Aura and the 20th Century

In the 20th century, any theory of art in Europe has had to confront the reality outlined by Walter Benjamin in "Art in the age of Mechanical Reproduction".  In this essay, Benjamin, a Marxist intellectual, exposes how the accessibility and reproducibility of new technologies of cinema and photography will fundamentally change art, freeing the meaning of "art" from the object of contemplation or worship to harness the communicative potential for revolution as a means to mobilize the masses.  Benjamin argues that the reproducibility of images will demystify art from its  "aura" whose power resides in the qualities of uniqueness, beauty, mystery, genius and creativity.  Together, these qualities functioned to consecrate and legitimize the values and traditions of the bourgeoisie. This prophetic essay on how the images came to develop in the 20th century, traces the changes in global art as we know it today, marking the advent and ubiquity of the new media. Given these changes, painting, already highly contested as a form of representation of reality, has to contend with a constant announcement of his death before the technology.

Interestingly, on the other side of the world, lacquer as pictorial means of artistic expression in Viet Nam was born around the time in which Benjamin writes about the ascendance of mechanical reproduction. Only fifteen years later, during the resistance against the French Colonial Government, To Ngoc Van, a pro-independence artist of the revolution and teacher, evoked the aura of beauty as something of revolutionary value placing lacquer as a tool at the service of the cause of Marxism.  At the re-opening of the Art University in Viet Bac during the resistance, To writes, "... for the work of people receive our livelihood, food and clothing, we back them the work of art...Through art we create culture for the proletariat, making their lives beautiful, guiding them and enhancing their appreciation for aesthetics, culture. The motto we agreed on these principles that the painting is a work, the painter is a comrade of the revolution. From here, we met with the ancestors and the history teachers who put his painting at the service of a singular cause...But we have our own cause, the cause of being one with the people."  Aside from the political ideology behind the words, To Ngoc Van’s message declares that lacquer as painting is a local and entirely new vehicle for a society that seeks give shape to a separate and independent Viet Nam. Its evocation of the masters of European painting does not imply its alignment with the hegemonic power at the time, but rather but the use of the medium as ideological weapon and a way of linking the lacquer with a broader history of representation. In both essays by Benjamin and To, the characteristics of the aura and the role of the painting carry ideological weight in reference to and the interpretation of Marxism, but are entirely contradictory given the cultural and especially technological context.