by K.M. Zahrt
I’m sure that, as you visited ArtPrize this year, your mind inevitably wandered to Walter Benjamin and his ideas expressed in the essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” which was published in his 1969 collection Illuminations. I’m sure of it. I, like you, had the same experience.
For the sake of expediency, I will distill Benjamin’s essay down to this: Benjamin is concerned about what mechanical and technical (in our age, digital) reproduction does to a work of art. Among other ideas, Benjamin expresses concern for the work of art’s authenticity and aura.
Authenticity is simply the original work of art in “its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be” (The Critical Tradition, p. 1234). On the subject of authenticity, Benjamin writes, “The whole sphere of authenticity is outside technical–and, of course, not only technical–reproducibility” (p.1234). A reproduction of a work of art loses originality, in fact, but also in time and space. Benjamin goes on to write, “One can make any number of prints; to ask for the ‘authentic’ print makes no sense. But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed” (p.1237).
The aura of a work of art is found in one’s emotional response to the work of art as one stands in the presence of the original. In regards to aura, Benjamin writes, “One might subsume the eliminated element in the term ‘aura’ and go on to say: that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art” (p.1235). If you’ve ever stood in front of an original Dali or Van Gogh painting, or if you’ve ever stood in front of Da Vinci’s The Mona Lisa, you understand aura in that moment. You understand the difference between seeing a picture of the work and being in the presence of the work. The difference, according to Benjamin, is the aura.
I couldn’t help but think of these two concepts in regards to the first and second place winners of the ArtPrize 2013 public vote.
It is interesting to consider the authenticity of Ann Loveless’s quilt “Sleeping Bear Dune Lakeshore.” You may have heard it repeated several times that Loveless spent more than 400 hours constructing the quilt. Surely, as you stand before the original quilt, you are thoroughly impressed by her work. But here’s what Benjamin would be interested in: What would happen to that quilt, the original, if a quilt manufacturer were to reproduce Loveless’s quilt exactly, stitch for stitch, textile for textile, mass-produce it, and sell it around the nation and the world? Benjamin would argue, I believe, that it would loose authenticity and, as a result, artistic value. If that truly was the case, if everyone at least knew someone who owned a reproduction of Loveless’s quilt, would you be impressed enough by the original to vote it in as the winner? I would guess not.
Likewise, as I stood before Anni Crouter’s acrylic paintings, “Polar Expressed,” I felt a strong aura. They provoked in me a strong emotional response both from the images themselves, but also from the knowledge that Crouter had painted these incredibly life-like polar bears by hand. If you asked people standing three feet away from the images, if they were painted or photographs printed on canvas, I would guess the answers would come out 50/50. What a remarkable achievement. However, I also suspect that, if they were photographs printed on canvas, even though the images from three feet away would be effectively the same, the aura would be significantly diminished. If that was the case, if they were photographs, would you be impressed enough by them to vote them in for second prize? Again, I would guess not.
So, if you see reproductions of Loveless’s quilt or Crouter’s paintings for sale somewhere, which wouldn’t be all that surprising, I hope you’ll join me and Benjamin in mourning the loss of authenticity and aura for the original work in this age of mechanical (most likely digital) reproduction.