Aura

Painting of peaches.

In this episode Saronik asks Kim about the aura.

The idea comes from Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”

Besides the central text, the episode references Benjamin’s 1940 essay, “On the Concept of History” in which the Angel of History appears. We also talk about Oscar Wilde’s 1891 essay “The Soul of Man Under Socialism.” And make a passing mention of the British artist Banksy.

The image is a photograph that Kim took of a painting of peaches in an art museum in Amsterdam. She forgets artist and title of the painting, and would welcome reminders from listeners.

TRANSCRIPT

SUMMARY KEYWORDS

aura, art, mona lisa, theory, reading, text, marxists, answer, mourning, culture, circulating, camera, reproduction, diminished, foundations, podcast, fixating, high, question

Saronik  

In this episode, I, Saronik, talk to Kim about the aura. Okay, question number one: What the heck is the aura?

Kim 

The aura is what is lost when you reproduce a piece of art. 

Saronik

Right.

Kim

Like when you copy it. So, like, when you take a photograph of the Mona Lisa, the difference between your photograph on your iPhone and the Mona Lisa, the gap between those two things is the aura.

Saronik 

That is brilliantly put. My next question is, How do I use the aura in my life? Give me an example.

Kim 

So you go to the Louvre and take your iPhone, take a picture of the Mona Lisa and you’re like, that’s not nearly as good as the real one.

Saronik 

You know, what I’ve heard is, like, I’ve heard, like, people are always surprised by how small it is. Like, it’s way like, tinier than you would expect. Like because we are sort of fixating on the Mona Lisa example. 

Kim

Yeah, well, but that’s actually one of the things Benjamin says. Interestingly so, like, he’s talking about the, like, the camera as his specific example, too, as to, like, the technology in question rather than the art and one of the sort of functions of the mechanical aperture of the camera’s eye is that it, it can see things that no human eye can see. So it sees things in different proportions. So it zooms things in, it can take small pictures like little tiny corners or whatever things that you would never see. And because we’re so used to seeing the Mona Lisa in reproduction, where it is, like, expanded or made to appear larger than it is, then we think it’s larger than it is.

Saronik  

That sounds legit. And also like, I don’t know, I mean, I think did I begin the Mona Lisa example or did you? Anyway, anyway, I think we should move on. My third and final question of the day is, how will the aura save the world?

Kim 

Do you want the real serious answer to this question?

Saronik  

I want the real completely like the scarily serious shit

Kim 

The like obvious answer is, well I mean, come on fuck off Benjamin, it won’t. But the, like, real, like, theory bro answer or like at least the like the answer that Benjamin gives is that, well, so there are two possible readings of the text. I mean, there are as many possible readings of the text as there are readers. But there are two sort of mainline interpretations of the text and they’re both supported by the text. One of them, Benjamin’s kind of, like, mourning the loss of the aura. So, in “The Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” the aura is diminished. So, because we see all these photographs of the Mona Lisa circulating all the time, the Mona Lisa‘s aura is diminished. But actually somewhat amusingly, the Mona Lisa is enlarged in our imaginations, as we have discussed. But we can think of Benjamin and–in a way Marxism–is a project that is really culturally conservative in a lot of ways, or at least Marxists are often very culturally conservative people. And there’s this pole towards the past that, like, we can feel Benjamin mourning the loss of the aura, but the, like, straight ahead, canonical, whatever revolutionary Marxist reading of the text would be that Benjamin celebrates the loss of the aura, because the loss of the aura is what’s going to democratize art.

Saronik 

Right. I was really interested in what you said about, like, Marxists being culturally conservative and you know who, like, I feel, like, people who are not out and out Marxists when they try to sort of do Marxism, they are more interesting sometimes. And, the text that I’m thinking of is “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” by Oscar Wilde. And he has like a really interesting take on, like, art in a socialist world, which is like, like in a socialist utopia, he would vary eradication of monitoring responsibility in kind of a different glory for….

Kim 

Totally, but I think we have lost Benjamin. 

Saronik

okay, let’s go back. 

Kim

So how will the aura…

Saronik  

How will the aura save the world? And you said that there are two readings, and one of them, which, if I’m guessing correctly, you think is the sort of more accurate one, is that he does mourn the death of the aura while at the same time suggesting that there is a democratization of art that’s happening.

Kim 

Yeah, like, like I think that you know, the correct reading is that both are going on. But the like, if we’re going to use the aura to save the world, it will be the aura will bring about the coming revolution by democratizing art, basically, by taking art out of the sort of palaces of the elite or the you know, museums and institutions of the bourgeoisie and bringing it into the sphere of the proletariat. So it will, like, the aura will save us by dying, basically.

Saronik 

Yeah. I think it’s sort of like the apotheosis of this idea is when Banksy paintings are sold in auction houses.

Kim 

Yeah, I don’t know I, like, but I think the weird thing is that the art system or capitalism–which are the same–have both sort of they’ve somehow managed to, like, swallow art again. Like Benjamin’s answer is not, like, his reading of the scenario is actually not quite correct, right? So he imagines that the camera the invention of photography, the widespread reproduction of images, lithography, all of that stuff, newspapers, circulation, circulating images, all of this sort of visual culture of the 19th-century and the early 20th-century is is what’s going to is going to sort of shake the foundations of culture. This would be the cultural Marxist reading in that the shaking of the foundations of the culture, sort of also simultaneously will shake the foundations of the society as a whole and about the revolution. But I think his assumption that technology, specifically the technology of the camera, generally the technology of mass production, applied this fear of culture. the idea that that will do that, that that will accomplish that aim is actually ultimately flawed. Like, it doesn’t fucking work. History doesn’t bear it out. 

Saronik 

Yes. I mean, that that’s true, but I think you know, we’ve gotten some slack because he is not a prophet. 

Kim

But he fucking thinks he is, man! all that shit about the angel and the messianic times, the weak messianic…

Saronik 

Oh I love it, it is one of my favorite things in the world because it is so high. Anyway, I think…

Kim 

This is probably the end. Thank you.

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