How does Walter Benjamin state his case for the removal of art’s elite nature?
In his essay, Benjamin locates the elite nature of the art object in its relation to religion and magic and therefore in its relation to ritual. This gives the object such significance that the object itself becomes magical through our fetishism of it. It lifts the object up beyond the reach of our mortal hands and places in the realms of the gods. Through the mechanical reproduction of this object it can be removed from its normal context, from ritual and tradition and taken into the context and situation of the people. It becomes attainable and therefore closer. This simultaneously shatters the aura of the art object leaving a void. With mechanical reproduction our perceptions of reality have changed and therefore our ideology; art used to be tied to specific social classes and could normalize their dominance but the cult of art as magic has become something else; it has become secular and political. Art can now mean social transformation. Mechanical reproduction has meant, according Benjamin, that the masses can be freed from their false consciousness about the ruling classes.
What do you make of his ideas of the aura of the work?
The aura of an art object is the distance between the viewer and the object itself, this distance is not physical but psychological; the aura represents our fetishism of the object or our excessive regard for it. This is created by our beliefs about the object and what it represents. To give something an aura can make it very powerful and according to Benjamin the stripping away of the aura relinquishes this power to the masses by changing their perceptions and beliefs about reality allowing them to situate themselves with their own history. I think that being aware that the work of art has an aura is a very important part of demystifying it.
Does the improvement in the methods of reproduction, colour printing, digital imaging and television, strengthen or weaken his case?
The improvement in methods of reproduction have changed our perceptions even more and we have the opportunity to be even more detached from the traditional, aura infused art objects of the past and more in touch with the reality of our world. However, this revolutionary technology that has been so instrumental in bringing awareness to our collective consciousness and bringing about social reforms has also been used adversely, as although we are now accustomed to photographic images and film and television in our everyday lives we are still ignorant of their full power and how they can be used to control our perceptions rather than setting them free.
Does the failure of the Soviet experiment alter the validity or otherwise of his case?
In the Soviet experiment they set out to establish a money-less industrial system that was directed by one plan. However, it is not clear whether this system failed because of inherent ideological flaws or because the Bolsheviks followed policies based on the necessities of a civil war. However, technology, reproductions, and the media have been used to control the perceptions and ideologies of the masses, through social realism for example, in Russia and Nazi Germany. Where Benjamin sees this new technology as ultimately freeing it has also been used for social control.
(John) Berger is most concerned with the way we confront images in ways and places that are very different from their original homes and explores how this affects their meaning.
Do you find his case convincing?
I agree that the art of the past is mystified and given a special importance that reflects the special importance enjoyed by a privileged minority. I agree that European painting has been used to justify and preserve the status quo in society and that now that this function has been relinquished through the destruction of the aura; art’s market value has created a new mystification. Moreover I agree that art should be used to help us make sense of our lives and learn from our collective history, allowing us to become active agents in our future.
Do you think that a work of art removed from its original site grows or diminishes in meaning?
I think that if a work of art is mystified through situating it in a place of high honour then removing from this context will change its meaning. We give great meaning and importance to objects and we can take that meaning away.
Does familiarity breed contempt?
I think the more familiar you become with something the closer you become to it psychologically, it is not longer mystified and therefore it is your equal. You can take it or leave it so to speak because it has less power over you.
Has Benjamin’s ‘aura’ been removed by the postcard?
I don’t think the aura has been removed by the postcard, I think the very fact that there are postcards means that people still value on these pieces of art, they still fetishise them and want to capture a part of them, and they want to be reminded of their visit to see the original. I think the aura is created by the context of the piece of art, i.e. in a museum, its market value and also what other people are saying about it. If society pays the work a lot of attention and experts give their approval then the aura is maintained.
Benjamin, W. (1936) The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Cited in Evans, J and Hall, S. (1999) Visual culture: the reader. Great Britain: Sage, p72
Berger, J. (2008) Ways of Seeing.
Accessed 16th April 2013.
Boettke, P. J. (1988) “The Soviet Experiment with Pure Communism,” Critical
Review 2(4) (Fall): 149–82.
Accessed 16th April 2013.