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Vol. 14, No. 3, 2015
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Robert J. Lewis
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the aura of art in the age of



Anthony Merino, renowned independent art critic, has published over 70 reviews. He is a ceramic artist and has lectured internationally on contemporary ceramics.

Just as water, gas and electricity are brought into our houses from far off
to satisfy our needs in response to minimal effort,
so we shall be supplied with visual or auditory images,
which will appear and disappear at he simple movement of the hand, hardly more than a sign.
Paul Valery

Walter Benjamin included this quote at the beginning of his seminal essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” He argues that Valery’s prediction was inevitable stating that, “Just as lithography virtually implied the illustrated newspaper, so did photography foreshadow the sound film.” Although Benjamin states that the pace of technology increases over time -- it seems impossible he would have been able to imagine the world we occupy. Now with using just a few keystrokes on an affordable computer and Wi-Fi connection -- I can pull up any image: no matter how sacred or profane, from every corner of the world. Even if he could not have conceived the ease with which people can access images, Valery predicted our current culture. So -- the assumptions Benjamin appropriated are dead on accurate. As uncannily prophetic his assumptions are -- his predictions are off. This comes down to a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature.

Benjamin states that being able to reproduce images substantially diminishes the authenticity of an object. He coins the word “aura” to describe that element of how an object is perceived that reproducibility culls from art. He states that, “By making many reproductions it (mechanical production) substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence.”

It is this statement in which Benjamin flubs his argument. He states that, “mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.” But mass produced objects can be significantly tied to ritual. Every object ever made -- be it a piece of fruit picked from a tree, crafted or manufactured, engages in two essential stages of its existence: it is produced and disseminated. Benjamin’s absolution is right -- that mass reproduction purges the uniqueness of the object. But -- in an age of mechanical reproduction “aura” gets invested into objects when they are disseminated not made.

Consider this -- each year American manufacturer Rawlings makes as many as 2.4 million baseballs a year. Approximately 174,960 of these are used in a Major League baseball game in a single year. On August 7, 2007, in the fifth inning of a baseball game, Washington Nationals pitcher Mike Bacsik threw a pitch that was hit by Barry Bonds and went over the fence. It was the 756th time in his career that Bonds had hit a home run. This exceeded the standing record held by Hank Aaron.

An absurd link of coincidences had to fall into place in order for the ball that took part in the event to happen. If the factory worker in Costa Rica had put a different shipping label on the box, it would have been worthless. If on any day previous to August 7th on which Bonds hit a home run, he had decided to sit out, the ball would not be worthless, but its value would be severely decreased. If one of the foul balls hit earlier and the game stayed in play or if one of the fair balls hit drifted out of play in the four innings leading up to the event -- the ball would have been worthless. If the pitcher decided to walk Bonds, the ball would have been worthless. A million tumblers and pins had to align perfectly in order for that pedestrian sphere to become the ball that broke the record. This infuses the object with a something that mimics aura -- the common becomes singular. This ball was sold at auction for $753,467.00.

The difference is not the presence or absence of aura -- it is just a matter of when the object gets invested with it. The traditional art object gets its aura during its production while the reproduced object gets its aura during its distribution into society. One of the central planks to Benjamin’s argument is that works of art “are received and valued on different planes.” They have both a cult value and an exhibition value. He establishes a link between accessibility and the two. The ability to mechanically reproduce images was an important factor in the value of the baseball. Millions of people watched the event as it happened.

Benjamin endows markets with far more power that they actually have. A foundation of his entire argument is that the human appetite for ‘aura’ was imposed. “The work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” supposes that markets define appetites, not that human appetites define markets. Look at it using contemporary metaphor. Which contention seems more plausible? Post-pubescent young men enjoy violent gory video games because Saga makes violent video games or Saga makes violent video games because post-pubescent young men want to see violent gory images? Perhaps these two statements can be poles on a continuum. Reality seems more likely to nest nearer the second assertion.

Benjamin makes the argument that, “the foremost task of art has always been the creation of a demand which could be fully satisfied only later.” He states that the social function of film in society was the exact effect that the Dadaists wanted to create. He describes this intention stating, “What they intended and achieved was a relentless destruction of the aura of their creations, which they branded a as reproductions with the very means of production.”

A fundamental paradox of Dadaism slips Benjamin’s notice. Many considerations feed into aura. One of the most powerful of theses is the idea of personal genius. Consider that forgeries done by famous artists go for a higher price than the original artists -- even though the primary quality measure of the work is how much it looked like someone else did it. This happens because the genius of the person who makes the object becomes part of the object.

The curious element about the myth of authorship is one of the most effective strategies to increase the aura of genius is to do a work anonymously. Duchamp’s “The Fountain” is an excellent case study. At the turn of the twentieth century there could be no doubt there were thousands of acts of graffiti on toilets. All of which, except one, were discarded without ceremony from our cultural history. The singular difference between Duchamp’s “The Fountain” and all the other vandalized porcelain was the vandal. Because of that, a replica of his work is now on display at The Tate Gallery, London, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, and featured in almost every comprehensive Modern art textbook. So in the act of refusing authorship of the work, Duchamp asserts his Midas like power to invest value into pedestrian objects.

Linking the problems with applying Benjamin’s theories in practice is a miscalculation of the power of the market or social conventions. Benjamin asserts that markets or social structures can construct desires. They cannot. What markets can do, and do a very good job of -- is perverting existing human impulses. We all need to eat. But we do not need to eat slabs of bacon and processed cheese product sandwiched between two deep fried chicken breasts. Ultimately -- markets only have as much power as individual people are willing to cede to them.

By Anthony Merino:
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Thank you very much for the insight. Even Benjamin can be wrong sometimes.







































































































Arts & Opinion, a bi-monthly, is archived in the Library and Archives Canada.
ISSN 1718-2034


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