In his classical work, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin wrote that modern technology would free art from its “aura”:
for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the “authentic” print makes no sense. But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice — politics.
For a while it seemed as if history had proven Benjamin wrong: if nothing else, the aura associated with “original” works of art seemed to have increased over time. Just think of the huge prices being paid at auctions for various paintings. However, the internet seems to have brought us into an era that the Dadaists only dreamed of: the era of the remix, of collaborative art, of fan fiction, etc.
So it is ironically fitting that the biggest news story about artistic aura would involve that dadaist classic: Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, a urinal which Pierre Pinoncelli smashed with a hammer last year. This work was the ultimate attack on aura, and yet having been “voted the most influential artwork of the 20th century by 500 selected British artworld professionals” it has itself acquired that aura. Pinoncelli’s attempts to smash it is a fitting tribute to the idea, as much as it is an affront to that aura. The Pompidou Centre center claims he destroyed the “value” of that work, while Pinoncelli claims to have added to it.
In the digital age remixing art leaves the original intact; but “the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed.”
Aura is dead, long live aura.