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.


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.