Sunday, September 27, 2009

Can the Mona Lisa be aura-free?

In "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," German cultural critic Walter Benjamin muses on what our ability to reproduce images in mass quantities does to art and culture. His basic argument is that mass production of art - paintings, sculpture, etc. - eliminates the "aura" of a work.

To Benjamin, a work's aura is best described as"that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art...One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition (221)."

He used the word to refer
"to the sense of awe and reverence one presumably experienced in the presence of unique works of art. According to Benjamin, this aura inheres not in the object itself but rather in external attributes such as its known line of ownership, its restricted exhibition, its publicized authenticity, or its cultural value...With the advent of art's mechanical reproducibility, and the development of forms of art (such as film) in which there is no actual original, the experience of art could be freed from place and ritual and instead brought under the gaze and control of a mass audience, leading to a shattering of the aura (Wikipedia)."
In 2005, Former UC Santa Barbara graduate student David Roh took Benjamin's thesis argument and moved it a step further by examining whether it still holds true in the early 21st century:
"Walter Benjamin defines aura as the distance between a purveyor of the work of art and the work itself. With the advent of mechanical reproduction, he [Benjamin] argues, the distance has been closed, aura diminished, and the work of art democratized. Fast-forward nearly 70 years later, and we find that instead of aura having been completely eradicated by perfect and nearly limitless digital reproduction, the distance between the work of art and the purveyor (consumer) grows wider than ever. "
I would argue that they're both right. It may be taking the easy way out, but it's hard to disagree with Benjamin's belief that something is lost when a Kandinsky painting is mass-produced as a greeting card or refrigerator magnet. Having taken a half dozen Art History courses over the years and spent more time in art museums than at home, I think it's somewhat criminal how commercialized art has become. I have a fair share of prints of my favorite works, and I realize the art has always been commercial (how else could an artist survive) but it does seem to have multiplied in recent years. For example, during a quick visit to the Dallas Museum of Art's gift shop after viewing the recent King Tut exhibit I found plastic sarcophagus's, fabric replicas of the head garments Tut wore and numerous poster-size images of some objects not even included in the exhibition.

Though I used to be avid collector of postcards of major works of art, I finally stopped because as Benjamin argues, viewing a reproduction or copy is not nearly as satisfying as seeing the actual work of art in person. That's because postcards have no "aura" - no soul. They're mere imitations - and often bad ones at that - of something that should be considered non-transferable. Prints aren't much better, but since actual works of art are way out of my financial reach I often go that route so I can have some semblance of art other than my own or my daughter's on display at home.

To me, it seems that the commercialization and reproduction in mass quantities of art has indeed caused art to lose its "aura."

However, Roh is also right in the sense that just because something is more available to the masses doesn't make it any less important or awe-inspiring when viewed in person. r all, reproductions can also be inspiring. I am not a big fan of Leonardo's Mona Lisa but I can't ignore that while it is probably the most reproduced image in modern times, millions of people still flock to the Musee de Louvre to see the actual work hanging on the wall. While the story of the work is itself intriguing, many say they're inspired by all the reproductions to go see the real thing. And so, despite having seen countless reproductions, they still stand in line for hours at a time in order to stand six-feet away from a 21 by 30-inch painting hidden behind a glass case several inches thick. Clearly, at least some of the work's aura must remain. (What's really funny about this is that after seeing the Mona Lisa in person, even after previously seeing countless reproductions, few leave the Louvre without yet another copy of the work either on a postcard, magnet, coffee cup, T-shirt, etc. )

So, who's more right? Benjamin? Roh? Neither? Benjamin doesn't address it in this article, but I think the answer depends a lot of someone's answer to the following question - what is art?

Can a photograph be called art if it's a photograph of another work of art, say a painting or a sculpture? Or what about a film that's a compilation of previous films - can it still be considered art if the only new aspect is way the clips are arranged? Is a postcard adorned with the image of a work of art actually art? For that matter, can anything commercially and/or mass-produced be called art?


Amy Pickup said...

Your question about mass produced works being called art made me first think of an exhibit I saw last year. Perspectives 164: Stephanie Syjuco:
Total Fabrications.
She re-created Houston Newspapers and produced 2000 copies of each of three variations for visitors to take home. The exhibit relies on mass produced media to exist and creates an individual copy for each person to take home. Does the definition of art rely on the originality and singularity of a piece? How can any artwork be original when we all create based on things we already know and see?

Sunsha said...

I like how you use the examples from the King Tut. Sometimes I wonder if those artifacts are real or are some of them replicas of the original. I've been to some "old school" museums that show you the replica of the original and it does not give you the wow factor at all. I also think the replicaing is great becuase it reaches the masses

James said...

Wish I had seen Roh's work before I wrote my post... going to have to go look at that now. I was one of those people that went to go see the Mona Lisa after seeing reproductions of it, and I have to admit I wasn't overwhelmingly impressed by a painting behind velvet ropes that was about half the size I thought it would be. I wonder if the 'aura' felt more diminished because of the legendary status ascribed to da Vinci's work compared to the actual artifact.

kristalbrook said...

I love questions at the end of a blog! I need to remember to do that more. I agree that art does lose some of its value once its reproduced. I do consider a mass-produced Eames chair art. What about music and sampling. Benjamin and Nichols don't talk about that, but I think its something to consider. Does a recorded performance lose its aura? What about music created completely from samples of other music?

Aline McKenzie said...

This isn't an art example, but what about the "Lucy" skeleton, which is too fragile to travel on exhibition? By necessity, what's displayed is a copy.

I think I would still get an aura, because of getting a sense of scale and the incompleteness of the skeleton.

On the other hand, should I ever be so honored as to see the actual skeleton, I'd probably just faint.

Anonymous said...

As an art lover who cannot afford "real" art, I don't find the reproduction of a piece that I truly love to evoke any less emotion in me than the original that I have seen hanging in a museum. If anything, the reproduction allows me to main that physical and emotional connection to the piece by making it accessible to me in a way that the original could never be. I feel like Benjamin's argument on aura works in some instances (perhaps the experience of seeing the Sistine Chapel is much more compelling than a postcard reproduction) but in many instances, technology has if anything preserved the essence of the work in my mind.