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Mario Cutajar


Walter Benjamin, writing in 1936 and responding to Marinetti’s glorification of war as aesthetic spectacle, noted that fascism represented the consummation of the principle of art for art’s sake. “[Human] self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.” Fascism, Benjamin concluded, is politics turned into aesthetics, the triumph of image over substance. Against this, the declaration that abruptly terminates this most famous of his essays, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” has the defiant force of a raised fist: “Communism responds by politicizing art.”

Lloyd Spencer, “Walter Benjamin”, drawing after
Paul Klee’s “Angelus Novus”, painting, 1920 (below).
Benjamin purchased the Klee painting in 1921.

In the late 1980s when I first started writing about art, it seemed to me that what then passed for the politicization of art had more to do with careerism than communism. The politicization of art seemed less a response to fascism than an adaptation to the narcissism of a self-congratulatory liberal elite. All those newly minted dot-com millionaires and advertising moguls and their brokers, lawyers, and plastic surgeons needed art that would advertise their superior urbanity and all-round coolness. The real motive was to give their wealth the gleam of intellectual capital. Identity politics and the dreary art that it spawned, long on attitude and little else, enabled an entire class of arrivistes to play-act at being cultural radicals without risking anything. Identity politics made this possible by positing the mere appearance of difference a radical act, thus obviating the need for any action more taxing than journaling.

It was vapor politics for people who sold vaporware. You took your tics and kinks, magnified them into a full-blown self-caricature the size of a Macy’s parade balloon, and sent it aloft in front of an audience eager to certify its own outrageousness by applauding yours. On occasion, if you played your cards right, you attracted the attention of some outraged yahoos on the other side of the cultural divide and your balloon could ascend a little higher on the updraft of hot air generated by the controversy.

In retrospect, the effort I put into trying to deflate some of these balloons appears as a huge waste of time. It was a waste of time because I naively overestimated the part ideas play in art and in so doing I lent myself to the very scam I thought I was opposing. Despite the belief inculcated in art schools that art is propelled forward by abstruse theoretical concerns, the reality (jarringly evident when you actually talk to artists and collectors) is that the motor that drives art is the same that drives music and entertainment in general, namely, ego. On the one hand there is the artists’ desire for stardom and on the other the desire of their fans to identify with people cooler than they are. The reason this isn’t more readily evident is that a vast academic/critical/theoretical apparatus encloses art and translates every plain-spoken utterance into a footnoted doctoral thesis. Imagine if, say, the very first time you got wind of the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can Get No) Satisfaction” was through a densely written text that teased out every nuance of its lyrics and unpacked an astonishing variety of allusions in the seeming simplicity of its riffs; that only one record of this song existed, and you had to wait months before you could go listen to it at a museum in the company of a small reverential crowd; after which, from time to time, you came across other texts that contested or amplified or revised earlier interpretations until the sheer accumulation of literature on the subject loomed over you like a mountain, which displaced your own dim memory of the song and left you an awed worshiper of the Stones’ conceptual audacity.

This is what we do with art, or at any rate, with Art with a capital A. That distinction itself betrays the prejudice that sustains the charade. The reason a Stones song is not Art but a signed urinal can be is directly related to the reproducibility of the item. “Satisfaction” entered the world as a recording. But once Duchamp signed it (with a false signature), the urinal became an authentic Duchamp, an absurdly generic object miraculously transformed into a singularly unique work of art. I have referred to Duchamp’s urinal before. It is an absolutely fascinating object. Why? Because it is pure, unadulterated aura. It is famous simply because it was signed by an artist who became famous by signing it.

It was Benjamin who came up with this concept of aura. In the now quite famous essay cited above, he set out in orthodox Marxist fashion to draw a parallel between the dialectic that propels capitalism toward crisis and eventual extinction and a dialectic that pushes art toward its own radical transformation. While the title of the essay refers to the age of mechanical reproduction, Benjamin explicitly situates mechanical reproduction within the context of automation in general.

Automation has changed social life. It has brought into being an organized, regimented labor force (the proletariat) concentrated in vast metropoli. In so doing, capitalism has created a class of workers whose labor it exploits but whom it also endows with the solidarity and discipline that will transform the proletariat into a formidable army against it. Or so Benjamin could still hope in those days.  

Up front, Benjamin recognizes that just as in social life, so in the sphere of art, automation and mass production threaten wholesale debasement. One-of-a-kind objects made by hand, be they rugs or paintings, seem imbued with a quality that machine-made objects made in quantity lack. This quality Benjamin calls “aura,” a word deliberately chosen for its association with the sacred. The aura of the work of art in the secular age is the residue of the magical/spiritual properties ascribed to cult objects in earlier times. A painting by Manet and a piece of wood that in the middle ages was supposed to be a fragment of the holy cross share a common quality. Their aura exceeds their visible value. It is based on their authenticity. Just as the piece of wood would be a mere piece of wood if it did not come from the one and only holy cross on which Jesus died, so “Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe” would be just a picture if it could not be indisputably linked to Manet’s hand. Some would say that even then, we would still recognize it as an extraordinary work. Perhaps. But what if “Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe” had not been created as a painting but as a fashion shoot for the cover of a supermarket magazine? Would it retain its peculiar “authority”? Benjamin’s point is that it wouldn’t, that its authority is inseparable from its author-iality.

In the age of mechanical reproduction, and even more so in our age of digital reproduction, this loss of aura makes works of art invisible as such. The mass-made, mass-consumed work of art, be it a popular song or a tabloid image of Paris Hilton in tears is passed over as mere entertainment because it lacks the aura we associate with “real” art objects.

In the course of an all-too-brief panel discussion on the impact of digital media on art held at Artscene’s 25th anniversary bash at LACMA, Marlena Donohue made reference to Benjamin’s concept of aura and its pertinence to the topic under discussion. And she posed an intriguing question: Benjamin had predicted that in the age of mechanical reproduction, the aura of the art object would evaporate. But if the art market is anything to go by, exactly the opposite has happened.

But has it?

Benjamin foresaw that one reaction to art’s loss of aura would be nostalgia. This nostalgia is capable of an almost infinite number of shapeshifting forms from outright dismissal of the value of anything “modern” to a taste for retro gadgetry and styling, whose patina substitutes for the missing aura of newly minted objects. In light of this, the argument could be made that the art market is actually a vast nostalgic enterprise not altogether different from the fake Main Street at Disneyland.

Keep in mind--this is sometimes lost sight of--that Benjamin situated his critique of aura within a larger Marxist critique of capitalism. To Benjamin the persistence of capitalism itself is a form of nostalgia. As he sees it, capitalism is overripe, historically untenable. This overripeness, blocked from giving birth to a new society, instead produces fascism, which mobilizes the regimented working class into mutually annihilating armies squandered on imperialist adventures. Fascism achieves this mobilization by giving the masses “expression” in lieu of rights. Instead of redressing the real causes of working class frustration--unemployment, falling wages, degrading working conditions, poor education, the breakdown of family and community, the exorbitant costs of housing and health care, the incessant stress of overwork and poor nutrition--fascism exploits the masses’ worst fears and hatreds and directs their aggression against mythical, made-up enemies against whom unrelenting wars must be waged. It happened in Benjamin’s time. It is happening today. We can’t go forward. So we go around in circles.

The cultural form of this historical blockage is the fetishization of whatever aura still remains attached to art. This takes two mutually reinforcing forms: on the one hand, the denial or depreciation of the artistic value of works that are widely disseminated and easily reproducible, and on the other, the hypervaluation of those few, specialized works that retain the aura of uniqueness. The absurdities that this fetishization can reach are known to all of us. A miniscule pellet of Tom Friedman’s shit set on a pedestal is a work of Art. But CheapyD’s “Xbox 360 Towel Trick” video clip on YouTube and the hilarious responses it generated are just raw material waiting for some “real” artist to come along and shape into a suitably ironic product that the cognoscenti can view in a gallery.

Benjamin did not specifically foresee phenomena like YouTube and MySpace, but they nonetheless embody what he saw as the positive aspect of art’s loss of aura, which is its liberation from tradition (and consequently a newfound vigor) and its availability to community. What art loses in cult value, it gains in what he called “exhibition” value. It becomes useful. Or as we might say today, it ceases to be authoritative and becomes appropriate-able, valued for the degree to which it lends itself to an exchange of creative responses. What we decry as attention deficit disorder, Benjamin described as the proper form of perception for an age when art, no longer a hallowed object demanding worshipful contemplation, could be engaged within a state of distraction. “A man who concentrates on a work of art is absorbed by it. . . . In contrast, the distracted mass absorbs the work of art.” And in absorbing it, transforms it for its own use, turning images and words into tokens that can be put to new uses, as when a kid uses a popular song as a soundtrack for a home video uploaded to YouTube in which the camera employs panning techniques he/she absorbed while playing video games and watching music videos. The key is the unselfconsciousness of this appropriation. It’s what makes the work flow and the community vibrant.

Tom Friedman, “Untitled,”
1999, soap and pubic hair.

Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd,
examples of purses that will be sold in the
MOCA Louis Vuitton boutique as part of the
Murakami retrospective opening in October.

Takashi Murakami, handbag based on
a serigraph by Murakami called LV Superflat
from an edition of 50 published in 2004.

As Benjamin notes, from Dada onwards, the avant-garde has repeatedly attempted and failed to divest Art of its aura. He imputes this to the limitations of the traditional media employed by Artists (i.e. artists whose work is taken seriously as Art). He notes in a footnote that what the Dadaists tried to achieve in performance, Charlie Chaplin achieved more “naturally” on film. But we know that the avant-garde has not been slow to adopt new media as they became available. Yet the aura of Art remains attached even to works (such as Duchamp’s) that go to extraordinary lengths to shake it off.

Something other than the choice of medium has thwarted this divestment. And the fact that Art is a hot commodity is not solely to blame either. Avant-garde art has been defeated by the very critical apparatus that promoted it. Warhol provides a very good example. There are numerous statements by him that reveal his genuine affection for the banal Americana that he recycled in his work. Nonetheless, the established critical dogma is that his work is “ironic” and hides a depth of signification underneath its too matter-of-fact presentation. In other words, it just can’t be what it is, because if it were, it wouldn’t be Art.

Sigmar Polke, untitled, gelatin
silver print, 1968, 7 1/16 x 9 7/16”.
From the recent exhibition of Polke’s early photography at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Steve Hurd, “Untitled (Outburst series) 4,"
2005, oil on canvas 54 x 91 3/8”.
Courtesy Rosamund Felsen Gallery.

Steve Hurd, “Should Never Be Exhibited,” 2006, oil on canvas 42 1/4 x 64 1/4”.
Courtesy Rosamund Felsen Gallery.
As I write this, the L.A. Times is reporting that a controversy is brewing over MOCA’s inclusion of a Louis Vuitton handbag boutique as part of the upcoming Takashi Murakami retrospective. Murakami is a third- or fourth-generation Warhol clone who in true Warholian fashion has garnered a reputation as a radical by indulging in the very unradical practice of merchandising his designs as various high-end tchotchkes.  In so doing, he has exploited the fact that the critical community can be depended on to always invert absence into presence. Like Warhol’s, the aura of his work is that it has no aura. It is explicitly designed as merchandise, but its very presentation as merchandise is interpreted as conceptually significant, or, as the well-worn phrase goes, as “breaking down barriers.” Never mind that this assertion itself erects the nonexistent barriers that it relishes seeing broken down.

Contrast this critical fixation with transgression to what happens in psychoanalysis, which is also a discipline dedicated to interpretation. In analysis part of the cure derives from the ritual of confessing your most shameful memories and thoughts to an analyst who fails to respond with either outrage or titillation. Instead of disgust or pity, you elicit something closer to benign indifference and the occasional deflationary remark. Over time, deprived of their exaggerated charge and symbolic load, your symptoms wither and die of their own accord.

The aura of Art today consists almost exclusively of this eroticized sense of its own transgression. Let that go, let Art be what it declares itself to be--a handbag, five burnt matches dangling from hooks on a wall (see Sigmar Polke), a letter of reprimand  transferred to canvas (see Steve Hurd)—and Art will eventually come down from the mountain of its self-regard and find a way to make itself useful.