For aura is tied to his presence; there can be no replica of it. The aura which…cannot be separated for the spectators from that of the actor.
I first read Benjamin’s essay some years ago in a very different context and was really interested by the concept of aura and authenticity. I’m going to try propose a re-framing of the discussion around authenticity and aura and their place in contemporary artworks.
First, Benjamin defines aura as that which is lost when reproduction jeopardizes authenticity and substantive duration. Let’s pick this dense nugget apart a bit: Benjamin sees “the work” of art dissolving through reproduction. There is no “it” to point to, no “nucleus.” There is no “thing” to endure or perish in time. Let’s just sidestep Marx because this is where I want to veer off on our own:
This is a really interesting idea. Does reproduction destroy authenticity and what constitutes an authentic artwork? Is it “the object?” Is it the collection of the object and all its reproductions? Is it something else entirely? This question always reminds me of Derrida’s take on Kant’s ergon/parergon which Kant loosely uses to mean the “work” and “the frame” respectively. Derrida deconstructs this binary inside/outside by feeling along the seams between work and frame and pointing out that there are multiple levels of framing (frame/wall, wall/gallery etc), not only real but conceptual. Think about Degas ballerina sculptures for a moment and try to conceptualize if the clothing or tutu, that can be removed or edited by a curator or collector is “a part of” or “apart from” the work. Does this a part of/apart from change if the concept of the artwork changes? This is where the idea becomes really important to our discussion of authenticity. If a work’s “real” boundaries are fluid, rather than fixed, can we also argue that the experiences of those who contemplate a work are part of the “life” of the work itself? If they can be a part of the work, how could you even locate a nucleus? If a work has existed in the public consciousness and evolved far beyond its substance to become something else (see Joy Garnett’s Molotov Man) can an artist even attempt to control their work or must they simply view them as children that have been released into the world? And perhaps, most importantly, what kind of authenticity can we even conceive for digital works that have no “it,” no “there,” there?