Theory in Studio: Walter Benjamin and the Concept of Aura

By December 07, 2011
old distorted portrait of Waler Benjamin - white man with glasses and mustache in a suit
Walter Benjamin, circa 1928. © Akademie der Künste, Walter Benjamin Archiv.

Please welcome Alex Robins who writes BURNAWAY’s first edition of Theory in Studio, a new series on philosophy and art!
Part of what makes contemporary art “contemporary” is that it is always new. We might hope that contemporary art has overcome the outdated assumptions of previous eras. If we take this claim seriously, it would seem strange that we continue to talk about a term like aura. In many ways, aura is an antiquated idea, connected to a distant history of religious icons and mysticism. Yet, for the better part of the twentieth century and even today, aura is relevant to how we discuss art. What does contemporary art have to do with this old idea?
The use of aura as it relates to art in the last century can be traced to one man, the German philosopher Walter Benjamin, and one essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” from 1936. Unfortunately, the essay is cryptic and offers no straightforward definition for aura. If we consider the essay in isolation, we are unable to articulate its contemporary relevance. Therefore, an explanation of aura must simultaneously be an exegesis of Benjamin’s posthumous legacy.

Memories & Inspiration: The Kerry and C. Betty Davis Collection of African American Art at the Hunter Museum through January 8th

Background for Benjamin’s essay
Benjamin was actively writing in the interwar period roughly 1920-1940. He tragically committed suicide in September of 1940 while fleeing Vichy France. He received limited attention during his own lifetime, though he had both friends and admirers amongst the German avant-garde including Bertolt Brecht and Theodor Adorno, but he has received widespread attention after his death. The last 20 years in particular have seen a flurry of publishing about Benjamin. While Benjamin was a prolific writer for many years, only scant amounts of his works were available in translation. For the better part of the last 50 years, the only significant English edition of Benjamin’s writing was a small collection of essays compiled in 1968 under the title Illuminations. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” features prominently in this volume. As one of the few texts available in English, the essay became a primary source in Benjamin’s international reception.
In this essay, Benjamin gives an argument for the political efficacy of cinema by turning to the concept of aura. Benjamin is committed to the idea that photography and film are unprecedented in human history. Unlike mediums such as painting or sculpture that create unique objects, film allows for the almost infinite reproduction of identical images. Benjamin describes this difference between the singular object and the mechanically reproduced as a difference of aura. He observes that unique objects, like devotional fetishes or hand-crafted items, are perceived to have an ineffable quality that is proportional to being one of a kind. The film image, however, is not unique and lacks this quality of aura. What the increasing presence of film in society has done to art is to make its aura wane. The waning of aura is significant for Benjamin who explains that art without aura has never been experienced in any previous culture.
For Benjamin, who was deeply influenced by Marxism, this new experience presented a problem. It could either be a benefit to a Marxist revolution or a dangerous tool for fascist regimes. On the one hand, the loss of aura could help further the proletariat revolution by decisively separating art from the precious objects of bourgeoisie collecting. On the other hand, the loss of aura is really a kind of sinister alienation symptomatic of fascism. The essay is very much a meditation on the question: Will modern Europe become communist or fascist, and how might film tip the scales one way or the other? Benjamin gives no decisive answer and leaves both possibilities open. In hindsight, his comments on film have been seen as prophetic about the Nazi regime, but this downplays the fact that he also sees a positive revolutionary potential in film.

Aura: More than one interpretation
From “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” we get two important ideas about aura. First, aura is waning. Second, this loss of aura becomes more pronounced in proportion to technological advancement. This formulation of aura is common and clearly rooted in an interpretation of the essay. This understanding is too narrow, however, and it becomes clear that, if we consider Benjamin’s writings more generally, it mischaracterizes his ideas. Aura is not specific to this one essay. As has become clear in recent years as more scholarship has been done on Benjamin, we can see that, in fact, aura appears throughout Benjamin’s oeuvre. To look just at the “Work of Art” essay is to see the concept out of context.
Aura appears first in Benjamin as early as 1927-28 in his observation “On Hashish.” It recurs throughout his letters and journals and receives a much under-read systematic treatment in the 1931 essay “Little History of Photography.” In the former, he discusses the aura of another person, and, in the latter, he describes early photography having a kind of aura. These essays stand in tension with the assumption of the “Work of Art” essay that photography has no aura. What emerges from a consideration of Benjamin’s larger body of work is that there can be no single type of aura. There are instead many auras associated with diverse experiences. Conceived in this way, aura is not a narrow concept related only to technology but is a general category of experience that can apply to any object of perception.

Four examples: Wayne’s hat, Schelling’s coat, Moholy-Nagy, and Beshty
Let’s try a more concrete example. Two months ago, John Wayne’s cowboy hat from the movie Big Jake sold for $119,500 at auction. This price was higher than expected, but not terribly surprising considering how iconic John Wayne and his Westerns continue to be. But, celebrity aside, the whole transaction becomes strange: without Wayne the hat is just a hat. There is nothing unusual about its make or material that would warrant such a high price. Yet it is obvious that value of the hat is not in the material object itself. It is the immaterial aspects of celebrity and fandom that influence the perception of the hat. These perceived qualities attributed to the object are to be captured in the general formulation of aura.
While this example might seem distant from Benjamin, it actually resonates well with an example of aura he uses in “Little History of Photography.” There he discusses the coat of the philosopher Schelling. He remarks that, even long after Schelling is dead, we perceive his persona in the coat itself. The coat is saturated with the aura of this great thinker. This type of experience we could see as true of any memento. Aura does not need be exclusively connected to technology. This more open formulation helps us understand Benjamin’s own championing of certain artists of his era. He was particularly enthusiastic about the work of Hungarian born artist László Moholy-Nagy.
Moholy-Nagy was a Bauhaus instructor best known for his writings on photographic technique and the development of a camera-less photographic method he named the photogram (click here for Wikipedia or click here for a more light-hearted article, one of the oldest on this website). To the attentive reader, there is no secret that Benjamin often mentions Moholy-Nagy. In the “Little History of Photography,” Benjamin quotes Moholy-Nagy’s book Painting, Photography, Film at length, and in “News About Flowers” (1928) Benjamin quotes Moholy-Nagy’s Three Essays on Photography. There are still other passages where Benjamin discusses photography in a manner akin to Moholy-Nagy, in addition to numerous references to the Bauhaus in general. This type of attention to and affection for the work of Moholy-Nagy makes little sense if Benjamin was opposed to modes of mechanical art making. Aura must be open to Moholy-Nagy’s work and cannot be narrowly defined.
Likewise, contemporary artists might find the term more useful in its articulation as a general mode of perception. Consider the recent work of photographer Walead Beshty. His 2008 Hammer Project showed a series of photographs taken in the abandoned Iraqi diplomatic mission to East Berlin. Beshty allowed the film carrying these images to be damaged as they passed through an airport x-ray. The resulting work is a series of images that cannot be explained as simply documentary. First, they depict a diplomatic mission that no longer exists because the former political state of East Germany no longer exists. Second, he took these pictures at a time in the Iraq War when the nation of Iraq was in violent upheaval and did not constitute a nation. So the images are of an empty building intended for a non-existent nation that was built in another non-existent nation. The x-ray damage only complicates matters further, because what we see in the photos themselves is not a transparent view of the empty building, but rather distortions created by a secondary mechanical process. East Germany, Iraq, and transparent images are not expressed in the final images, but they continue to constitute an aura suffusing the piece, deeply influencing our perception of these images. This work, while thoroughly photographic and mechanical, still can be describes as having an aura.
While the interpretation of aura has tended towards a narrow discussion about technology, it should be clear that it has greater applicability to perception in general. Since the term can apply broadly, it has value for contemporary art like that of Walead Beshty and also in our evaluations of art-historical figures like Moholy-Nagy. I hope this article explains some former uses of aura and some possible future uses as well.
For more information about Benjamin and his philosophy including aura please visit the website for the Benjamin archives.

Alex Robins is a PhD student in philosophy at Emory University. His research examines the history of aesthetics with a focus on American theories of art.
Theory in Studio is a series dedicated to highlighting philosophic terms, trends, and figures and showing their relevance to contemporary art. By providing context, the series seeks to demystify theory and introduce ideas that might help inspire future studio practice.

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