Understanding Walter Benjamin’s Concept of Aura

Abstract: This submission is intended to help readers understand the development of Frankfurt School theorist Walter Benjamin’s concept of Aura by examining its development and progression through a number of his well known essays. Most understand the Aura as a term that is used to understand authenticity and history. The following essay is intended to help improve that understanding.

Word Count: 3161

Understanding Walter Benjamin’s Aura

The writings of Walter Benjamin have had a profound impact in the fields of media studies, art, sociology and more. Perhaps his most famous essay is The Work of Art in the age of Its Technological (Mechanical) Reproducibility (Reproduction),[1] written in 1936. One of the most important ideas developed in this essay is that of the aura. Given the importance of the aura, this paper aims to explicate what this term means by following its development through Benjamin’s writing in what is considered the second period of his theory of art. Thus, this paper will begin with an examination of his 1931 essay Little History of Photography (Photography) then move on to The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility (The Work of Art).

Benjamin’s theory of art can be separated into three different periods. According to Rochlitz,[2] the first period stretches from 1915 to 1925. In this period Benjamin develops “the aesthetics of the sublime, which is governed by the messianic disenchantment of the beautiful appearance.”[3] During this period, “aesthetic validity is indistinguishable from the revelation of the theological truth communicated ‘to God’ by the artist.”[4] In the second period, 1925 to 1935, Benjamin works toward a “political aesthetics of revolutionary intervention in society.”[5] The works during this period focus on “reconstituting human forces into a lucid intoxication, a total presence of mind, and at compensating for the decline or sacrifice of the aura, or even of art in the traditional sense.”[6] During this period, aesthetic validity is “subordinated to political truth, which is communicated to receivers concerned with revolution.”[7] In the third and final period, 1935 to 1940, Benjamin “evaluates the irremediable loss without compensation of the auratic element, which is linked to language as revelations, and insists on the vital importance of memory in the context of a disenchanted modernity.”[8] During this period, aesthetic validity is “viewed through the imperative of the modern work of art, a message in a bottle thrown into the sea that is addressed neither to God nor to receivers.”[9] Of these three periods, it is the second that is of the greatest importance to this paper; this is the period during which both Photography and The Work of Art were written.

Benjamin makes first mention of ‘aura’ in Photography[10] while “trying to account for the exceptional quality of portrait photography prior to its industrialization.”[11] Specifically, he examines the photography of David Octavius Hill, suggesting that the high level of photographic achievement of Hill and his contemporaries was due to the fact that “the experience of their original livelihood stood them in good stead, and it [was] not their artistic background so much as their training as craftsmen that we have to thank”[12]for that achievement. That is, the commitment to craft and practice brought high aesthetic achievement to early photography. Benjamin also points out that, in addition to the photographers, the human subjects of photography in the mid-1800s were notable: “there was an aura about them, a medium that lent fullness and security to their gaze even as it penetrated that medium. And once again the technical equivalent is obvious: it consists in the absolute continuum from brightest light to darkest shadow.”[13] However, Benjamin points out that this aura did not solely rely on the primitive technology with which these photographs were taken. Instead, he suggests that “in this early period subject and technique were as exactly congruent as they become incongruent in the period of decline that immediately followed.”[14]

Prior to this decline, when subjects had to remain still for relatively long periods of time in order for the photographer to achieve proper exposure, the subject grew into the picture; “the procedure itself caused the subject to focus his life in the moment rather than hurrying on past it.”[15] Following this, Benjamin felt that the 1880s signaled a period of decline when “photographers made it their business to simulate the aura which had been banished from the picture with the suppression of darkness through faster lenses… They saw it as their task to simulate this aura using all the arts of retouching.”[16] Here, Benjamin seems to contradict himself in some ways by suggesting that it was indeed the technology of the time that allowed for aura in photography, which existed prior to 1880; against what he writes earlier in the essay, it appears that the aura does indeed rely on primitive technology in this case. Setting this contradiction aside, it has been suggested that for Benjamin “what made [the] period of technical advance at the same time one of artistic decline… was the fact that photographers themselves responded regressively to technological progress; they sought to simulate the atmospheric qualities of early photographic portraiture by aping the effects of painting.”[17] Thus, for Benjamin, what is important for “photography is the photographer’s attitude to his techniques.”[18]

Against the decline of photography Benjamin points to Atget’s (“an actor who, disgusted with the profession, wiped off the mask and then set about removing the makeup from reality too”)[19] photography as the forerunner of Surrealist photography. Benjamin believed that Atget was “the first to disinfect the stifling atmosphere generated by conventional portrait photography in the age of decline. He cleans[ed] this atmosphere – indeed, he dispel[led] it altogether: he initiat[ed] the emancipation of object from aura, which [was] the most signal achievement of the latest school of photography.”[20] That is, Atget was the first photographer to use photography in such a way that he was not attempting to imitate portraiture painting. In doing so, Atget “looked for what was unremarked, forgotten, cast adrift… [His photographs] suck[ed] the aura out of reality.”[21] Costello believes that by taking photographs of empty cities, Atget was taking photographs of “the very antithesis of the depiction of subjective interiority that [was] the preserve of portraiture, traditionally construed.”[22] Therefore, it seems that Benjamin is in favor of the decline of the artificial aura while also being in favor of the primitive aura, which was the result of a congruence between subject and technique.

Midway through Photography Benjamin puts forward his definition of aura. This definition is repeated in The Work of Art essay. For Benjamin, aura is:

A strange weave of space and time: the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close it may be. While at rest on a summer’s noon, to trace a range of mountain on the horizon, or a branch that throws its shadow on the observer, until the moment or the hour become part of their appearance – this is what it means to breathe the aura of those mountains, that branch. Now, to bring things closer to us or rather to the masses, is just as passionate an inclination in our day as the overcoming of whatever is unique in every situation by means of its reproduction. Every day the need to possess the object in close-up in the form of a picture, or rather a copy, becomes more imperative. The difference between the copy, which illustrated papers and newsreels keep in readiness, and the original picture is unmistakable. Uniqueness and duration are intimately intertwined in the latter as are transience and reproducibility in the former.”[23]

For Rochlitz, this definition suggests there are two negative qualities that define aura: “the uniqueness of a moment of temporal apparition and its unapproachability, its distancing despite a spatial proximity. And yet, modern society has developed needs that are incompatible with such principles.”[24] Thus the need to possess appears to be a different criterion than Atget’s liberation of the photograph from the aura. For Rochlitz, this means that Benjamin has “in mind the legitimate imperatives of the “masses” to reverse cultural privilege.”[25] Additionally, Costello suggests that “the real object of Benjamin’s interest is the structure of experience, i.e. the underlying form to which all experience must conform in order to be experience at all – as opposed to the content of a particular experience.”[26] Benjamin believes that Surrealist photography allows for the estrangement between man and his surroundings. This estrangement “gives free play to the politically educated eye, under whose gaze all intimacies are sacrificed to the illumination of detail.”[27]

Though most debates in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century tended to focus on the aesthetics of photography-as-art, Benjamin writes that “the far less questionable social fact of art-as-photography was given scarcely a glance. And yet the impact of the photographic reproduction of artworks is of very much greater importance for the function of art than the greater or lesser artistry of a photography that regards all experience as fair game for the camera.”[28] Thus, Benjamin finds that “mechanical reproduction is a technique of diminution that helps people to achieve control over works of art – a control without whose aid they could no longer be used.”[29] Therefore, it seems that Benjamin is suggesting photography has the ability to not only grant equal access to art but also to alter the ways in which traditional art is perceived. Benjamin asks “Won’t inscription become the most important part of the photography?”[30] This could be read as Benjamin giving greater power to form than content, or medium over message, since it implies that the cognitive function is not assured, therefore the image is at all times open to multiple meanings and understandings.

In Photography Benjamin sets out to show how the aura of a work is bound up in its technical and social creation and reception. The technological advances in photography helped to push the form in a direction that prevented the continuance of the high aesthetic value it originally enjoyed. These technological advances also had the capacity to liberate art by making it accessible to all social classes. However, the essay in some ways failed to make a general judgment about the contemporary role of art. It is here that one may find Benjamin’s The Work of Art essay to be both useful and more radical.

Benjamin begins The Work of Art by pointing out that the work of art has always been reproducible, but that the technological reproduction of artworks is something new.[31] One of the important elements that Benjamin seeks to understand here is how authenticity exists (or does not exist) in the age of this reproduction. He writes, “in even the most perfect reproduction, one thing is lacking: the here and now of the work of art – its unique existence in a particular place. It is this unique existence – and nothing else – that bears the mark of the history to which the work has been subject… The here and now of the original underlies the concept of its authenticity.”[32] For Benjamin this authenticity cannot fully be captured in the reproduction because technological reproduction is “more independent of the original than is manual reproduction” and because “technological reproduction can place the copy of the original in situations which the original itself cannot attain.”[33] Here one of the key differences between Photography and The Work of Art becomes clear: in the former authenticity and aura were derived mainly from technical conditions and in the latter authenticity and aura are grounded in tradition. To this effect, Benjamin writes that “what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object, the weight it derives from tradition… What withers in the age of the technological reproducibility of the work of art is the…aura.”[34]

For Benjamin the “uniqueness of the work of art is identical to its embeddedness in the context of tradition”[35] and this uniqueness is the aura of the work of art. Benjamin points out that “originally, the embeddedness of an artwork in the context of tradition found expression in a cult. As we know, the earliest artworks originated in the service of rituals—first magical then religious. And it is highly significant that the artwork’s auratic mode of existence is never entirely severed from its ritual function. In other words: the unique value of the ‘authentic’ work of art always has its basis in ritual.”[36] Against this, technological reproduction “detaches the reproduced object from the sphere of tradition,” leading to a “massive upheaval in the domain of objects handed down from the past – a shattering of tradition which is the reverse side of the present crisis and renewal of humanity.”[37]For Benjamin the idea that the shattering of tradition allows for the renewal of humanity is of great importance. It is here that he finds a key opportunity allowed by the culture industry: “for the first time in world history, technological reproducibility emancipates the work of art from its parasitic subservience to ritual.”[38] Now there is no authentic work since works are made to be reproduced. From this Benjamin draws the conclusion that with the destruction of the criterion of the authenticity of artistic production, “the whole social function of art is revolutionized. Instead of being founded on ritual, it is based on a different practice: politics.”[39] As these artistic productions are liberated from tradition, there is new space for the recombination of cultural artifacts such that they can simultaneously destroy traditional meanings and create new ones.[40] This provides the opportunity for Marxist politics to take the place of the auratic foundation of traditional art.[41]

While Benjamin’s new understanding of the potential and role of the work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility appears inherently emancipatory and political, it raises a number of concerns that could stand in the way of his vision. Notably, it seems that Benjamin has neglected to take into account the need for aesthetic quality in a work of art. Even if a work has political intention, this does not necessarily mean that it will produce an aesthetically adequate reading. That is, Benjamin presupposes the efficacy of a work without asking if it is “attentive to the requirements of the work of art as medium of experience and thus distinct from a cognitive communication.”[42] Additionally, it appears that Benjamin falls prey to the traditional historiography that he worked to critique in Theses on the Philosophy of History.[43] In that essay, Benjamin suggests that the idea of progress is all-consuming such that it makes revolutionary pursuit nearly impossible. Further, the assumption that historical and social progress go hand-in-hand allows for the triumph of evil under the guise of progress. However, in The Work of Art it seems that Benjamin binds together technical progress and artistic progress. Though this sentiment runs throughout the essay, it is quite apparent in his passage on psychic immunization:

If one considers the dangerous tensions which technology and its consequences have engendered in the masses at large—tendencies which at critical stages take on a psychotic character—one also has to recognize that this same technologization [Technisierung] has created the possibility of psychic immunization against such mass psychoses. It does so by means of certain films in which the forced development of sadistic fantasies or masochistic delusions can prevent their natural and dangerous maturation in the masses.Collective laughter is one such preemptive and healing outbreak of mass psychosis.[44]

Here it seems that while Benjamin does not go so far as suggesting that this progress is an inevitability, he does suggest it is likely. Against this it has been argued that this release is artificial and in reality only serves the interests of capitalism: “In virtue of the fact that the viewer is reconciled with a system that creates the initial impetus for that sadism to develop… the laughter is not sadistic, it is masochistic. The masses are learning to take their own punishment.”[45]

In looking back on Benjamin’s essay Photography, it seems that he pays attention to aesthetics, but in The Work of Art aesthetics appear to go to the wayside. In the latter essay Benjamin fails to fully articulate how politics will take the place of ritual, aside from the ability for any person to participate in the production or consumption of works of art. While resting revolutionary politics on the dissolution of aura, Benjamin neglects explaining the importance of artistic competence in creating efficacious works. Likewise, he fails to develop an explanation of the importance of appropriate readings of those works.

In following Benjamin’s treatment and understanding of the aura it is possible to see that he has moved away from understanding the aura of a work as bound up in its technical and social creation and reception, as put forward in Photography. In The Work of Art, he moves toward an understanding of the destruction of the aura of a work of art as being key to its revolutionary potential, while paying little attention to aesthetics or reception. The latter essay can also be read as falling victim to the assumptions about progress that he critiques in Theses on the Philosophy of History. However, these critiques should not discredit Benjamin’s overall understanding of the revolutionary potential that works of art can have when they are emancipated from their traditional and ritualistic servitude such that they become accessible and useful to all. Instead, by understanding the progression of Benjamin’s thought and the critiques made herein, this paper has sought to show both the positive and negative aspects of his conceptions and understandings of aura and art such that new, more fully articulated, formulations will become possible.

 

[1] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” in The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media 2008, eds. Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press 2008); also: Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books 1968/2007).

[2] Rainer Rochlitz, The Disenchantment of Art: The Philosophy of Walter Benjamin (J. Todd, trans.) (New York: Guilford 1996; Original Work Published 1992).

[3] Rochlitz, The Disenchantment of Art, 48.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Benjamin, Photography, 515

[11] Diarmuid Costello, “Aura, Face, Photography: Re-reading Benjamin Today,” in Walter Benjamin and Art 2005, ed. Andrew Benjamin (NYC/London: Contiuum, 2005), 06.

[12] Benjamin, Photography, 514-515.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid, 517.

[15] Ibid, 514.

[16] Ibid, 517.

[17] Costello, Aura, Face, Photography, 08

[18] Benjamin, Photography, 517.

[19] Ibid, 518.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Costello, Aura, Face, Photography, 08.

[23] Benjamin, Photography, 518.

[24] Rochlitz, The Disenchantment of Art, 152.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Costello, Aura, Face, Photography, 11.

[27] Benjamin, Photography, 519.

[28] Ibid, 521.

[29] Ibid, 523.

[30] Ibid, 527.

[31] Benjamin, The Work of Art, 20.

[32] Ibid, 21.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid, 22.

[35] Ibid, 24.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid, 22.

[38] Ibid, 24.

[39] Ibid, 25.

[40] Ryan Moore, “Digital Reproducibility and the Culture Industry: Popular Music and the Adorno-Benjamin Debate,” Fast Capitalism 9.1, (2012), accessed March 10, 2014, http://www.uta.edu/huma/agger/fastcapitalism/9_1/moore9_1.html.

[41] Rochiltz, The Disenchantment of Art, 158.

[42] Ibid, 160.

[43] Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books 1968/2007).

[44] Benjamin, The Work of Art, 38.

[45] Guy Sewell, “The Culture Industry,” Journal of The University of York Philosophy Society, 08, Summer (2011), accessed March 15, 2014, http://dialecticonline.wordpress.com/issue-08-11/the-culture-industry.

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