To be perfectly honest, I feel ambivalent about Walter Benjamin’s work for the very reason it is great: He seems to invent a new poetics in each of his essays. Thus his work is an expansive and idiosyncratic collection of suggestive observations that never appears, at least to me, to come together as a coherent analytical system. Compare it to the massively totalizing perspective of Lukács, for example. It was impossible for Benjamin to be as rigorously and uncompromisingly systematic as Lukács, which for Benjamin’s admirers is part of his appeal. This lack of systemic coherence operates at the level of the essay for Benjamin. His essays are full of parallactic moments of poetic beauty in which things are brought into stunning relief by an eye that sees like few others. These moments are generally surrounded by a bunch of gibberish. (Please take these “criticisms” of Benjamin with a large heaping of salt. He is Benjamin, and I’m some asshole “writing” on the interwebs.) But it’s the lyrical/philosophical/speculative images that one remembers, even when they’re wrong.
Benjamin’s extraordinary “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” is rightfully influential and thought-provoking. Benjamin undertook in this essay the task of trying to understand the status of art in an era that saw the emergence of mass media and what later thinkers like Marcuse and Adorno would call “the culture industry.” The questions he generated, which have only become more relevant as time has passed, centered on the impossible relationship between the ephemeral quality of aesthetics and the material reality of actual artistic objects. Benjamin hypothesized that what he called art’s “aura”—the immaterial, essential, and quasi-religious element of art that distances many viewers from the work—dissipated in the industrial process of mechanical reproduction. Labor, therefore, demolished the mysticism that kept people from enjoying art. Thus Benjamin linked this process to Marx’s understanding of capitalism more broadly: capitalist production created the condition of possibility for dismantling the social relations that capitalism sought to maintain and reproduce.
Benjamin’s argument is seductive, but I find it hard to accept. If anything the trend has moved somewhat in the other direction. Many people now consider advertisements, commercial products, and even product packaging artistic. Rather than do away with the aura of art, capitalism has managed to illuminate its consumer products with that very aura. (Yes, I understand that you think that your computer and cell phone are “beautiful” but they are not art. Get over it, you gross philistines.)
I’m not sure that anything can destroy art’s aura, and I’m also tempted to believe that that’s a good thing. I love Miguel’s “Adorn,” an exceptional song whose very purpose is to get couples to put to use, in the words of a smart lady I know, their “lets-get-down” scented candles. From the illusion of a needle hitting vinyl that opens the song, to the subsonic vocals that punctuate its rhythms, to Miguel’s pleading and warm voice, “Adorn” perfectly evokes love and desire in a way that is familiar to fans of Marvin Gaye. “Adorn” is in important ways a pitch-perfect cover of a non-existent Marvin Gaye song. It is a reproduction without an original. Someone who knows the technical language of music would probably give a better explanation but for me what “Adorn” reproduces is the aura of Marvin Gaye. It copies, without in any way diminishing, the unobjectifiable essence of what made Marvin Gaye's music indescribably great, and this reproduction makes me happy.