In his essay, Benjamin is mostly concerned with the authenticity of an object, especially – the authenticity of a work of art. Authenticity is key because it is the measure of both the history and the “life” of the object and of our understanding of it. He shows the notion of authenticity through a number of terms, the most important of which are aura, reproduction, tradition, cut value and exhibition value. Benjamin argues that in the modern world the work of art is quickly losing its authenticity, personal history, and tries to make up for it with reproducibility.
A traditional work of visual art has something of a life of its own, a presence one can feel. It is made up especially by the object’s personal history, by its continuous existence in various spatial and temporal frames. The Japanese greatly value this kind of aura: it is when an object is extremely old, when you can feel the passage of time just by looking at it, then it is at its most valuable. In a sense, this is true not only for the Eastern world, but until the latest few revolutions in reproducibility (as Benjamin notices, there were several of them, the most recent being lithograph and film.
He did not live to see computers), the Western world also valued this aura. It still does, but less. A part of this aura is the history of the object as defined not by its physical history, but by its context within tradition. As Benjamin aptly notices, this is a place which changes freely with the tradition itself: a Greek statue had one value to the Greeks, a very different value in the Christian Middle Ages, changed yet again But when a work of art is placed within a cultural context, it gets additional value.
Reading Umberto Eco’s books is very demonstrative in this respect: when one is familiar with the epoch he is depicting: they become much more enjoyable for the fact of recognition. This traditional value pulls at the strings which make up our cultural baggage, and, in a sense, which make up ourselves. Well-placed references can strengthen the impression – and, thus, the aura of a work of art – a thousandfold. In the age of reproducibility, Benjamin argues, the aura of an object dissipates.
By making many identical copies, the effort to see and understand the original is no longer as great, and thus the feedback from the interaction with the object is not nearly so great. This diffuses the effect, makes it pervasive and all-encompassing, but very much lesser than a concentrated impression. Also, Benjamin notes interestingly that an aesthetization of everything leads to Fascism, because it returns us to a mythological world view by giving a cult value to everything rather than to separate objects of art.
Cult value is when an object of art is created not because of cultural possibilities in the widest sense of the word, but for practical purposes of another sense. A work of art is always, in a sense, an act of magic: however, in an object that is dominated by its cult value, this utilitarian purpose overcomes any artistic purpose it might have had. The most beautiful icon will be concealed for most of the year because it is only to be unveiled on certain days.
Such an object becomes more heavily invested with emotional value than any object that has merely exhibition value – the worth of which is measured mostly by how it will be received in society. This is the reason Benjamin speaks about an aesthetization of reality as leading to war: it would be akin to baring the nerves of society for every wind of social favor to dance along them rather than along the skin of society. In this respect, Benjamin speaks of the disenchantment of modern art in the same sense Weber speaks of the disenchantment of the world: both are double-edged swords.
The world is disenchanted because Protestantism wished to make the world a monastery, an enchanted and holy place. In the same way, according to Benjamin the new mediums, which utilize mechanical replication, in their attempt to capture the spirit of something do not permit the creation of a work of art as a wholesome object. It is a bricolage put together by the hands of someone who first had to dissect reality like a surgeon to gain access to its bits and pieces.
This is very well seen in the media of film: it is cut and pasted together, the process of creating it is discrete, and, as a result, the work of art itself is discrete, opening the door to an inhuman reality in the widest sense of the world. Especially mechanical pieces – photography that does exists merely for the sake of a documentary – destroys the participation of the human being in the creation outright, inspires an illusion of objectivity and alien animosity. It shows us the depths of our own subconsciousness, through capturing things which are not open to everyday perception with an ease never known before.
Can all of this be applied to modern screen media? Naturally, though the model would have to be modified and expanded, and to understand how it applies to screen media examples from other media might be useful. First of all, the alien-ness and inhumanity of what the mediums are capable of showing seem now to be greatly exaggerated. Looking back at the photos of Atget now, we see not only Paris, but also Atget himself, his style being absolutely distinct and very recognizable.
A director’s style is recognizable, as is an actor’s style. The film becomes a meshing of several personal styles, which is true – however, a good film will also have its own aura, a distinct flavor of its own. And it will be a flavor that a human being can perceive, because no matter how hard anyone tries through these new mediums to open up new things about the nature of surrounding reality, the real result is opening up more about is, in the end. Our creations speak about humanity first, and about their visible objects second.
Even the mediums which are almost completely mechanistic – for instance, filming everyday life and showing it later from an unexpected perspective – are still subject to that most human of all behaviors: interpretation. First, to the interpretation of the exhibitioner – such a film becomes very much like a stone mounted in metal. And, second, to the interpretation of the viewer. A film will always have something human – because it is a film that is made for humans, it is an informational medium.
While Benjamin may have been correct about a media object not having the aura of an original work of art – no physical changes – however, it cannot be said that a film does not have its own history. It shows up discreetly, in various places, and effects the changes in the minds and emotions of people – and the influence of tradition and reference is no less than with any other work of art. Besides, material artifacts such as the initial film tape still exist, as do variations upon the film, director’s copies and many such.
A film, thus, has an aura of its own – just different in composition if compared to a work of visual art. And it is this aura which is perceived when the judgment about which film is genius (and which movie is nothing but a waste of film) is made. As for the bricolage quality of the medium, one must note that it is not completely new. Techniques of bricolage have been used from the very earliest of times – the difference in the postmodern world is that the new bricolage uses artifacts of culture as its building blocks.
Still, to a primitive man, who had less cultural references to think about, any material detail spoke as much as a cultural reference says for us. Primitive man knew plants and animals and stones – each of them spoke to him both through mythology and through everyday experience. What is new in this time is the building of collages from debris of buildings rather than from natural materials themselves. That opens a whole new level of complexity, however, it does not intrinsically differ from earlier bricolage techniques.
Possibly, Benjamin underestimated the fact that pre-modern culture also had all of these tendencies that new art mediums brought to life – including the dissection of reality. Of course, this dissection has never been so massive. Never before had the common man been subject to the amounts of existential anxiety this kind of dissection brings. There is supposedly less and less mythology as time goes on – however, the postmodern time has been ripe with newly created mythologies, some of them springing up from and around various forms of art.
Some of them are short-lived – like the Blair Witch mythos. Others live longer – like the Lovecraft mythos. Even as art dissects reality and shows it as many-faceted, most human beings can’t live in this “dissected” frame of mind for a long time. Like planaria worms, the shards become full-fledged mirrors: little mythologies grow into private worlds based on debris. This is the other way the aesthetization of reality can manifest: not only in Fascism as is Benjamin’s theory, but in pluralism to the point of where subcultures grow into different cultures.
As can be plainly seen, much of Benjamin’s theory is very useful in the analysis of modern screen media. Its bricolage quality, the dissection of reality, the ability to manipulate reality at will are very important in any kind of film production. However, like any medium for expression, no matter how technically advanced, it still turns to the theme of the human being and does not truly show something alien to us. It reflects a changed world – but a humanly changed world.
1. Foster, H. The Artist as Ethnographer’ in the return of the real, MIT Press, 1996 2. Levi-Strauss, Claude. The Savage Mind. Chicago, 1966 3. Moore Rachel O. The Tired Lens’ in Savage Theory: Cinema as Modern Magic, Duke UP: Durham and London, 2000 4. Walter Benjamin The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, in Illuminations, London: Pimlico 5. Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism New York: Scribner’s Press, 1958