Context of artworks and their Auras

When we consider the context of artworks and their ‘lives’ from concept to collection there are quite a number of references to refer to. Walter Benjamin’s ‘Illuminations’ (1955) article says that we are losing the aura of art or design objects by viewing them out of their prescribed context. Jean Baudrillard’s ‘Screened Out’ (2002), years later, talks about us only seeing art or design objects through a screen; much along the same lines of what Benjamin’s talking about, albeit with the thought of more recent technological advances in mind.

Speaking of Baudrillard, his interpretation of the simulacrum (1981) should be something that is easily recognisable (because it’s common, not just because of what a simulacrum is). A simulacrum is a reproduction of something original or it can also be of an original that never existed i.e. in photography, Cindy Sherman’s untitled film stills; she has recreated film stills, from films that never existed. We recognise the character or the scene but, actually, it’s not based on a real scene at all. Akin to when someone might describe something as ‘having a feel of…(whatever)’. It can be more apparent; the landscapes of Las Vegas spring to mind. Use in a sentence: ‘OMG, is that the Eiffel Tower?!’. ‘No, we’re in Las Vegas. That’s a simulacrum of the Eiffel Tower’. Or there’s the three hundred foot high Eiffel Tower in Hangzhou, China, which is a miniature version of the three hundred metre high Parisian tower. A simulacrum is not just a facsimile. It is an adaptation of the original, a miniaturisation or distortion. Perhaps it never existed at all. What value do you think the simulacrum has to the creator or the consumer?

We can consider perhaps cult value: something that is constructed by people and is not a value in terms of money but in terms of a sudden rise in popularity of any given subject. There are so many examples that spring to mind that might be from periods in art, photographic styles, or even the lesser ‘trends’ in fashion, Instagram filters and so on. To be more specific, and combining the idea of the simulacrum, would the Düsseldorf School of Photography style be a simulacrum of the New Topographic? It was certainly inspired by it. Is anything in the art world capable of being considered to have ‘cult’ value; can cult value only be applied to art works that break the boundaries of the art world to be ingested by the greater public?

André Malraux was the man with a ‘museum without walls’ theory (1967). He was interested in the homogenised effects of reproducing work beyond the confines of the actual museum. By doing this, the aura is also removed, as far as Benjamin is concerned because the museum (or gallery) is where the art work ‘lives’ in all its glory. Benjamin says we need the aura, whereas Malraux says getting rid of the aura is not a negative undertaking and is actually quite helpful in making the masses better understand art. Malraux also talks about the process of metamorphosis through decontextualisation i.e. removing the artwork from where it ‘lives’ (according to Benjamin). Photography is really key in Malraux’ theory as it has such a high level of reproduction associated with it.

Pierre Bourdieu talks about cultural capital (in ‘Cultural reproduction and Social reproduction’, 1977) and the importance of it, so perhaps his theories would intertwine with those of Malraux; by increasing the availability of an artwork, would this make the masses more aware of the art world thus increasing their cultural capital? Benjamin would be most upset.

So, we return to Malraux’ museum without walls. This theory, very basically, serves as a tool to reproduce the original piece of art. Rather like when someone goes to a gig and watches the whole thing through their iPhone whilst recording it. Or people taking images of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre and then disseminating it by posting it on Facebook. Malraux is content that the artwork is being seen; Benjamin would be affronted that the aura has been lost by the artwork being reproduced countless times.

So, let’s consider these theories and consider which would be ‘alive’, ‘live’, or ‘dead’ and take, for example, the Mona Lisa. Benjamin would think that the only live, or alive, object would be the original artwork hanging in The Louvre and Malraux would think that that the reproductions (think of any type of reproduction from postcards to an Instagram post) are alive and become more alive as they are reproduced.

Filippo Marinetti (founder of the Futurist movement) would have thought that the original would be dead, as it is shown in a temple of culture (the museum), which fits with his theory of all museums being cemeteries. He would also feel the reproductions could be more alive because you actually get to enjoy and experience a copy of the original, looking at it in detail, instead of being pushed and shoved by the crowd who might only be there to reproduce the image through photography (or hang out in front of it alone like our friends Beyoncé and Jay-Z have recently achieved). If one was alone with the original, the aura may be felt more, as per Benjamin’s theories. But with such a large crowd, as can be expected in front of the glass case enclosing the Mona Lisa, the sense of Aura would almost certainly be greatly diminished. The hype and the popularity of the idea of an original piece of art could be construed as the aura, so are Beyoncé and Jay-Z showing off their status by being alone with such a well-known masterpiece? (In their video for Apes**t, 2018). Also, think about the accessibility of the piece of original art work. Is it possible to get to? Michelangelo’s ‘David’, for example, would have been particularly difficult to get to before the introduction of low cost and mass marketed travel. So a consideration of when these theories were written/published is relevant.

Photography doesn’t really fit well into Benjamin’s theories as he was used to it mostly as a tool for reproduction, rather than an art form. Benjamin says that photography is not used as an autonomous discipline, however, in relation to photography as an art form, I think we can mostly agree with Benjamin that the original piece, (for example a print of which there is only one hand-printed copy, negative destroyed) being reproduced increases the popularity and allows for a greater audience who would otherwise not be able to see the image. If popularity is what you’re after.

As a little addendum, because it uses much of the theory mentioned above, we can consider the decontextualisation of the photograph.

Thinking about the way a photograph may become decontextualised, and is probably more likely to be decontextualised than any other medium, I came across this passage in Susan Sontag’s ‘On Photography’ which I thought to be very fitting to this predicament:

   ‘A new sense of the notion of information has been constructed around the photographic image. The photograph is a think slice of space as well as time. In a world ruled by photographic images, all borders (“framing'”) seem arbitrary. Anything can be separated, can be made discontinuous, from anything else. All that is necessary is to frame the subject differently. (Conversely, anything can be made adjacent to anything else.) Photography reinforces a nominalist view of social reality as consisting of small units of an apparently infinite number – as the number of photographs that could be taken of anything is unlimited. Through photographs, the world becomes a series of unrelated, freestanding particles; and history, past and present, a set of anecdotes and faits divers. The camera makes reality atomic, manageable and opaque. it is a view of the world which denies interconnectedness, continuity, but which confers on each moment the character of a mystery.’

And further on:

   ‘Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it.’

So, to Walter Benjamin’s theories and followers, does this last sentence not evoke a sense of the reproduction of the original art piece being transformed upon reproduction? As Malraux suggests, the initial decontextualisation of an art or design object begins a metamorphosis of that object, as it is decontextualised and recontextualised.

According to Sontag, it seems that perhaps we should not believe everything the camera offers us as truth and, therefore, each time an art object is reproduced through photography, that art object starts to transform, increasing it’s ‘Aura’ with each reproduction.

Benjamin tells us that the photograph, and thus, the camera, is simply a tool for reproduction and not being able to entirely trust what a camera provides us with, we can go some way to agree with Benjamin’s theory of the ‘Aura’ of an art or design object being lost more and more as it continues to be reproduced.

Rather akin to the end result of a game of chinese whispers being often very far from the original tale.


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