Skip to main content

Benjamin and the Politics of De-auraticisation

Benedict Clarke

Mechanical reproduction of a work of art […] represents something new. Historically, it advanced intermittently and in leaps at long intervals, but with accelerated intensity. (The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility 102)

It is taken for granted, often wilfully ignored, the political trajectory of this historical advance in our apparently democratised world of culture. On the one hand, reproduction is celebrated by the neophytes of new media whose triumph over what is replaced is spawned out of their own anxieties about becoming obsolete. On the other hand, there are those who spout melancholy at modern life because their ‘ancient’ cultural forms are being bastardised by technologies they don’t wish to understand. The Walter Benjamin of 1940 wrote “one reason why Fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm” (Theses on the Philosophy of History 259). The same could be said of the culture industry of today, if the transformations of the artwork by technology are seen as outside ideology. This essay will show how the removal of the ‘aura’ in the artwork has opened up a field of effects which claim an increasing democracy of culture; that this democratisation has always been predicated on the artwork as commodity and that the way in which the culture industry is exploiting art as commodity, specifically through the moving image, has ideological consequences to the way that the subject perceives reality.

The Removal of the Aura and the Artwork’s Relation to Time and Place

The 'aura' is a relational concept which denotes the field of effects around the artwork as an object. It is both a historical trace of art, as its creative production is located in a specific place and time, but also a feeling of authenticity which the artwork inspires in the viewer from its unique material foundation. A fundamental argument of Benjamin in The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility is that technology renders these effects of the artwork obsolete. Since the "here and now" of the artwork is eradicated, there is an implicit threat to the autonomous working of art (103). The work of art no longer is subject in the same way to its unique material context like a concert or a play, as its production no longer requires the total manufacture of the artist or artists. Consider the phenomenon of sampling in the music industry, in which fragments are spliced together from a catalogue of songs and are re-recorded over. This type of production is based on a demand from technology to alter sound in a way that the musician and their instruments cannot reconstruct to the same extent. The mechanical appropriation of sound moves music onto a level alien from the local conditions from which the sample was formed. A music producer could occupy a studio in Los Angeles, and take recordings from salsa music, folk, rock, classical and fuse these traditions into a slice of sound time. In this respect creativity is totally severed from its previous signification.

This effect of de-auraticisisation does not necessarily exist as a negative concept in Benjamin's essay, but rather as an imminent and functioning process. By saying that technology "neutralize(s) a number of traditional concepts - such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery" (101) it is not a matter of opinion or conjecture in Benjamin’s sense, rather it is an objective phenomenon. Reproduction divorces the copy from its original embodiment of these concepts as the copy is manufactured instead of having an existence dependent on the human as the sole creator. In classical music the case is slightly more complex, concerning the manuscript form which musicians use to perform from. With the proliferation of orchestras and chamber music groups, it is unlikely that they would be interpreting the original manuscripts which the composer wrote out. Nethertheless they reproduce live performance pieces (although to varying degrees) to the instructions of the composer, without the mediation of technological reproduction. However the live interpretation is fundamentally different to the reproduction in that the musicians autonomously realise the piece through their instruments, whereas the recorded concert manipulates time so that the surprise of the live is copied exactly and made encounterable for the listener in contexts different from its initial performance. The copy does not inspire the impact of its original form in the same way. Each time the copy is listened to it is recreated exactly, with total precision. In the case of the live, each concert of the same piece will to a greater or lesser extent be qualitatively different. With the proliferation of the reproduction, the sense of an "authentic" (105) experience of the artwork is annihilated, as technology mediates human creativity with the receiver of the art work.

Art, Democratisation and the Market

Technological reproducibility to a certain extent emancipates art from its primary circulation in elite bourgeois spheres: patronage of and ownership of art predates the bourgeois era of course, through aristocratic holdings and the religious artefact, however it is in their circulation as commodities that the bourgeoisie predominate its consumption. The wide dissemination of art democratizes its access through the expansion of the means to consumption. The ability to multiply what is original offers the opportunity for culture to become ordinary; ordinary in a specific sense that it takes on a commodity form which is realistically affordable. Benjamin speaks of art's "parasitic subservience to ritual" (106), but de-auraticisation offers the chance for art to liberate itself from the function of ritual, whereby the subject does not have to perform a prescribed pattern of behaviour when receiving the artwork. Take, for example, the etiquette of the opera goer in the opera house. The experience of the performance is tied up in a set of class relationships, certainly in its more prestigious form, which determines access and exclusion to its specific situation. To experience Opera in this arena, one would have to subscribe to the normative, ritualistic behaviour that the situation prescribes (manners, speech, dress e.t.c). De-auraticisation removes the necessary place of ritual and the conditions it imposes on art. In transforming art’s unique relationship with the "here and now", an effect of the de-auraticised artwork is to remove any idea of its autonomy in these nodal points of cultural access.

However the democratisation which is facilitated in the break of the artwork with ritual is utilized by the advertising industry, in which stylistic features and content of artworks become commodifed in the advert form. The use of pastiche is a phenomenon in which image, music and text are re-appropriated from their original tradition and form, by placing them in a context which fundamentally alters their significance. Fredric Jameson argues that pastiche creates a “blank parody” (545), in which specific traditions are liquidated in the text of the art work, cannibalising their original form. Even though Jameson is diagnosing the effects of the culture industry upon artistic and academic production in general, in advertising it is possible to see blank parody acutely. The 2006 Citroen Xzara Picasso advert, in which the manufacture of automobiles is linked with the creative output of the artist Picasso, signifies a state of affairs where an artwork devoid of an aura can have its auratic function re-imposed through a simulation of creativity and genius which is produced as an effect. The juxtaposition of commodity and artist is the parody which is humourless, in which formal expression becomes empty (Jameson 545). Equally de-auraticisation can function whilst maintaining the impression of the aura so the illusion of the autonomous nature of art maintains an existence. The purpose of the advertising pastiche is to aestheticise the commodity and to make the act of purchasing appear as a creative act; as if the consumer is transformed into a Picasso through owning the car. So through pastiche, the effect of art as a partly autonomous enterprise of meaning is disrupted and utilized to serve functions regardless of the work's original mode; whilst still relying upon the traces of genius and authenticity to simulate its former auratic form.

When Benjamin asserts that art is "based on another practice: politics" (WOA 106) as opposed to the ritual, he argues that art becomes ground for both revolutionary and counterrevolutionary ends, fundamentally more extensive than with the auratic work. In the context Benjamin’s lifetime, the propaganda films of Leni Reifenstahl in Nazi Germany would be the counterrevolutionary use of relatively new form of mass cinema. Fascism is a phenomenon whereby the democratic potential of de-auraticisation is manipulated in which "a compelling urge toward new social opportunities is being clandestinely exploited in the interests of a property-owning minority" (115), and this can be observed in Reifenstahl’s 1935 Triumph of the Will. I think of the long scene which cuts between Hitler in the moving car, and then extended shots of the fanatical German public gazing upon him as a spectacle. The hierarchical relation between central power and national spirit is an example of how film as ideology can monopolise perspective; to resubmit the populist, anti-elitist operations of cinema back to the remit of governmental authority.

Even though the word fascism is sanitised from the liberal-democratic rhetoric in the mass art world, nevertheless what it describes in Benjamin’s specific usage is still manifested in the culture industry. It is most obvious in the realm of mass-market cinema, where the control of artistic production is licensed through the directives of a wealthy elite. Hollywood, as a nexus of film production, is dominated by oligarchic production companies whose interests are served by promoting the ideologies of a property owning few and of using the filmwork primarily as the means of generating profit. Cinema going has been naturalized to the extent that the fascist question concerning art and its political intent is inhibited from an association with film, as the paradigm of consumer democracy is treated most often as self-evident. Instead the idea of movie going acts as an expression of liberty, of exercising the right to entertainment.

Herbert Marcuse suggests that massified art takes on an ideological function through the "equalization of class distinctions" (21) and in the arena of the cinema this equalization functions as a universal notion. The layout of the cinema is removed from that of the opera; its seats generally do not equate to class divisions and the experience of the cinema is opposed to elitism. This analysis of the democratic layout of the cinema could, subsequent to Benjamin’s essay, be applied to television, in which each homeowner can switch on or off at leisure in their miniaturised cinema. In effect, the image of the populist technological revolution as an expression of individual liberty penetrates more deeply into the consciousness of everyday social life. The historical move from the cinema to the television to the IPhone is the consequence of de-auraticisation, where access to information and culture through the moving image mimics an increasing social power of the individual. This is the paradox of the culture industry; new media promotes classlessness in its mass appeal - class then re-establishes itself in the sense that social mobility is privileged to those who can afford to stay apace with the technological trends in which culture manifests itself.

This false democratisation is intricately caught up with the idea of consumption. Benjamin designates "the desire of the present-day masses to 'get closer' to things, and their equally passionate concern for overcoming each thing's uniqueness by assimilating it as a reproduction" (WOA 105), and this need to 'get closer' is part of a transfer from the Erfahrung contemplative and ongoing experience towards an Erlebnis isolated type of experience (Some Motifs in Baudelaire 316-17). Erfahrung would be the type of experience like that of the Madeline cake in Remembrance of Things Past. Marcel encounters the cake, and involuntary memory comes to bear on his relation toward the cake. In this example, if we replace cake with artwork, the subject is allowed space to order and produce experience alongside and with the artwork. Erlebnis is more akin to the situation that Martin Heidegger describes

what is happening if, when we eliminate great distances, everything stands equally near and remote? What is this uniformity, within which everything is neither near nor remote – without distance as it were? (254)

Erlebnis is experience without orientation, where the subject is confronted, but has no apparatus in which experience can be ordered. Heidegger goes on to say “film shows the distant sites of ancient cultures as if they now just stood in the middle of today’s traffic” (253). In the desire to get closer, the question of film that needs to be confronted is whether the audience is damaged its ability to be distanced from an art from which imposes itself as pseudo-reality.

1 . 2