AH 331 History of Photography Spring 2021 Compendium

Aura Contextualized: Art’s Transformation in the Age of Reproduction

What is it that distinguishes something as a person, place, or thing? Or, more specifically in Walter Benjamin’s case, a work of art? In The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Benjamin explores art as a transcendent, progressive form throughout time and social change. To Benjamin, the aforementioned uniqueness and individuality of a work of art is attributed to the art’s aura. To contextualize, he tracks the development of art and art forms over time: the progression from singular pieces of art to mechanical and technical reproduction processes, as well as the spectrum of value art has, for the cult of beauty and for exhibition. Benjamin claims that the reproduction of art, as well as reproduction for art, compromises its aura and our perception of it, an ongoing trend that he projects will negatively affect the culture of art and each art piece, as more modern forms of art like photography and film are based upon reproduction themselves.

Benjamin’s definition of the “aura” of a work of art is something that beyond what one feels about it upon viewing--that definition, actually, frames the aura to be viewer and human-centered, when the main focus is the art itself. Aura, according to Benjamin, is an artwork’s “presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.”1 The aura is an object’s “historical testimony,”2 and, hence, its uniqueness and proof of being, its life, experiences, erosion. In this way, the aura of an artwork is both influenced by, but ultimately independent from, the society the artwork comes to be in. It does not solely reside in the hearts and minds of its viewers; it is authentic and simply exists, having its own very real reality--a reality that Benjamin finds that, with photography, society is “bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of [...] by accepting its reproduction.”3

By definition, tradition and innovation fall short of going hand in hand. Innovation and technological advancement are what has brought art to where it is today, whether Benjamin finds himself to be a fan or not. Benjamin is adamant about an artwork’s aura being rooted in history and having its own history, determining that “the uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition.”4 And traditionally, artworks held ritual value, being used in magical and religious rituals or appreciated for all they were in cult beauty. This changed with the introduction of reproduction, however, which emancipated “the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual,”5 and shifted the basis of its value to being more exhibitional. Mechanical reproduction, which was often seen as “forgery,”6 brought about copies of an object into realms that they were not in originally, which also meant that they may not have belonged or fit in to. Mechanical reproduction is problematic to Benjamin, then, as the copies jeopardize the historical testimony of an art piece and, consequently, its aura.7 Technical reproduction, on the other hand, like photography and film, was able to “put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original self,” enabling “the original to meet the beholder halfway,”8 an act not of forgery, but of accessibility and connectivity, although the connection to the original and original context may be muddled. One step further, in today’s age of digital reproduction, Douglas Davis argues that “digitalization transfers [the] aura to the individuated copy. Artist and viewer perform together. The dead replica and the living, authentic originals are merging, like lovers entwined in mutual ecstasy.”9 With the cloud and the internet, time and location take upon a different shape, as well as the artistic auras dependent upon them.

In describing photography specifically, Benjamin writes that “for the first time in the process of pictorial reproduction, photography freed the hand of the most important artistic functions which henceforth devolved only upon the eye looking into the lens.”10 On top of artistic technique, the medium completely reversed the function of art as we had known it, being “designed for reproducibility.”11 Less emphasis is directed upon the authenticity of an artwork, as photography is designated for multiple copies and, as Benjamin puts it, one cannot ask for the “‘authentic’ print” from a photographic negative.12 Thus, with copies as a staple to the medium, exhibition value takes the forefront for photographic artworks, as their copies are distributed.13 Prior to photography, the world of art as people knew it included sculptures, drawings, carvings, paintings. There had been a point in time where surrealism was widely received; now the idea of art being made via means of technical reproduction, with the ability to be exhibited anywhere and everywhere, is surreal to critics who had warmly embraced what had been mentioned before. Art, for the first time, detached itself from ritual but also found root in something else, something more involved with the society that took it in: politics.14

This is not to say that art today, by means of photography or any reproductive medium, is valueless or distasteful. Nor is it to say that Benjamin is against photography as an artistic process. While the aura of reproduced art is compromised, art based in reproduction, as with photography, can still be thoughtful and full of that aura. Richard Shusterman points out that “a closer look at Benjamin’s views on photography reveals that he indeed recognized the photograph’s power to maintain art’s auratic ‘cult value,’ for instance, in the ‘cult of remembrance of loved ones, absent or dead,’” and praised “early photography for the way it required its subjects ‘to live inside rather than outside the moment’ of the photographic shoot.”15 The “absorption of the subject” was made by the absorption of the photographer and “his ability to make his subjects feel comfortably ‘at home,’” and this pure, auratic type of photography, Shusterman proposes, “could still be available today if one only took the time, care, and effort to develop this dimension of photographic art.”16 Not all hope is lost for the aura of photographs, as one must just be very mindful during their production. However, with the high exhibition value of photography as well, one must also be mindful of what one proposes in every photo that is to be distributed and exhibited. With film, for example, “the public is an examiner, but an absent-minded one,”17 and as a collective, because of mechanical reproduction, our reactions toward art has transitioned from reactionary, with every individual reacting to every individual piece, to progressive, in which our opinions concurrently affect others’ of the same subject, and vice versa.18 Society takes in art today with the role of a paper towel, absorbing from a single source and spreading our reach based on that which surrounds our initial point of contact. Messages and meanings of photographs, many of which are social and political cause-related, are less so chewed on and digested than taken in by the masses.

Benjamin’s ideas and the exhibition and message-spreading value of photography may be applied to Pillars of Creation, taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope in 1995. As a digital photo, it is indeed “designed for reproducibility,” being a visual reproduction of the Eagle Nebula itself, a literal reflection of what the Hubble Telescope saw while in orbit. As it is a product of technical, not mechanical reproduction, its authenticity is really of little relevance or even application. Just as Benjamin had mentioned with the “authentic print” of the photographic negative, each digital copy of the photo that can be found on the internet, or even downloaded right at this instant, is still of that exact photo, of the exact nebula taken precisely by the one Telescope. All copies of the photo are of just that one photo, connecting beholders all over the Earth to that which is beyond the Earth. This photo’s exhibition value and placement in politics is much greater than any cult value it holds. The image, taken in space, had the initial purpose of exhibition, to show parts of space never before seen, explored, and exhibited; the focus was less on capturing the Eagle Nebula itself, although incredibly majestic and thought-provoking, but of what space was like and what the Space Telescope was capable of doing with it. It is, undoubtedly, a pivotal image in history, especially as a demonstration of and marvel at the achievements of the United States’ NASA for space, science, and humanity.

The age of reproduction for art seems to be long-lasting, with greater technology like the Hubble Space Telescope only advancing our abilities to reproduce. Perhaps, then, while reproduction in and for art diminishes from its aura in an individual “historical testimony” sense, the same reproduction can reveal an aura that is all-encompassing, not only of the piece of art, but its creators, its continual reproducers, and its absorbing beholders, who can appreciate it and its meaning in a contemporary, holistic way.


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