The Aura of the Authentic: Walter Benjamin on Authenticity

Walter Benjamin’s concept of the aura of the authentic is one of the key ideas when it comes to issues of authenticity. Benjamin developed this concept in his most celebrated essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, whose most central ideas I will present in the next few lines.

Nominal and expressive authenticity

It is important to clarify that the term authenticity may be used to describe two separate things- nominal and expressive authenticity (1). Expressive authenticity refers to the ability to be faithful in ones own self, to express genuine qualities and possess inherent and self originating authority. This authenticity is the one that Hegel, Heidegger and many existential philosophers have much struggled to define and understand. The second authenticity is the one standing on the other side of forgery and fakery. This is called nominal authenticity and is the one that at a first glance Benjamin refers to in his essay, although at times he brings up issues that address both types of authenticity . Dutton (2) defines nominal authenticity as “the correct identification of the origins, authorship, or provenance of an object, ensuring, as the term implies, that an object of aesthetic experience is properly named”.

The aura of the authentic

Benjamin’s essay begins by stating that every original has an element which can never be captured by any reproduction no matter how faithfully it copies the original image. This element is the original’s unique presence in time and space and entails the visible marks left by the passage of time and the history of which the object has been subjected to throughout its existence. These qualities can be retrieved with various scientific methods and would never be found on any reproduction. Because of this exclusive characteristic of the original, Benjamin claims that “the whole sphere of authenticity is outside technical- and, of course not only technical- reproducibility” (3). A different opinion is presented by Cornelius Holtorf (4) who believes that authenticity is a quality of a historical object that can be easily reproduced in the present. Holtorf’s understanding of authenticity focuses on historical objects and the way we experience authenticity threw an object’s ‘pastness’ (5).

The next point in Benjamin’s essay is differentiating between manual and mechanical reproduction. Manual reproduction (forgery) has always allowed the original to retain its authority as it heavily depends on the original’s qualities and existence. This does not happen with mechanical reproduction which is largely independent. Benjamin brings the example of photography to explain why that is. A photograph can focus on qualities of an original that are unattainable to the naked eye and through certain processes, like slow motion and enlargement, can also capture images, which completely escape natural vision. Mechanical reproduction additionally degrades the original’s authority because it places the copy in situations that the original would never be. The photo of the cathedral can become part of a personal collection, the sound of its choir can be heard in open air or in a drawing room etc.

Benjamin clarifies that mechanical reproduction does not usually alter the physical presence of the original but almost always depreciates the quality of its presence. Essentially, mechanical reproduction harms the authenticity of the art object contesting its authority on transmitting meaning. As the historical testimony of an object is also based on its authenticity, the former is too jeopardised. Benjamin expresses with the term “aura” the element of the authentic that suffers. He then proceeds to his main argument that: “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art” (4). His next point illuminates the reason why aura withers: “by making many reproductions it [mechanical reproduction] substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique experience” (5). Mechanical reproduction also takes the object out of its context and essentially shatters the tradition it embodies.

In photography, for example, there is no reason to look for the original (the negatives) because its purpose is to serve as the matrix for a series of identical copies. This means that modern art has practically eliminated authenticity, by making the original work of art, which is the prerequisite of authenticity, completely irrelevant!

Ritual and politics

Another important idea is that of art based on ritual as opposed to art based on politics. Since prehistoric times, art has been integrated in rituals, initially of magic and later of religion. The aura of the authentic was part of this ritualistic function of art. In the Renaissance, secular rituals of art and beauty gained prominence and in the 19th century photography and socialism attempted to root art out of its ritual context under the doctrine of “l’art pour l’art”. This art theology finally gave rise to a negative theology denying art its social function and categorisation by subject matter. Benjamin hails this change as a liberation of art from the constraints of ritual and the coming of an art based on politics.

Exhibition and cult value

Benjamin distinguishes between two ways of valuing art. The first is based on the exhibition value of an artwork and the second on its cult value. When art was part of rituals, says Benjamin, its cult value was of extreme importance. Decorated pottery laid buried in graves, paintings hidden in temples were accessible only to priests, and statues carefully concealed were only unveiled on special occasions. Art’s exhibition value was of secondary importance. This has finally changed as art is made to be exhibited as widely as possible. Frescoes in christian temples had a limited exhibit value as only travellers could witness them. Stage actors were seen only by those lucky enough to pay a ticket to access the theatre. Today a photograph can travel wherever needed and cinema can make the performance of the film actor accessible to audiences all over the world. Long story short, the exhibit value today has overshadowed completely the cult value of art. This emphasis on the exhibit value has created accessible art which is constantly exposed to criticism, in contrast with cult art, which could not bear becoming the object of criticism, as its diminished its authority and function.

Conclusion

Benjamin’s essay continues exploring other issues such as the different reactions of the masses against art, Dadaism and most importantly the concept of the optical unconscious. As far as authenticity goes, Benjamin has already expressed his most important contributions. The aura of the authentic is an element of an original work of art that cannot be reproduced and is based on the authentic’s ability to have a specific presence in time and space. The mechanical reproduction of art facilitated by modern art forms such as photography and cinema, has allowed a shift from cult to exhibition value and ritual function to politics. These changes are making the aura of the authentic harder to trace rendering authenticity progressively more irrelevant.

“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” may not be perfect and certainly has problematic aspects such as the idea that art is not anymore experienced as part of rituals. Nevertheless, it remains a central text in understanding authenticity, even if many of its ideas are today being contested, refused or even thought to be outdated.

Notes

  1. see Dutton 2009
  2. Dutton 2009
  3. Benjamin 1999, 214.
  4. Holtorf 2013.
  5. “Pastness is the result of a particular perception or experience. It derives from, among others, material clues indicating wear and tear, decay, and disintegration” Holtorf 2013, 427.
  6. Benjamin 1999, 215.
  7. Benjamin 1999, 215.

Bibliography

  • Benjamin, W. 1999. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In Illuminations. Translated by Harry Zorn and edited by Hannah Arendt. London: Pimlico
  • Dutton, D. 2009. Authenticity in Art. In Levinson, J. The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Holtorf, C. 2013. On Pastness: A Reconsideration of Materiality in Archaeological Object Authenticity.  Anthropological Quarterly,86(2), 427-443. 

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