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?