Aura you grown up enough to argue with Walter Benjamin?

'Les Amis Toujours', Demeter Charpuris, 1925.

‘Les Amis Toujours’, Demeter Charpuris, 1925.

‘Les Amis Toujours’, Demeter Charpuris, 1925.  Lots of queries at the end of this blog entry.  All comments welcome.

You’re not allowed to get involved with theory of art unless you’ve read ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ – if Walter Benjamin received a rose from every student who’s pawed through his insights he’d be under a Kilimanjaro-sized bouquet.

Thirty-five years ago, my friend Paul Rappoport asked if I’d read the Benjamin essay.  I had not; I was too busy cutting tropical fish shapes out of sticky shelving paper and making zany collages to be reading anything seriously educative.  I was too busy ‘experiencing art’.

Between then and returning to university I a few times did try to get my head around those pages and even owned a copy of the collection ‘Illuminations’, with a foreword by Hannah Arendt.  Didn’t get it.  Gave the book away eventually.

Now I am by choice re-reading the essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, and now incredibly I can see it, follow it.

There are even bits I can disagree with because I have other ideas, my own ideas, built by exposure to other writing, images and systems of belief.

There are lines I want to copy out and use because now I see they are beautiful and precise synonyms for more complicated ideas.

Most astonishing of all, places where I now can appreciate the value of his enthymemes – those parabolas of Benjamin’s imagination where he leaps over giant scads of knowledge.  He knits together ideas about the 5th Century and the 20th on the assumption that you will get what he is saying. He assumes you have read Adorno (I have not!) and Kant – yes, I have … but not on this subject precisely.  But I have read other people who have read Adorno and Kant, et al and I have understood things as transmuted by them and that is okay with me.

The key signifier of Benjamin is always his definition of ‘aura’.  It is such a challenging insight you can see how it kick-started a half-century of new discussions.

And in the context of the essay I am writing, it is the difficult word – ‘aura’ – around which some of my thinking now spins.  It’s not the ONLY word, not the LAST word … it is an important word, a key word that Walter Benjamin picked and added to our lexicon of cultural signifiers.

‘Les Amis Toujours’, Demeter Charpuris, 1925.
Sculpture from ‘chryselephantine’ – combining carved elephant ivory and bronze casting.  What happens to the ‘aura’ of this work in the context of current beliefs and values around the horrific trade in elephants’ tusks?  Does that affect the cult value of the work in public collections?  Should it be in collections?  How do changes in public ethos affect the status of artworks?  Ideas?  Anyone?


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