The great. The giant. The wonder. Stature... And decades ago, we used to say: “The prince of the poets,” “the prince of eloquence,” “the landmark scholar,” and “the understander of understanders”... Anyone who stands out in a profession or the role he plays, especially in the arts, the media, and authorship, is either exceptional or builds his achievements from scratch. History of closes a door behind him because he cannot come again.
This lexicon, which is still prevalent in the Arab world, tells us we are still living under the weight of the “aura.” German philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin addressed this concept in his 1936 essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,’ which would go on to be considered among the most significant texts of twentieth-century art criticism.
Benjamin’s thought is often seen as an intersection between the Marxist tradition, his commitment to which was strengthened by his friendship with Bertolt Brecht, and the Kabbalistic mysticism, whose influence on Benjamin was strengthened by another friendship, that which he shared with Gershom Scholem.
Benjamin argues that mechanical production changed not only how art developed but also how art as such is defined. Technological advances that began in the nineteenth century accelerated and reached new heights in the interwar period- the paving of highways, crossing of the Atlantic, and the gradual spread of the radio, television and cinema…
As for the aura, it emanates from a place that resembles nature in its uniqueness. It is like sunsets or mountain ranges… This resemblance to nature was expressed in artistic themes when they were tied to magic, shrines, and rituals.
Benjamin gives us a glimpse into the history of art, starting with cave paintings, which were born to serve magic and rituals before art became a medium for transmitting religious themes and furthering religious ends. Even the renaissance era, which rendered worship temporal, did not escape the examination of the ritualistic basis of art.
However, as art became, due to technological progress, linked to reproduction, the principle of “art of art’s sake” brought sanctity and ritual into the art itself, and so there was no longer a need for any rationality to justify art but the rationality of art itself. Cinema, photography, and the radio thus involved processes of separation from the natural and proximity to the scientific, as works of art and cinema, are cut, sorted, montaged, and employed, while the viewers began engaging with the work together- as masses in one country or across the world- sharing how this work made them feel instead of watching it isolated in the closed world of their homes.
The idea that human ideas change historically in line with technological change is repeated in Benjamin’s writings. This is the source of his interest in photography, as the picture can be replicated, making us totally lose any interest in the original. From the negative of a photograph, we can make an infinite number of copies, making the search for the “original” or “authentic” version a futile pursuit.
The Mona Lisa, for example, went, since it was painted in 1503, from being a single portrait made by one person, Leonardo, that no one saw to becoming another that rulers and the wealthy could see and maintain through extreme exclusivity and by restricting its circulation and ownership. Then came museums, and with the establishment of the Louvre in 1797, the painting was moved to it, which was part of art’s democratization, breaking the hierarchy as it granted everyone the opportunity to see it. However, thanks to the camera, it became possible to take a picture of it, own it, and make many copies of it, eliminating the need to visit the museum.
If the reproduction of art through technology liberated art from “parasitical” ritualism for the first time in history, cinema was more revolutionary than photography. In the latter, there is no original in the first place, and there is subsequently no aura. There is no more space or time, as events taking place in distant corners of the globe can be filmed in the studio, while weeks of disruption in which filming stops separate the beginning of the event and its end. For their part, the actors do not play their roles in front of spectators, while the movie is seen across the world without any adjustments being made to it. Time is always controlled through slow motion and fast motion, while space can be brought closer or pushed further. The camera thus turns our attention to meaning and possibilities that the naked eye could miss. It “introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses.”
Benjamin did not conceal his sadness about the disappearance of the aura. It resembles the sadness which we feel today as we see the pen being replaced by the computer or books being read online. He affirms that the aura of the original image cannot be compensated for through reproduction, no matter how accurate this reproduction may be, while he sees the decimation of the image through copies as weakening the human experience that links us to the original work.
With that, Benjamin did not share the historical pessimism of the Frankfurt School’s leading figures (Adorno Horkheimer...), who believed that popular culture and mass media had thwarted the efforts of economic forces to achieve change. It could be said that his criticism of capitalism and Hollywood did not prevent him from celebrating the achievements of reproduction and the new possibilities offered by the withering of the aura.
This development did affect him sentimentally, but he looked at it positively from a historical and philosophical point of view. He was optimistic about popular culture, believing that its potential would be released through the elimination of the aura and the retreat of tradition, allowing for genuinely democratic works of art and cinema. We can only imagine how he would have reacted if he had lived to see electronic and then digital reproductions.
However, Benjamin did not live long. Four years after writing this text, he fled Nazified Germany. Then, in 1940, he committed suicide at the French-Spanish border to avoid being arrested by the Nazis before he could make it to the United States.
What Benjamin said goes beyond art. He teaches us that everything can be repeated, sometimes for the better, before it becomes obsolete and ceases to exist. This is on the condition that our separation from nature accelerates, though some of us are slowing down this separation and others continue to retreat onto the bosom of this tender “mother.”
As for the “authentic” and “unique,” they are sterile by definition. Indeed, they do not produce or replicate; as once they are replicated, they stop being authentic or unique.