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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5 thoughts on “The Aura and the Art Museum

  1. I am not a very ‘intelligent’ person, but I do think that you are simplifying art a bit. To say that the ‘trappings’ are more valid than the art itself seems wrong to me. Many of the buildings that house the art are in fact art themselves…the Guggenheim comes to mind with its winding spiral that brings the museum goer deeply into the process of ‘viewing’. And I do believe that paintings do not ‘have’ an aura, but ‘create’ an aura for the viewer to experience in their own mind, which is one reason so many people appreciate art in the first place…just sayin’.

    • Thanks for the comment, Trendbytes! In my humble opinion I think you are very intelligent.
      And I agree with what you write. But I want to turn the logic a bit. It is my argument that works of art by themselves cannot generate appreciation; rather, it is us as a culture who value and appreciate art first, and then this “aura” appears as natural to the work of art. Appreciating art is a learned societal behavior.
      I don’t quite know what you mean by “trappings”. If you are referring to the infrastructure (buildings, fees, guards, cameras, etc.), then I would argue that discounting these factors seems wrong to me. These factors grant access to Art (with an elite capital A) first, before appreciation. Because of this, appreciation of art becomes a value only afforded by, well, those who can afford it. (Who is the artist? Picasso in the museum? Or the saxophonist playing for change on the adjacent street corner? We have presupposed that judgement).
      Also, I do agree: I am simplifying art. Because I don’t grant it complexity. I grant it beauty and other values, but art is still a simple, albeit laborious, process (which does not necessarily grant it complexity).
      Thanks again for the comment!

      • I agree with you that art is a learned societal behavior, and your comments remind me of symbolic interaction theory, which is used extensively in apparel (my field of study) and posits that there is no value, or meaning, until it is viewed and assessed by others. I agree in that art is the same as it means little if it is not positively viewed by you and me, or negatively as the case may be, which can also make an artist famous, no? Enjoy dialoging with you…

  2. Pingback: Clash of “The Great Gatsby” Cover Designs | Why Does It Matter? | Peter Galen Massey's Book Blog

  3. “Aura” does seem to be a mystical term, but I don’t have a problem with mysticism: it’s just hard to discuss and impossible to prove. The ultimate subjective experience, perhaps. It also leads to the question of whether art forms in which mechanical reproduction is essential have an aura. Films or studio recordings of music, for example. Finally, I always thought Picasso was a genius and a nasty dude. The collection in Paris left a very bad taste in my mouth. He didn’t seem to have much regard for the women he painted.

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