Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The aura of authenticity

The excitement of recognizing an original work of art has a distinct punch. Not only have you struck a personal connection ("That's on my refrigerator magnet!"; "I used that in my thesis!"), but its very reproducibility makes it all the more exciting. You are face-to-face with a celebrity.

Cultural theorist Walter Benjamin argued that the more an original is reproduced, the more its "aura" fades; the less powerful it becomes. (According to Benjamin, aura is a correlate of "authenticity," or originality.) With reproduction now at our fingertips, is the aura all but extinct?

This New Yorker illustration by Rose Blake creates a space for considering Benjamin's theory:

Rose Blake, Sketchbook, The New Yorker, April 14, 2014, p. 59

A museum visitor stands before a towering wall of artwork, the very piece above him displayed on his iPad. It seems absurd, even reprehensible, but it makes perfect sense: By pulling up a reproduction of the original, he's reified the glory of its originality. ("Is this it? ...Yes!") Now consider the position between himself and the artwork: Why remain distant from a work of art when you can hold a version of it in your hands?

Benjamin believed that distance was an affect of power: the more mystifying a work of art, the more powerless the viewer. Reproduction, therefore, is good: it dilutes mystery, it dilutes the "aura."

Aura is not sublimity. A work of art can still carry us away or ground us, even with hand-held technology (as long as the visitor looks up). What is more, today museums are much more conscious of visitor experience. This can have an inverse effect on the quality of exhibitions, but that's a discussion for another time. Concerns have radically shifted since Benjamin's seminal essay of 1936: visitors are a priority as much as artwork (and artists). If a viewer strikes a relationship with a work of art, the museum has succeeded. This isn't to say that museums always prefer proximity over distance. Illustrations like Blake's remind us of this.

I'm not pro-iPad; in fact I cringe at our reliance on hand-held technologies to guide us through experiences. But now that they've been adopted, I can't help but consider how they can also enhance experiences. Some art can be elusive, and a museum can't fill in every gap. Rose Blake's museum visitor, for all we know, might be Googling that painting on the upper right to find out more about it. He will walk away now, perhaps having discovered that even modern art can make sense after all.

1 comment:

  1. I want to thank my smart friend Niki Eaton for clarifying Benjamin for me:

    "Benjamin was a Marxist and saw the aura's decline as a positive shift, as he saw aura/authenticity as a mystifying/distancing affect of power. He saw both the print and the photograph as potentially revolutionary media (for example, he was a big fan of August Sander). That said, I very much agree with your argument that he was at least partially wrong, and that mass reproduction can actually reify the power of an image."