Walter Benjamin’s discourse predicting that the death of the aura will be at the hands of mechanical reproduction needs to be revisited in the age of post-modernity. The aura, I’d argue, was not lost, but rather reconceptualized. Although mass production did, to a certain extent, rape art and commodities of their authentic nature, an illusion of scarcity was fabricated so as to sustain the aura in the commodity system. For instance, sign value is a mechanism used by multinational conglomerates as a catalyst to create an aura around a brand name. The absence of scarcity has resulted in a society wherein commodities and even celebrities are branded. The thread of this discourse runs through the body of Andy Warhol’s work. Among the first to shed light on this socioeconomic phenomenon, Warhol visually reinforces the repercussions of mass production unveiling how the rebirth of the aura is rooted in fabricated scarcity and brand names. He extrapolates this notion to the sphere of celebrities, representing them as commodified icons that derive their alleged auratic value from the reproduction of their images and the inimitability of there existence. Point is: Walter Benjamin failed to foresee how the social implications of mechanical reproduction would be manipulated in the age of post modernity to revive the aura.
In 1936, Walter Benjamin wrote the essay “Works of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” to survey the social ramifications stemming from the economic development of technological reproduction. Arguing that technology has changed the architecture of society, he believes the onslaught of mechanical reproducibility will result in the loss of what he describes as the ‘aura’ lacing culture and art. Aura is a term Benjamin coined to describe how an object’s worth is hinged on the perceived authenticity and limited accessibility to it. Oftentimes the societal perception, historical significance and cultural recognition functions as a testimony to a work’s auratic value. Benjamin predicts that there are three domains of transformation that will manifest in tandem with the age of mechanical reproducibility. First off, the technological evolution of mass production will inevitably eliminate the scarcity of images and objects rendering in turn the death of the aura. For Benjamin, however, this loss of aura is good in the sense that it overthrows traditions premised on privilege. Thus, the technological development serves as a catalyst to the absolution of ritual. This shift, he argues, will engender a secularized society and a democratization of the new media.
Given that the accessibility of films, television and photographs is not tied to privilege or ritual, Benjamin’s prediction was correct. Yet, collectively these conditions are said to lead to the disenchantment of the image. I would argue, however, that the aura has been sustained in the age of post-modernity by the proliferation of brand names and the fabrication of artificial scarcity. Commodities are deemed authentic due to their sign value, films are judged often by their prestigious director and/or the branded celebrities involved. The aura has been transformed in order to adapt to the residual effects of the age of mechanical reproduction through the construction of artificial scarcity in the absence of rarity.
Whereas Benjamin argues that the aura subsists outside of commodity system, Jonathan Beller, in his work ‘Cinema, Capital of the Twentieth Century’, contradicts this point claiming that the aura is, in point of fact, specific to the commodity system. Furthermore, the dematerialization of artwork renders its authenticity reliant on the experience of the creator and the social recognition of the piece of art. Thus, in short, value is a question that is no longer tied to the issue of labor, but rather an assumption that is positioned in a realm of varied perspectives. This commodity fetishism renders its spectators incapable of seeing beyond the perceived value of the object. In other words, we look at images with the preconceived notion of what it must mean within the economy of spectatorship and from this gauge its worth. The object is thus seen solely through the filter of the commodity system. It is from this that the concept of sign value arose, countering mass production’s threat to the aura.
Emerging as a consequence of technological developments, the birth of this sign value manifested in tandem to the industrial revolution, which facilitated the mass production of identical objects fabricated for mass distribution. Although this means of manufacturing proved far more economical and efficient than its predecessor, from this economic development stemmed a paradox: “although capitalist technique of mass-production were very good at making identical product in great volume, economies of scale were less efficient at producing unique and therefore desirable goods”(Parker 361). Thus, with aspirations to surmount the complexities of this predicament, multinational corporations “exploited forms of advertising to construct symbolic virtues for their products”(Parker 361). Thus, in sum, sign value was conceived as a distinctive mechanism of capitalism to compensate for the mass production of identical objects facilitated by the industrial revolution. The same concept of authenticity that Walter Benjamin rooted the aura in can be extrapolated to the constructed scarcity and artificial value that corporations attach to commodities in excess.
The sign value of an object is designated through the aura attached to it by a certain corporate label and is exemplified best by the commercial proliferation of brand names. Brands are, in short, logos, slogans or particular designs that render a product distinctive, and as a result, desirable– the aura of which is oftentimes fueled by its representation in the media through commercials and advertisements. Whereas, Benjamin foresaw the onslaught of mass production as a threat to the aura, his assumption was flawed insofar as the socioeconomic condition actually served as a catalyst to the construction and proliferation of sign value and false commodity fetishism fueled by the illusion of auratic value. Given that America’s obsession with branding is a relatively new revelation in postmodern society, Andy Warhol’s art emerged as a novel critique on consumerism, art and the aura. He believed that, yes, in copying an image something is lost, but in turn something new of value emerges. Question is, although the aura alters once mechanically reproduced, does that necessarily suggest that it vanishes into thin air or could its reproducibility render an offspring that perhaps reinforces its value as a trademark image?
“Andy Warhol had an extraordinary awareness of what it means to be an artist in the age of mechanical reproduction” (Du Duve 308). Blurring the distinction between fine and commercial art and commercial art and commerce, Andy Warhol’s fixation with popular culture situated his work in the mainstream and rendered him, in retrospect, pop art’s seminal icon. He was the first to commercialize on commercialization, commodify on commodification and shed light on the perverse proliferation of brand names and the aura corporate conglomerates attach to them. The versatile technique of photographic silk-screens allowed Warhol to manipulate and replicate images, enabling him to construct a social critique by visually reproducing products quintessential of popular culture. Even the images he duplicated were often already mass produced pictures found in magazine or off a tin can in the third aisle of the grocery store. He conceptualized auratic commodification through artistic reproduction and appropriation of iconic images.
With mediums ranging from photography to film, printmaking to painting, Warhol contextualizes Benjamin’s discourse on the aura shedding light on the shift in the societal trends of consumption patterns and its relationship with media culture. The transformation of the aura predicted by Benjamin is revisited in Warhol’s work. He believed that the aura had not diminished but rather had been redefined, inverted and corporately manufactured. Appropriating commodities of mass culture, he exploited the fetishism of the aura that fueled blind consumption. For Warhol, the aura of an object is rooted in the authentic appeal of an icon, its mass production and circulation bears no consequences other then perhaps reinforcing it’s socially perceived status. Amid the glut of commodities presented by the industrial revolution, Warhol artistically delineates that the auratic value of an object is hinged on the illusion of fabricated scarcity and deceptive uniqueness tied to a brand name.
Conceptually taking it a step further, Warhol’s ironic visual proliferation of celebrities such as the silver-screen goddess and sex-icon Marilyn Monroe unveils the perverse paradox that the constructed aura of brand names can be extrapolated to famous icons- who have been commodified and consumed as products. For Warhol, Marilyn Monroe was a glamorously packaged product mass distributed to the public. The multiplication of her flawless image suggested that she, like Campbell Soup, was perceived as a mass-produced commodity, her aura drawing from the fact that there was one and only Marilyn Monroe. This body of work sheds light on the mechanisms of the Hollywood culture industry and how its production of icons fueled the exploitation of individuals simultaneously shackled and socially elevated by the limelight.
In the age of post-modernity, the proliferation of brand names, the emergence of sign value and the commodification of celebrity icons unveil a societal attempt to shield the aura from the residual effects of mechanical reproduction. With the fetishism of the image resulting in the public cannibalizing coveted celebrities and the aura lacing trademarks triggering a societal shift in consumption patterns, it can be concluded that the aura subsist. However, as illustrated by Andy Warhol, what determines a commodity, celebrity or artwork’s auratic value has altered since Benjamin’s time. In response to the glut of commodities, scarcity is constructed and the aura is tied to authenticity of a trademark image or inimitability of a celebrity’s branded flesh.
Benjamin, Walter, (1969) ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.’ In Illuminations, New York: Schocken Books) 221.
Beller, Jonathan, ‘Cinema, Capital of the Twentieth Century’
Du Duve, Thierry (1991) The Definitively Unfinished Marcel Duchamp, Cambridge, MIT Press, 308.
Flatley, Jonathon, (1996) ‘Warhol Gives Good Face: Publicity and the Politics of Prosopopeia.’ POPOUT: Queer Warhol, Jennifer Doyle, et al. (eds.) Durham, Duke University Press, 109.
Parker, K.W. (2003) “Sign consumption in the 19th century department store. An examination of visual merchandising in the grand emporiums (1846-1900)”, Journal of Sociology, Volume 39(4): 353-371.