The Aura and the Art Museum

This post has been inspired by a fellow blogger, one Peter Galen Massey. Recently, he and I had a reply-style discussion that mentioned the value of art and Walter Benjamin‘s interpretation of “aura”. This discussion has inspired my reconsideration of Benjamin’s work, and my own recent visit to the Art Institute of Chicago—where a Picasso exhibit is currently featured.

MonetSo, let’s start with the basics. Walter Benjamin, an exiled German Jewish philosopher, critic, historian, etc. wrote a significant essay entitled, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. (Here’s a link to the pdf). Benjamin defined something he called “aura”. This “aura” is a work of art’s unique presence in time and space. So, one would feel this “aura” if one viewed Monet‘s original Lily Pad paintings. It is akin to authenticity, except “aura” is a thing (for lack of a better term) that the original art work possesses (due to its history, its changes in ownership, its chemical changes, etc.). The thing is that this “thing” that the original work of art possesses can not be felt/interpreted/experienced by a subject, e.g. you, if it is a copy. So, that Mona Lisa on your coffee mug does not possess “aura”. You dig?

You know why? Because, as Benjamin states, “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art” (221 of Illuminations). So, any replica loses this “aura”. Only the original possesses an “aura”. (In an exchange of letters between Georg Lukács and Benjamin, Lukács told Benjamin that he was (paraphrasing here) not Marxist enough. I totally understand that now). And with that, let me make a bold statement: that aura stuff is bull**it.

Works of art are locked up behind gates, guarded by numerous security guards, and under constant surveillance. You know why? Aura. Those paintings represent a movement, a theory, a statement, a something; but, Man must eat first, before he or she contemplates art. So, we set aside our earned $30 and stand in line to enter our local Art Institute that houses works of art that should make us feel something (aura, perhaps?). And we see said art, and, lo and behold (!), it produces this feeling! “Yes, I am inspired! I will paint! I will draw! I will siiiiing!” But what inspires this inspiration? Is it aura? No. I will not grant mysticism to oil on canvas, nor charcoal on paper. What inspires us is our own expectation: the room, the lighting, the locks, the guards, the waiting, the entrance fee, etc.; that is what produces this so called “aura”. We don’t need to know about aura to feel this feeling. It is already in our collective consciousness simply by the fact that these works of art are placed in special spaces that are reserved just for them. This grants them an “aura,” not some mystical pronouncement or terminology. It is a collective will to place a value on certain objects (reification…), a value that does not exist, that is what makes these objects special and elite.

PicassoInside the Picasso exhibit, housed under a long wooden table with glass mounted on top, there were roughly a dozen early sketches of Picasso’s before he began painting a series of portraits featuring the infamous Minotaur. These sketches were unfinished and meant to be understood and valued as such. As I walked around the table, I noticed that I was in a room full of people looking at drawings of a Minotaur f*cking a lady, or sometimes two ladies. And I thought this odd. My second thought was: this Picasso guy is a hornball! Drawing pictures of bestiality and such. What a silly fellow! I laughed a bit out loud and caught the eye of my gf who was earnestly studying the sketches, as though she was imagining the burgeoning genius that was Picasso furiously creating this bestial sketch. She shook her head at me and walked on.

After the museum we stopped at ye old coffee shop and discussed “art”. My gf called me cynical due to my slight scoffing at Picasso’s Porn. I took offense. The last thing I am is cynical, my dear reader (a philistine, most likely. But, cynical? far from it). Her defense to my above accusation of Picasso is that he is a genius. My reply was that Picasso was a man. And the sketches of porn he was drawing proves that he eats, sh*ts, loves, f*cks, and drinks just like any other man. Period. He does not possess a gift or genius, he is a man with significant artistic skill, important social connections, and the right social conditions provided so that he could develop that skill and those connections. Punkt. Full stop—as my lady would say.

My point here is not to argue that art and its value is good or bad. No. Our esteem for art reflects our own cultural value. And our culture values art. It shows that despite decades of simulacra, postmodernism, mechanical reproduction, Mickey Mouse, far too many Transformers films, and thousands of $10 Monet Lily Pad prints adorning hundreds of college dorm walls so that some girl will think some boy is smart yet sensitive in the hopes that she will have sex with him, we still value art. It is one of the best ways in which we know how to reproduce and share the human experience. It is one of the best ways to demonstrate to past and future generations that creativity is valued in our society. It is one of the best ways to inspire passion, beauty, love, hate, honor, envy, morality, sex, lust, war, happiness, frustration, etc. And it is one of the best ways to communicate our Truth. Even if it is a sketch of a Minotaur f*cking a lady… or two.

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Woodbury, Walt Disney, The Walking Dead, and Why Plants are Better than Zombies

PVZ 1Over three years ago a co-worker of mine at ye old coffee shop was playing a game on her iPhone entitled, “Plants vs Zombies“. I was neck deep in my Literature MA at the time, and I thought quit well of myself for having never succumbed to such plebeian banality. Well, let me tell you something: I was wrong. It is now April of 2013, and I have completed “Plants vs Zombies” in its entirety three times. And it was fun.

What I noticed over the past few months is that not only was I playing “P vs Z,” but I was also deeply involved in watching AMC’s “The Walking Dead” every Sunday night. I had watched all the previous seasons via Netflix, and I was very excited to watch Season 3 on a weekly basis. I’ll leave criticism of that show to the professionals (check out The Atlantic‘s weekly series on TWD), and instead I am going to attempt to figure out exactly why I like zombies so much.

These supernatural beings should have some psychological relation and reflection to our own selves, right? Frankenstein is an allegory for capitalism, and as is Dracula, but what’s with zombies? Some are fast. Some are slow. Their origin could be a toxic event, a plague, or more often something unexplainable. But what do they represent for the fan? There is a bit of Biblical references, right? The dead rising from the grave and all that—”Judgment Day” as Ray Stantz so eloquently states in Ghostbusters. And fans of other horror genres, and critics of zombie films, will often argue that zombies are boring due to their horde-like, slow movement. After all, you just keep killing and killing, as though there is no end! But here’s the thing: that is exactly why I like about the zombie genre.

I have to work at ye old coffee shop at 6:00 a.m. tomorrow morning. Sunday. When we open—about 6:30 a.m.—they will pour through the doors not saying a word; not a greeting, a hello, a thank you; they will throw their remaining pocket change in the jar, go about their day reading the paper or making conversations with their neighbor about the weather. At 9:30 a.m., the masses will come. They will come after early church, before the later service. They will come in their sweatpants, their suits, their bow ties, or their stocking caps. They will come in SUV’s, on bikes, by foot, or lumber down from their condos right above us. And they’ll play noisy games like zoozit and kazay, a rollerskate type of lacrosse and croquet! … Oh, wait. That’s the Grinch. Sorry, I was on a roll…

Where was I? Oh yes. It is mornings like these when I realize my fascination with the zombie film: the horde. Retail/food service (the number one employer in America) is a special animal. They just keep coming. It is the nature of the business, I suppose; and if I wasn’t there for any other reason than health insurance, it is possible that those folks in their Sunday attire would not be starring in my own version of the zombie apocalypse. But they are. To me they are the walking dead. Sure, there are a few who make an impression, but for the most part I am fighting to stay alive. I am feeding them lattes and brewed coffee so they won’t eat at my flesh. I toss them a 400-calorie donut or two so they won’t tear off my arm and make me one of them. It’s life or death.

Main StreetSo, why Walt Disney? In March of this year, I went to Disney World in Florida (with my daughter, x-wife and my mother. Yeah, I know. That’s a whole ‘nother post.). I did a bit of research and discovered that Mr. Walt himself designed Disney World’s Main Street after his own home town’s Main Street; thus mimicking this 1950s era Americana nostalgia that may or may have not existed for the burgeoning middle class—only with hourly parades and a life size replica of Neuschwanstein Castle at Main Street’s end. Sheesh. I truly think that Walt’s Main Street resembles the Governer’s town of Woodbury in TWD (non-fans, I may lose you here).

Woodbury is modeled after this Disney-esque, Norman Rockwell Americana of some bygone era (pre-zombie apocalypse). It is fortified with large pieces of welded steel, on which a cat-walk is located for snipers to shoot incoming zombies, so that the people on the inside may live their “normal” pre-zombie apocalypse lives—barbeques, picnics, an evening stroll, etc. There is also ammo, food, normalcy, and a low zombie to people ratio. The problem is that both of these spaces rely upon a falsification of reality. No, I’m not taking the fun out of Disney World (it was a blast!), I’m simply interested in why we need to shield ourselves from reality. Why this facade of nostalgia as a precursor to enjoyment? Or, rather, enjoyment in the form of peaceful consumption? (Beyond the obvious not-taking-out-your-wallet-because-a-zombie-may-eat-your-hand reason).

PvZ 2Our narrative is often that these utopians cannot exist without a catch. There is one little, insignificant detail that requires this peace. For Walt it’s that crazy castle bearing down on us, reminding us that his homage to Main Street is just as fatuous as Ludwig II’s efforts to build a castle in honor of Richard Wagner with German public funds. And our concentrated belief in Main Street as representative of some blissful nostalgic love of what we think of as a “simpler time,” without our modern problems. For Woodbury it is, well was, Penny: the Governer’s zombified daughter in whose name he was running experiments on Woodbury’s citizen’s in order to find a “cure” for her. And the fact that none of the citizens faced the reality of the zombie apocalypse, and were thus unprepared for the real world. Yeah, it’s a stretch to make that comparison, but I beg this question: to what lengths will we go to secure normalcy? What will we ignore so that we may consume peacefully? Who will we keep out so that we may keep ourselves in? I for one am arming myself with a Snow Peas plant to slow them down even more, a Wall-nut or two to keep them at bay, and a Potato mine to blow them to smithereens. Trust me, I know my zombies.

A Slight bit of Complaining and Humor

WeatherIt’s Tuesday, April 9th in Minnesota, and it’s raining. Tonight it will snow. Tomorrow it will sleet, and snow again on Friday. Last year it was nearly 61 degrees Fahrenheit by this time. This state amazes me (or as our local weatherman said, “Considering it’s April 9th, these temperatures are pretty incredible”). But, to my point.

My girlfriend arrived from Germany this past Wednesday, and she is leaving one week from now. We made tons of romantic plans, and are even prepared for a nice trip to Chicago from this Thursday through Sunday (yes, it will be raining and cold in Chicago). Amongst the weather, the front brakes on my vehicle started grinding the day I picked her up! I noticed a squeal or two the days before that, but paid it no mind. Now they are full-on grinding. So, I have to drop my car off tonight and borrow my mother’s car to use while my brakes are being fixed tomorrow. Sheesh!

You want more? Okay. So, on top of all this happening: I got sick. I get sick perhaps twice per year. It is bad: coughing, runny nose, fever, hot flashes, but then there is the worst part: the chills. I have this thing where when I am desperately sick, I get severe chills. So, Saturday night my gf, my daughter & and I are sitting and watching Disney/Pixar’s Brave, and we proceed to bed about 8:15. I can do nothing but fall into bed and shiver. I am freezing. Not 10 minutes later, I realize that there are 5 blankets on top of me and I still shivered for hours. Eventually I drank some Nyquil and my fever broke about midnight when I realized how many blankets I had on me and that I was sweating like a mad man! My gf spent the whole night next to me making sure I got better. After my fever broke and I woke up, she discovered we don’t have mint tea, lemon, or honey in our house to which she replied, “You guys conquered the whole world without lemon or honey!” The next morning she threatened me with her Croatian grandmother’s cure for illness by rubbing me down with vinegar and garlic. We bought some peppermint tea instead.

Silver LiningsSo now I am downstairs feeling better, and, you guessed it, my gf is upstairs resting her burgeoning soar throat. But we have had some amazing moments together. Last night we went to see Silver Lining Playbook—our first actual date-movie ever after 2 years of being together!—it was great, btw. We Skyped with her parents last week, and made meals together. She had her very first PB&J ever and LOVED IT! And I got to see my gf and my daughter interact. That was fun. Of course I was incapacitated, but I noticed my gf’s caring manner.

So, we shall see how Chicago fares. I shall pack an umbrella, honey, lemon, and tissues! No garlic…