The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity.—Walter Benjamin, 220
In trying to tackle the density of Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, I have to start with an explanation of the “aura” and work out from there:
It was 2012 when I first made it to the Met in New York City. I turned the corner into the 20th century art exhibit and right before me, attached to the wall, was Jackson Pollock’s Drip Painting. I’d seen it dozens of times on my computer screen, but never before had I been in its presence–never before had I stood at a same distance away from it as Pollock did. The experience of being in front of a favorite painting—the original—was moving. But, for what reason? As I know now, what I experienced that day was the aura—“… the unique appearance of a distance”. This was no reproduction. It had authenticity and through that authenticity, authority. It uniquely occupied space and time in a way that only that painting could. But, as Benjamin says, “the uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition” (223). So, the aura that I experienced is not simply some abstract power emanating from the painting itself, but a perceived distance from the original—the authentic. Through engaging with “the authentic”, through its perceived or actual uniqueness, I engaged in its history as part of a particular tradition that changed the way the world understood painting at the time. I submitted myself to the cult of beauty and gave myself over to the ritual looking and contemplation that I believed this piece deserved. “I feel its confusion. I connect with its erratic qualities. I had to make my pilgrimage to the original to feel this”.
This feeling, this veneration for an object, is the power of the aura. And, the aura is only present—only has authority—with the presence of the original, the authentic. So, what happens when art no longer has an original? What happens with “the work of art designed for reproducibility” (224)? With the destruction of the original, the aura too is destructed. Without the aura the ritual value we could assign to it is also destructed. Suddenly, we cannot justify the value of art based on its uniqueness—rather, there are many copies we can see. The reproduced art meets us half-way; our pilgrimage is no longer necessary. Art in the age of mechanical reproduction does not earn our uncritical veneration which is so closely related to our perception of it as unique and authentic. Rather, “The instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice—politics”(224).
Film and photography, then, have their roots as an art designed for reproducibility. From their very origin they have no aura, and without an aura they serve a political end. They uproot the ritual practices and force the viewers into new practices. They force new habits of mind and break us from the ritualistic reverence of art for art’s sake. In this way, the art of film and photography are politicized, whereas previous art was used for political ends. The Fascist rulers would use art’s aura to maintain property traditions. Now, film and photography have no original—nothing inherently unique about them—and this is what the “masses” are consuming. In this consumption, they are (consciously or unconsciously) breaking the rituals on which facism relies. The destruction of the aura progresses society forward and combats fascist practices that find their root in defining inherent authority.
Assuming I haven’t gone wildly off course, this is where it is left in 1935. What about today though? It is common to hear someone excited about the 70mm film screening of The Hateful Eight. It is common to hear enthusiasm (and see people pay more) for a vinyl copy of a record. It is common for many of us to favor the local brewery. But, why? Critically there are probably many answers, but culturally I hear a certain value being ascribed to these items that I think mimics that of aura. “The film print is more authentic—it has flicker and grains.” “The vinyl is pure, man. It’s analog—needle to wax.” “The brewer is local—I know him; I touch the hands that touch the hops”. We are perceiving ourselves as closer to the original when we use this logic to assign value to these things. In these we practices, we are not so displaced as we may feel by the digital process—but we are. There is something real to be experienced in the analog. But, that realness is not aura—we are not closer to the original. Rather, it has market value. The market tells us it is closer to the original. The market is capitalizing on the search for an aura and we are so accustomed to the diminished aura that these seemingly unique, authentic, originals feel as if they do have aura. I have to go to the theater for the film print instead of streaming from Netflix. It feels more real; it satisfies my desire to experience the authentic. Yet, is this search for the aura not a dangerous practice that Benjamin warned against? Why do these practices have the cultural pull that they do? What are we searching for if not the authentic? Variety? If it is the aura, then at the very peak of our new search for an aura, we are experiencing presidential candidates that have reignited the conversations about fascism in this country. Perhaps a new mode will redestroy the aura. Perhaps the complete reproduction of reality in Virtual Reality will be the shock of the 21st century that film was for the 20th.