Emailable aura

By Chris Creighton-Kelly, March 2013

If art requires the quality of uniqueness to be art, can web-based expression be art?

In the last Culture Talks, I opened a discussion about the intersection of art and politics. I made reference to Walter Benjamin’s 70-year-old idea of the “aura” that accompanies visual artworks or live theatre productions. It is this uniqueness—in the art object or the onstage performance—that, according to Benjamin, gives art its authenticity.

He also states that by reproducing artworks, this aura is displaced: “...that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art...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.”

I wonder if this is true. Can art which is reproduced—and today that mostly means electronically reproduced—still have aura? It’s worth noting that even if it’s true that aura has been created historically by uniqueness and authenticity, it is also true that this pedigree has been designated by elites and experts. These elites have been able to exert this aesthetic control partly because of the design of communication systems. A quick look at the history of these systems reveals a model that has continued for centuries. This model can be expressed simply as the few (elites with power) using a one-way system to speak to the many (those with limited or no power).

From the printing press to photography to radio and the music industry, right up to the invention of television and the television networks, the means of (re)production have been in the hands of the few. If we were lucky, the rest of us got to look and listen in. Along the way, “experts”—using the various one-way communication systems—decided for us what was “good” art, decided who were the great artists. 

Suddenly—sometimes it seems like overnight—we have a new technology, the internet, which allows the many to talk to the many. And it is not a one-way system, but a person-to-person, polyvocal web. Its very existence is changing other media around it, causing the music industry, the television networks, etc. to panic about their profit margins as they scramble to provide unlimited creative content.

As it lumbers along to the much-awaited convergence, the mega-broadcasting world sits side by side with micro-casting niches. The other evening, channel surfing for the Super Bowl, our two teenagers stumbled on a home video production made at their high school by a couple of their classmates. Suddenly, the 49ers and Beyoncé were forgotten as they laughed their way through a clichéd version of kids pretending to be super heroes. Over a hundred million watching on one channel, and on the one right beside, maybe 10 or 20 persons! 

New possibilities are endless as many web-utopianists assert, blogging and bragging away, every day. Yet it often seems, outfitted with this wondrous let-everyone-talk-to-everyone-else technology, we have nothing much of substance to say. 

Woke up. Making coffee now, maybe I will use the blue mug. Oh, it’s dirty. Should have put it in the dishwasher last night. Now, the cat wants to go out. It is raining. Again. Thinking of going back to bed. But, no, I have to go to work. Oh no, we are out of milk...

Really?! Sorry for wasting your time reading that. But many of us read and write equivalent trivia on a daily basis. We have become managers of the info-mundane.

And it seems that even with all our “empowered” talking, the few—read powerful—still do not have to pay attention to any of it. What we really need is a communications system where the many can speak to the few and also where this correspondence can have a meaningful effect on our body politic. In other words, democracy!

Peter Sandmark, executive director of Victoria’s MediaNet, which tries to nurture the creative use of media as a form of personal expression, is less pessimistic than me. He states, “The many are speaking to the powerful in new, forceful ways. We may not see results immediately in a direct way. But history will tell us that this is an important time for artists to use technology.” Sandmark acknowledges that some art critics will dismiss this, but reminds me to look at history: “Forward thinking art movements are often mocked in their time, yet are hugely important historically. Think of the Dadaists, for example.”

So has everyone online who is zealously posting and tweeting become an artist now? 

The web-utopianists insist on a loud-and-proud yes! Everyone can be creative; no more experts—they just get in the way; let’s go with aesthetic risk. The art establishment is much more cautious. Not so fast, we still need art authorities; we still need critics; the cultural marketplace needs stability. 

In reality, both sides are wrong. Or maybe they are both right. Art netizens are themselves aggregating a new kind of collective curation, deciding what can and cannot be art. And they are asserting a new kind of criticism, deciding what is “good” art. And finally defining who can make it, creating new conditions for authorship and authenticity.

Sandmark elaborates, “Even though our lives are heavily mediated, of course we still seek authenticity in our cultural choices. This explains the thousands of niche-artists from pop singers to visual artists to writers who are just fine creating what they want, and still reaching a limited, but significant audience. They even use their authenticity as a niche artist as part of their marketing and branding.”

And as for all that posting, altering and then reposting, he declares, “People know what they are doing; in a way, they are de-authorizing the power of a photograph and then by changing its content slightly or its context completely, they are re-authorizing it with their own sense of meaning.”

We chat about another consequence of creatively working with media. Sandmark explains how media artists are frequently reaching for an immersive experience. Some of them are creating interactive pieces for the gallery, where the works themselves indirectly address the democratic use of art and technology. His final word: “Using new media democratically, new kinds of authorship in art can be created.”

A few weeks ago, I had the occasion to be at the Louvre, in the presence of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. It was the third time I had seen it and, honestly, I only went because my kids wanted to be there, to see her. I had remembered this as an entirely disagreeable experience. There are hundreds of feverish folks around; one cannot get close enough to the work to properly experience it; the guards are ready to pounce for the smallest impropriety.

Sure enough, as we approached, the hushed Louvre visitors became increasingly animated. I overheard excited tones of Mandarin, German, Japanese and Spanish as the crowd thickened around the artwork. Only a handful of people seemed interested in the painting itself, trying impossibly to see it, behind glass from seven meters away. And as I recalled from 20 years ago, a few folks were using actual cameras, trying to photograph it. 

But this time, in the 21st century, most people had their phones out shooting their family members with proud smiles on their faces, her smile in the background, her “aura” validating the moment. Within seconds, numerous (re)presentations of the world’s most famous painting were digitally winging around our planet, posted for friends and family—providing the authenticity for everyone to clamour, “Look at me, I was here—with her.”

Chris Creighton-Kelly is a Canadian artist and writer who lives in the Victoria area. Along with France Trépanier, he is the co-author of Understanding Aboriginal Arts in Canada Today.