On Film. The “aura” and the authenticity

Walter Benjamin in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” not only attempts to analyze the historical process that art goes through in the age of mechanical reproduction but also to comprehend how art can develop “revolutionary demands” (FTC: 792) towards political reality. The article can therefore be understood as a programmatic study for understanding the way in which mechanical reproduction, in some sense, could change the function of art. Benjamin tries to perceive what those elements that create the crisis of the “artistic product” are. He asserts:

“In principle a work of art has always been reproducible. Man-made artifacts could always be imitated by men. Replicas were made by pupils in practice of their craft, by masters for diffusing their works, and finally, by third parties in the pursuit of gain. Mechanical reproduction of a work of art, however, represent something new. Historically, it advanced intermittently and in leaps at long intervals, but with accelerated intensity” (FTC: 792).

According to Benjamin, what lacks (even in the case of a highly perfected reproduction) is the “hic et nunc” of the work of art, or rather, its unique existence at the place where it is located; in essence, missing what the philosopher called “a most sensitive nucleus – namely its authenticity” (FTC: 794) of the artwork. This “authenticity” would bring and retain within itself all the tradition and all the history where the work of art is inserted. But – I wonder – what the difference between mechanical reproduction and a manual reproduction technique is? Perhaps, it is through this distinction that it is possible to understand the crisis which marked art from the late nineteenth century, when the new expressive forms of art – photography, before, and film, afterwards – began taking hold.

In the eyes of Walter Benjamin, mechanical reproduction, would, in a sense, be more “self-sufficient” than the manual reproduction. First of all, as in the specific case of the photography, it could reveal details of the original work which would not be accessible without the aid of the lens. Through particular processes such as the magnification, these would have the advantage of fixing images that normally escape the natural vision of the human eye. Second, the mechanical reproduction introduces some situations and circumstances that original work of art itself would not really be able to access: “The cathedral leaves its locale to be received in the studio of a lover of art; the coral production, performed in an auditorium or in the open air, resounds in the drawing room” (FTC: 793).

However, all occasions or situations in which the element of reproduction can be used – even if it does not lose the texture of the original – can devalue the “hic et nunc” of the work of art. They can dissolve its authenticity. On the other hand, they offer to the masses the possibility of approaching the artistic object more easily: but it is precisely this element, namely the loss of distance, which probably represents the feature of the modern era.

Going back to the idea of “authenticity”, how can we exactly define it? Can we relate this idea to the concept of “aura” used by Benjamin? According to the German philosopher, is the “aura” the essence of a thing? He claims: “One might subsume the eliminated element in the term “aura” and go on to say: that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art” (FTC: 794). Does the manual reproduction of the work of art lead to losing the authenticity, namely the “aura”? It seems clear to me that the reproduction technique subtracts the “object” from the tradition – to which it belongs intimately – and thus gives rise to two distinct phenomena: first, by multiplying the production, instead of a single event, we are faced with a vast amount of work of art; second, it allows the user to access mass-reproduction . Both of these phenomena lead to a distortion of the tradition, which would – according to Benjamin:

lead to a tremendous shattering of tradition which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind. Both processes are intimately connected with the contemporary mass movements. Their most powerful agent is the film. Its social significance, particularly in its positive form, is inconceivable without its destructive, cathartic aspect that is, the liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage (FTC: 794).

Focusing on Film and his relation with the “aura”, I was wondering if there is a difference between art work in general and cinematic representation. Film is made of mediation, deferral, and decomposition: the actions presented in their sequence are shot at different times, and what we see is the result of montage. Unlike other arts, such as painting, the role of the director is different in the film: he penetrates in the images, and redefines the sequence. However, for Benjamin, the result is the loss of the aura, which is not different from other art works. According to how I interpret it, the difference between all forms of Art and Film lies in the access that the mass has to the film. The prevalence of all mechanical reproductions creates “the mass movement” (FTC: 794) and a culture of minor experts who are ready to judge art rather than loose themselves in participatory ritual. However, in the case of Films, we are faced with a product in which the viewer does not get lost but remains in a state in which pleasure and critical judgment coexist without limiting each other.

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