usually branded as a forgery, the original preserved all its authority; not so vis a vis technical reproduction … technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself. Above all, it enables the original to meet the beholder halfway, be it in the form of a photograph or a phonograph record. The cathedral leaves its locale to be received in the studio of a lover of art; the choral production, performed in an auditorium or in the open air, resounds in the drawing room. … One might subsume the eliminiated element in the term ‘aura’ and go on to say: that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art. One might generalise by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition.

Here Benjamin talks about the way people having to make a pilgrimage to see a work of art created exclusivity. Benjamin idealistically thought this exclusivity was done for because of reproduction. I think this exclusivity is now created by other things, such as theory. Most people don’t understand it or are alienated or cowed by the language. Some peeople even seem to think art is better if they don’t understand it. The aura seems to be attached to places, particular galleries, too. I’m inclined to think it’s a natural expression of human nature to attach unnecessary auras to things.

The manner in which human sense perception is organised, the medium in which it is accomplished, is determined not only by nature but by historical circumstances as well. The fifth century, with its great shifts of population, saw the birth of the late Roman art industry and the Vienna Genesis, and there developed not only an art different from that of antiquity but also a new kind of perception.

I find this idea very interesting indeed. I think we’re undergoing a similar process now. A new kind of perception is emerging from the swarm of information generated by our own technological changes. I’m not talking about anything too offbeat or mystical here. I’m referring more to the way many people tend to hand their new phones to their children so they can figure out how they work. People over a certain age just don’t get it.

Lev Manovich implies as much in the last two paragraphs of this post: From a flat world to an inverted world.

I think Manovich is quite right in saying that Benjamin isn’t all that relevant to many of the finer points of current changes in, for example, After Effects. It’s nice to have an older precursor though.

Getting back to Benjamin though, he thought the aura meant that art was ritualised. The pilgrimage to see art was a ritual. This ritualisation was on its last legs, said Benjamin. How exciting. Art will now be about new and incredible things, as explained below.

… for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints ; to ask for the ‘authentic’ ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of beintg based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics. … This is comaparable to the situation of the work of art in pre-historic times when, by the absolute emphasis on its cult value (Benjamin thought cave paintings were made for the benefit of spirits, not men) it was, first and foremost, an instrumemnt of magic. Only later did it come to be recognised as a work of art. In the same way today, by the absolute emphasis on its exhbition value the work of art becomes a creation with entirely new functions, among which we are the one we are conscious of, the artistic function, later may be recognised as incidental .That much is certain; today photography and the film are the most serviceable exemplifications of this new function. … Earlier much futile thought had been devoted to the question of whether photography is an art. The primary question – whether the very invention of photography had not transformed the entire nature of art – was not raised.

I think this is another thing that’s happening again now. I think the internet is in the process of changing art. The borders of what we can call art are changing again. We’ll soon be left with new functions of culture, like the rapidly growing field of data visualisation. It’s funny applying that thought to Manovich’s comments. When listening to those college professors in London, Benjamin (or at least his proponents) becomes the establishment. Hardly surprising, really.

It’s also funny that later on Benjamin seems to be supporting Manovich’s comments.

For the tasks which face the human apparatus of perception at the turning points of history cannot be solved by optical means, that is, by contemplation alone. They are mastered gradually by habit, under the guidance of tactile appropriation.

The professors have been trying to solve today’s problems ‘by contemplation alone’.

You might ask why this is relevant to my project. It’s not directly. One thing that has arisen from this project is an interest in the theory of digital art and specifically interactivity. I’m becoming quite enthusiastic in digging further in to it. I want to to get these thoughts out while they’re there.

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