Thoughts from my class “Recent Methods and Approaches” in the Digital Arts and New Media program.
A response to Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” and Anne Collins Goodyear’s “From Technophilia to Technophobia: The Impact of the Vietnam War on the Reception of ‘Art and Technology’“, LEONARDO, Vol. 41, No. 2, pp. 169-173, 2008.
The concept of “aura” as a feature of authentic artworks, as discussed by Benjamin in “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproducibility” seems to inhere in the object and therefore privileges the object as a work of art rather than the experience of a work as the key event in art appreciation. With the idea of experience of the “viewer” as critical in many modern artworks, the concept of aura would appear to lose significant power for many artworks.
That is not to say originals have no special status, but it does require a more careful look at pieces that create unique experiences for viewers, such as data-driven or interactive artworks. This is especially of true of instantiations of works that are, in principle, space- and time-independent and which can be replicated in physical form but which present a unique encounter for the viewer. Of course, the context of viewing an artwork, which can include space and time, influences the reception of a work, but this is true for all work and is not the kind of uniqueness that we mention here.
Benjamin saw the authenticity, as manifested in an aura, of an artwork as something that reduced the effectiveness of mass-produced works being used in the services of fascism. The rise of art providing unique experiences rather than unique objects could be seen as a bottom-up individualistic response to top-down political influence, and therefore “completely useless for the purposes of Fascism,” but in an alternative way to that provided by the “aura” of an original physical piece.
Many science-based artworks are data-driven or interactive and present an interesting contrast between the spaceless, timeless principles of science and the unique time and space instantiation of the artwork. Each viewer’s encounter with the artwork is unique and different on repeated experiencing.
Therefore any “aura” present with these types of data-driven and interactive pieces is more likely due to a kind of ritualistic encounter with the work rather than an aura that inheres in the work. There are considerable challenges to explore in these types of science-driven pieces, specifically in terms of the interaction between science and ritual, as the field of science is prone to ritualistic behaviors but espouses a freedom from the religiosity that ritual can bring.
Whether a viewer experiences a ritualistic encounter with a science-based artwork is also highly dependent on the current cultural conditions, as explored in Anne Collins Goodyear’s piece “From Technophilia to Technophobia: The Impact of the Vietnam War on the Reception of ‘Art and Technology’.” In certain parts of the world, and in the United States in particular, there is a strong affinity for technology that, by the argument of Collins Goodyear could signal a reversal of the process following the Vietnam War and a rise of technology-based artworks.