The Loss of the Aura
Economical, political and aesthetic consequences of the mechanical reproduction of writing and images have had considerable effects on modern societies during the twentieth century. It is not only access to works of the mind and, in particular, to works of art that has been facilitated, but the nature of their intellectual content and the way in which they influence humans that has been transformed (Benjamin 2006). On the one hand, physical objects of art, e.g. the physical support of pictures, were becoming far less valuable because of their easy reproducibility. Therefore, what had been previously attached to unique and singular items, which because of their irreplaceability conferred on them, some magic properties, was disappearing, which made the nature of art evolve. A famous essay written by Walter Benjamin in the second quarter of the twentieth century and entitled “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility” (Benjamin 2008) constituted an attempt to approach the nature of these changes. It has been very influential during the last 60 years especially, but not only, in aesthetics. According to Walter Benjamin, with the mechanical reproduction of works of arts, in particular with photography, the part of the human in the making of art was greatly reduced, because the capture no longer required the intervention of human hand, since the machine was automatically recording the light. As a consequence, works of art, which had testified to an inheritance and a tradition since the origin of mankind, both by the art techniques utilized, which required to learn gestures, and by the symbolic references attached to the contents that were almost always conventional or allegoric, have became, with these new inventions, closer to scientific investigations than to the sacred and supernatural. It follows that prosaic objects of everyday life turned more and more often to be referents of works of art. Baudelaire, who described the Paris streets, and Stéphane Mallarmé have attested this evolution in poetry (Benjamin 2006). But, it could have been possible to see many other manifestations in different arts. In addition, the reception of works of art was evolving with their massive reproducibility: it became collective and simultaneous, with photos or movies, while previously it had essentially been individual and contemplative.
A key concept proposed by Walter Benjamin to approach these transformations was the notion of aura, which he defined as “the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be.” The notion of aura was also linked to the involuntary
memory (Benjamin 2006), which had been introduced by Marcel Proust and Henri Bergson (Bergson 1926) to characterize a type of remembering that is both contemplative and unconscious, and that contrasts with an intellectual and active access that is implemented in the voluntary memory.
According to Benjamin, works of art are received and valued on different planes that stand between two polar opposites; on the one, the accent is mainly put on the cult value, that is associated with the contemplation, which requires concentration; on the second, the accent is put on the exhibition value of works of art that are designed to distract the mass of spectators and that no longer demand them to be absorbed. With mechanical reproduction, the cult value of works of art that requires concentration and efforts tend to decline while the exhibition value, which distracts the mass, becomes more and more prominent. As a consequence, the aura, which is attached to the cult value and to traditions, vanishes.
This loss of the aura is not only negative. It has aesthetic consequences. New forms of art that no longer refer to traditions and that eliminate cult value are emerging among which one can note Baudelaire's poetry, Cubism or Dadaism. But it has also less positive consequences that led political regimes—especially, the twentieth century totalitarian regimes—to use new media and works of art for their propaganda. Lastly, it has economical consequences that lead works of art to focus only on the exhibition value.