Aura and late Capitalism

Currently, we have gone from the era of mechanical reproduction to the era of digital reproduction where even the image has lost his physical body. Optical images have become a sort of phantasmagoria that surrounds us in the form of electrical impulses transmitted through screens as physical support, presented through computers, phones, televisions, or skins of LED lights covering buildings. Media defines and contours the perception of our relationship with the world and therefore the nature of reality itself.

From the time that Benjamin wrote "Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", the nature of the image, class, power and production in society have completely changed. The revolutionary potential of image reproduction that Benjamin advocated has become subsumed as a part of the mass media apparatus of capitalism and used to incite the rapid development of the technology. As Benjamin believed, once severed from the object of art, art is content freed to become emancipating communication.  As it has developed in the present, in our global information society, it is said that the medium has become the message.  Before the constant bombardment of infinitely reproducible images and information devoid of clear sources, instead of generating the mobilization of the masses, rather, desensitization occurs.  As for the objects that surround us, the separation between its origin, its production and its value, the functioning of the market, design, and marketing lead to an arbitrary assignment of the value of things. Before the specter of the loss of the original meaning, the cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard, writes that "simulation is no longer that of the territory, a referential being or substance." This is the generation by way of models of a real without origin or reality: a reality. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. (Baudrillard... epistemological relativism). In this context, Baudrillard introduces that in technological societies even work and production have become simulacra:

"Del mismo modo que el trabajo, el brillo de su producción y su violencia no existen ya. Todo el mundo produce aún, y más y más, pero el trabajo sutilmente se ha convertido en otra cosa: una necesidad (como Marx idealmente lo vio, pero no en el mismo sentido), el objeto de la demanda social, como el ocio, al que es equivalente en el cómputo general de las opciones de vida. Una demanda igualmente proporcional exactamente a la pérdida de base del proceso del trabajo. El mismo cambio en la fortuna como en el poder: el objetivo del escenario en que se representa el trabajo es ocultar el hecho de que el trabajo-real, la producción-real, han desaparecido...

…No es ya más una cuestión de la ideología del trabajo - de la ética tradicional que oculta el proceso "real" de trabajo y el proceso "objetivo" de explotación - sino del escenario de trabajo. Del mismo modo, no es ya una cuestión de la ideología del poder, sino del escenario del poder. Las ideologías clásicamente corresponden a la traición de la realidad a través de los signos; la simulación corresponde al cortocircuito de la realidad y su reduplicación a través de signos. Siempre es el objetivo del análisis ideológico la restauración del proceso objetivo; siempre es un falso problema intentar restaurar la realidad detrás del simulacro. Por esto es en última instancia por lo que el poder siempre está apoyado por los discursos y los discursos sobre ideología, pues todos estos discursos acerca de la verdad, incluso y especialmente si tienen un carácter revolucionario, para contrarrestar las caídas mortales de la simulación.’’

Real production still exists worldwide but within a technologically advanced, postmodern society or an endogamic system of simulacra, this fact is irrelevant. The destruction of the “aura” for Benjamin meant the destruction of the authority of the social organization that holds it in place.  However, in the context of perpetual simulation, for Baudrillard, aura and its kitsch copy are arbitrarily assigned by the mechanisms of consumer society and determined by the stimulation of the market and advertising value.  We face this reality, or perhaps a hyperreality, with numbness and indifference.  In this context of instability and ontological relativity, the concept of aura, its social construction and its relationship with the real production becomes again a very current epistemological issue. Locating the concept of aura becomes an exercise in questioning current conventions, human psychology and social experience. The historical qualities of the aura as uniqueness, beauty, mystery, genius and creativity merit redefinition.


The unique art object was once the stronghold of the concept of authenticity.  In today’s context, technological tools for reproduction has overcome the question of skill in the artistic gesture and almost anything can be reproduced.  While we are conscious of the technical reproducibility of most objects, there endures a psychological yearning for unique objects and authentic experiences.  In order to negotiate between objects mass produced and the psychological need for the real experience, I propose to change the valuation of a work of art based on its one-of-a-kind-ness and authenticity to the locality that makes it unique. The unique object can then signify a quality of production that also emphasizes or certifies a clear designation of origin in its location in time and space. A more illustrative example is with wine.  A grape from a particular vineyard depends on several factors of harvest, weather, know-how, care, geography, having a very specific time-spatial dimension and procedures that satisfy the desire for the particular without the need to be one of a kind.

Vietnamese natural lacquer also contains these qualities. A work created with son ta can never really be reproduced. Climate, time, topography is recorded on its body.  Its aura is not located in the authorship of an individual whose genius is central to control and creation but rather in the extraordinary singularity of the conditions that make possible its existence - the intersection of the local climate, territorial factors, cultural traditions, time, catalyzed by a body in action and the intention of the author. Through its materiality and coherent designation of origin, a work made of natural lacquer retains the uniqueness contrary to mass production and resists the technologically reproducible.  In addition, the experience of lacquer work is one that cannot be mediated or reproduced by other means.  With its quality of depth, mirror-like shine and luminosity reflecting through layers of precious metals, only the composition of a lacquer image can be captured by photography and digital media but not the quality of its presence, further remarking its specificity of being.

A second feature that historically defines the aura is the concept of beauty. Changes throughout the 20th century demonstrated empirically that beauty is socially constructed.  In contemporary arts, beauty is under suspicion for its association with bourgeois values of the past and its manipulation and commodification as an element of desire and seduction in marketing.  Despite everything, there endures a psychological longing for the aesthetic and aesthetic experiences in art that belong to something beyond ourselves and beyond a solipsistic simulacra of the world.  Beauty needs another reframing within the arts. I suggest to redefine beauty with the qualities of "care, take responsibility for or worry about".

A neologism of the philosopher Martin Heidegger, the concept sorgees, a structural quality within any desein (being existing in the world) that creates concern, care, and anxiety for its existence and which expresses the unit of condition of being in relation to other beings, in all their situations, its history, its temporality. This care or anxiety makes it possible to perform as a being-unto-death (as a way to be deeply aware of mortality). This concept emphasizes living deliberately and conscienciously towards the inevitable and non transferable event of death as something particular to every being, as a way to access a complete and fully realized life.

Applied to the art, Japanese culture has certainly incorporated these qualities of being-to-the-death to which Heidegger refers in their conceptualization of beauty for many centuries.  One example is the aesthetic concept of mono no aware.  It is not the optical aspect of things, nor is it a particular genre or iconography but rather is a fleeting quality of something that creates a reverberation within the consciousness of each viewer upon his or her own ephemeral condition. It is the quality of an object, a literary text, a landscape full of pathos that evokes this sensitivity for the pain and emotional pleasure of a impermanent life.  There are no promises of transcendence but rather an acceptance of the conditions of existing and the appreciation of life as an aesthetic ideal.

Another aesthetic concept of the Japanese tradition, parallel but completely different to the concept of the aura in the West, revolves around the word "mystery".  Mystery in European art is instrumental towards the promise of transcendence of another world. However, mystery in Japanese aesthetics is a value idealized through the complex quality of yūgen that encapsulates the supernatural grace of a cultivated technique or the virtue of the allusive above the explicit encouraging the participation of the cultivated imagination of the spectator and the dark mystery of indeterminate things.

Utilitarian lacquer in Japan par excellence contains these two qualities of yūgen and mono no aware capturing a deep sophistication in the relationship between the aura, philosophy, design, human labor, as inseparable elements.  Therefore, the loss of the aura is also a loss of real production and the deep and intimate attachment to the singularity of experience.  At a time in which information seems like a right free of charge, in which everything becomes uncovered, visible, and when our perceptions are overwhelmed with graphic information, only the elusive or the ineffable offers a small comfort.  The search for elements of what aura can mean today contours our relationship with how the media shapes how we view the world.