In 1935, attempting to define what is valuable about an original work of art, the German cultural critic, aesthetician, and Marxist thinker Walter Benjamin declared that ‘the genuineness of a thing is the quintessence of everything about it since its creation that can be handed down, from its material duration to the historical witness that it bears’. (1) Valuing the artist’s hand, Benjamin argued that artworks have a unique ‘aura’ – an unreproducible physical history and material connection to the artist – while replicas do not. Benjamin was writing after the industrial revolution: a time when mechanical production threatened the possibility of debasing the artist’s traditional role as the physical creator of artworks. Today, the artworld is working to locate the value of the latest new medium – the digital – and the evolution of Benjamin’s ideas gives us a good historical idea of how this might go.
In The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains, Nicolas Carr writes that “one of the greatest dangers we face as we automate the work of our minds… is… a slow erosion of our humanness and our humanity.” (2) Carr’s concern about the digital reflects Benjamin’s ideas: how can something possess an aura of authenticity when it demonstrates no obvious connection to the artist – no element of humanity? We have always been anxious about assigning value to new media: the introduction of recording technology at the turn of the twentieth century, for instance, led musicians to fear that stage presence, charisma, and the ability to create rapport with the audience would soon be devalued in preference for soulless, technical perfection. (3)
History has of course dispelled such fears. Clive Thompson, who writes for the New York Times about the cultural impact of technologies, argues that recording technology has added rather than removed value for the music industry. He credits the physical limitations of early phonographs with normalising the 3-minute pop song, and argues that vinyl’s ability to immortalise one improvised performance enabled the education of generations of Jazz musicians. (4) Meanwhile, the endless reproduction of an image like the Mona Lisa has hardly stemmed the tide of tourists seeking a glimpse of the original painting.
However, the case of the Mona Lisa illustrates the way in which ‘aura’ is still a useful way of defining the ineffable “value” of an artwork. The core of Benjamin’s point is that, when stood in front of the “real thing”, we become part of its material history, sharing a transhistorical space with the artist–at–work. The viewer hopes this proximity might provide a window into the artist’s mind; access to some kind of higher truth – and the case is the same in music, where “true fans” are those who see their favourite artist live. Thus, a more pressing question about the introduction of technology is, perhaps, whether or not aura can exist in artworks that are not made or performed by the artist in the first place.
The precedent for locating ‘aura’ in such works that aren’t handmade was nevertheless laid before Benjamin even coined the term – even if they weren’t accepted at the time. The introduction of ready–mades in the early twentieth century by artists such as Duchamp and Picasso questioned where authenticity and authorship are located – their cultural significance as the first conscious explorations of the issue has since endowed them with what can only be described as aura. Duchamp’s famous ‘Fountain’, for example, a pre-manufactured urinal signed by him under a pseudonym, questioned the extent to which we require artist to be “maker” – it is now firmly part of the canon. “Genuineness”, then, can be said to derive from originality of ideas as much as handiwork. Nevertheless, the aura of Duchamp’s fountain still relies on ‘the historical witness that it bears’, something that the need for a signature – the bare minimum sign of the artist’s presence – makes clear.
Digital art perhaps represents the next step. It stretches the existing definitions of artistic value or aura in a new way, because it exists, at its core essence, in the form of data, and therefore aura and authenticity can’t be rooted in proximity to the artist’s hand or in material history. It is this absence of physicality and singularity which heightens our instinctive reluctance to assign artistic aura or value to digital art in a traditional sense. This problem is most evident in the world of fine art, where a promise of relative uniqueness is one of the ways in which galleries signify the value of viewing their contents. The issue has been acknowledged by some artists, if not overcome – for example artist Christian Marclay’s stipulation that his 24-hour video work The Clock (2010) can only be played in one place at a time, despite several copies existing.
Digital art therefore demands that we, the audience, acclimatise to a new relationship between artistic value and artistic medium. Doing so requires a redefinition of aura that not only accepts originality of ideas over originality of physical creation (as seen with Duchamp), but also the summation of a visual phenomenon’s appearances in place of an object’s physical history: Instead of tracking the physical provenance of Marclay’s The Clock, as we do with paintings or sculptures, future art historians will determine its value by tracking instances in which it has appeared, been viewed, and been thought about by its audience.
Just as Benjamin raised his concerns about mechanical art well after the Industrial Revolution, digital media already pervades modern culture, while its relationship with artistic value is still unstable. Yet we can see that the definition of aura has successfully evolved over a century’s worth of change: that new technologies of the past have always, ultimately, lost their fear factor and bent to creative will, as new artists have rooted meaning in what is unique about the tools and mediums they use, and the culture they are working within. Art throughout history has given new mediums cultural significance against expectations, and while it may be in its infancy, the value of digital art is the same as the value of any other – it voices creativity, humanity, and authenticity through the medium of its time.
(1) Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, trans. J.A. Underwood (London, 2008)
(2) Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains, 2011, p.220.
(3) Clive Thompson, How the Phonograph Changed Music Forever (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/phonograph-changed-music-forever-180957677/)