February 19, 2010

On Reading Auras

As you can guess from the mentions of Sherrie Levine, I've been studying the issues around copying and reproducing and originality and authorship. And whenever you do that, Walter Benjamin comes up, specifically his concept of aura.

Basically, it's what an original work of art has that a reproduction doesn't. Except when it does. It's what declines or disappears in the process of mechanical reproduction--especially in the cinematic process, which interested Benjamin greatly--but then it comes back sometimes. Somehow.

Just in case quoting or arguing Benjamin at length is tedious or pretentious to the Twitterized reader, I'm putting a few quotes and sources after the jump, for my own reference later. They are:

Sherrie Levine
John Perrault
Samuel Weber
Grant Wythoff
Miriam Brantu Hansen

First and easily the most fun, is artist/writer John Perrault's discussion last month of conservation, replicas, and the location of an artwork's aura. Come for the Doritos and Gabos, stay for the parrots and Beuyses. [artsjournal.com/artopia]

Constance Lewallen's JCA interview with Sherrie Levine, which I linked to the other day, includes a bit about aura:

Lewallen: They are very elegant. The beautiful object has always been an aspect of your work. It's what separates you from a lot of other artists with similar concerns. The beauty of the object draws you in, on an aesthetic level, which is, I imagine, your intent.

Levine: I am interested in making a work that has as much aura as its reference. For me the tension between the reference and the new work doesn't really exist unless the new work has an auratic presence of its own. Otherwise, it just becomes a copy, which is not that interesting.

Lewallen: "Aura" in the sense that Walter Benjamin used the term.

Levine: Yes.

Lewallen: Paradoxically, he said that work loses its aura because of duplication . . .

Levine: Right (laughter).

Lewallen: And what you're doing is duplicating objects in a way that they will have an aura, not the same one as the referent, but their own, Sherrie Levine aura?

Levine: Right.

Lewallen: You're turning Benjamin's theory in on itself. A lot of your work has the effect of taking ideas one step further than one would expect.

Levine: To create a conundrum.

Interesting/complicating, the conflation of beauty and elegance with aura.

Wythoff is a media theory grad student with a tech-heavy blog, Medium Cool. But his exploration on the modulations and implications of aura in Benjamin's Artwork essay is unusually cogent and relatively accessible.

The takeaway is that aura is neither inherent in an object nor destroyed through reproduction; it's created [?], maybe it's contingent, on the subject, the space/time, and the process of perception. Thus, even when it's supposedly gone, as in a reproduction, it can be constituted by/for the viewer.

There's a fascinating political aspect to Wythoff's argument; he notes that Benjamin was trying to define aura in the Artwork essay as something that was unattainable by the National Socialist apparatus, something unexploitable for political control. The masses' continued access to aura was crucial:

But, at the other end of the spectrum, I don't think it's possible to say that Benjamin's investment in a revolutionary aura lies solely in the fact of technology's mass scale. Benjamin does cite a "quantitative shift between the two poles" of production and reception, a sort of democratization of aesthetic production. In section 13 he writes: "Thus, the distinction between author and public is about to lose its axiomatic character. The difference becomes functional. At any moment, the reader is ready to become a writer. As an expert--which he has had to become in any case in a highly specialized work process, even if only in some minor capacity--the reader gains access to authorship"
It's kind of interesting how this idea of democratizing production, turning readers/consumers into experts by turning them into authors/producers, resonates with Enzo Mari's goals for autoprogettazione. Which wasn't DIY furniture, but instilling an awareness in people about the scale, power, and function of mass production and consumption.

Anyway, Wythoff pointed me to Samuel Weber, whose expanded 1992 lecture, "Art, Aura, and Media in the Work of Walter Benjamin," can be read almost in its entirety in his 1996 compilation, Mass mediauras. Wythoff gets deep and specific on Benjamin's German text, and I confess, I think it's kind of awesome. Reading stuff like this is an odd intellectual rush. It's like skiing: I don't do it enough anymore to be really good, but it feels great careening through it, slightly out of control.

Two of Weber's arguments that stick out: he finds Benjamin uses the same German word, aufnehmen, for both the "reception" of an original artwork's aura by the subject/viewer and for the "taking of" a shot in the production of a film. Which seems like it would have significant implications on the standard, English reading of aura as something that's inevitably lost through reproduction. In fact, the production of reproduction is intertwined with the perception of aura.

Then there's this, after the filming and editing are done, and all the copies are distributed for consumption:

The cinematic cult of personality imparts an aura of individuality to a product which 'takes place' in many places at once, in multiple here-and-nows, and which therefore cannot be said to have any 'original' occurrence.

But here the obvious objection must be considered. If it is true that such simultaneous taking-place is unthinkable for the prototypical works of plastic art Benjamin has in mind in introducing the notion of 'aura,' it is far less obvious just how the 'reproducibility' of photography or films is different from that of a piece of music or a work of literature, in which the here-and-now of the aura seems to be entirely compatible with the proliferation of its material embodiments (books, performances, scores, etc.). It is in reflecting upon the peculiar way in which what Benjamin calls the 'mass' 'takes up' what it seeks to 'bring closer' that the singular configuration of aura, image, and mass movement in the Age of Reproducibility begins to emerge. [p90]

There's another bit which I'm still working on, about Zerstreuung, which is typically translated as absentminded or distracted, but which Weber calls dispersion [it's related to the English word, strewn]. It's corollary is Sammlung, or collection, which is, coincidentally, the same term used to describe an accumulation of auratic art objects.

Uh-oh, just followed the other link from Wythoff's essay, to Miriam Brantu Hansen's paper in Critical Inquiry, which I may have to buy, based on the abstract alone. The theosophists surprised me, but you just knew there had to be hashish involved somewhere, right?

Walter Benjamin's first comment on the concept of aura can be found in an unpublished report on one of his hashish experiments, dated March 1930: "Everything I said on the subject [the nature of aura] was directed polemically against the theosophists, whose inexperience and ignorance I find highly repugnant.... First, genuine aura appears in all things, not just in certain kinds of things, as people imagine." This assertion contrasts sharply with the common understanding of Benjamin's aura as a primarily aesthetic category--as shorthand for the particular qualities of traditional art that he observed waning in modernity, associated with the singular status of the artwork, its authority, authenticity, and unattainability, epitomized by the idea of beautiful semblance. On that understanding, aura is defined in antithetical relation to the productive forces that have been rendering it socially obsolete: technological reproducibility, epitomized by film, and the masses, the violently contested subject/object of political and military mobilization. Wherever aura or, rather, the simulation of auratic effects does appear on the side of the technological media (as in the recycling of the classics, the Hollywood star cult, or fascist mass spectacle), it assumes an acutely negative valence, which turns the etiology of aura's decline into a call for its demolition.
So whatever Benjamin "actually" meant is up to armies of grad students and assistant professors to determine; meanwhile, the "common understanding" of aura-- that it's the thing that distinguishes a copy from an original--is sounding less and less accurate, even as it persists.

Since 2001 here at greg.org, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting greg.org that time.

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first published: February 19, 2010.

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