A Rothko painting towers over the viewer, deeply saturated colors engulfing her vision. His canvases are devoted to huge swathes of color, surely thoughtfully combined, but lacking any discernible scene, or any identifiable objects. It would be difficult to stand in front of one and experience anything other than absorption. Mark Rothko was resolute in his conviction that his art was not to be decoration. He thought of it as a spiritual experience (Menand). Walter Benjamin would have said Rothko wanted his art to have an aura.
Not all Rothkos can keep hold of their colors, though. At 4:00 pm, the Rothko paintings at the Harvard Art Museum turn off.
In Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility, Benjamin writes his own history of the evolution of art and its reception. As he watched the rise of fascism in Germany, Benjamin saw the rise of new media--film and photography--as possible tools of a socialist revolution. Previous “fine” art, originating in religion and viewed as an object of devotion, he called the art of the cult. Original pieces of cult art developed an “aura” based on its history and individuality (106). The aura endows a piece of art with monetary and political power. The “art lover” views the art of the cult with concentration, and becomes absorbed into it (117). Benjamin identifies not simply a change in the type of art being made (photography and film), but in the way all art, previous and future, would be viewed. The general public, or masses, appreciate art for entertainment, not religious devotion. The masses are not the wealthy elite, not “art lovers,” in particular. They view art in a distracted state, and rather than be absorbed, they absorb art into themselves (117). Benjamin could not have foreseen the extent to which technology would master reproduction.
Somewhat reluctantly, Rothko painted a series as a commission for Harvard. The university placed the paintings in a dining room with long windows and under-utilized curtains. Under direct sunlight, the paintings were forgotten and severely damaged. Rothko’s mixing technique and application of paint to the canvas made it impossible to restore the color through repainting. They were put into storage.
According to Walter Benjamin, we have made a trade: the aura, a distinction embedded in a piece of art over the course of its history, for immediacy, the ability to view any piece of art at any time (105). A reproduction lacks the “here and now” of the original, and therefore has no aura (103). However, he is overlooking the unique aura a reproduction develops through its own lifetime. The aura is not dead--it evolves.
Harvard did not simply forget their formerly multi-million dollar canvases. They decided to employ the new technique of “compensating illumination,” invented by conservator Raymond Lafontaine (Menand). A specialized machine would project an image of the original painting onto the canvases. They are now on display in the Harvard Art Museum. Most days, at 4:00 pm, the Rothkos are “turned off” before the museum closes, so spectators can watch—and they do (Menand). They come to see something that was thought to be lost forever. They come to watch it disappear again. A light goes off and the paintings become brown and dull.
This ultramodern, ritualistic viewing of art refracts the traditional. Rather than admit defeat, the viewer alters their definition of authenticity, overcoming concepts (time, space, matter) which had before been insurmountable barriers. We have the technology to hold aura and immediacy simultaneously.
The individual nature of earlier art reception fostered the rejection of the new and exciting (Benjamin 116). Collective reception would threaten the art world and the control of “experts” over value. Film is evidence for this phenomena: it was able to evolve rapidly and radically because a group audience regulates and feeds off of each other’s reactions (116). There is safety in numbers. Benjamin wrote about this new technology as an art form that celebrated and represented the culture of the masses, rather than the elite. Reproducibility, which is an inherent aspect of film-making, makes art accessible.
In an art gallery, you whisper. Ideally you will stand silently, moving slowly from piece to piece. Maybe you nod, but even that might be too great an expression of emotion, too rapid a movement. But in front of the spectacle of the Harvard Rothkos, that norm is broken. People speak. They laugh. It is laughable, and so remarkably reassuring, to see through the mask abstract art. There is no attempt at denial, at disguise. There is inherent hierarchy of million dollar painting over subordinate viewer.
The modified Rothko paintings make a radical departure from cult art. They have no authenticity, in the sense of individuality of the artist’s hand. The authority of art that Benjamin found so dangerous was the mystical genius of the artist, enforced by the individuality of cult art. An original work of art was not to be questioned, it was to be deferred to. The Harvard Rothkos cannot be wholly identified as simply the work of Mark Rothko. He is no longer the sole master over his creation.
An “art lover,” as Benjamin describes, might be disgusted by the modernization. They are free to hate it, to refuse to stand in front of the super-technological reproduction and be absorbed. But it is their loss. This particular “original” Rothko is never coming back. To refuse a reproduction when the original no longer exists proves the “art lover” has, in fact, a kind of twisted love. Their love is reliant on the old aura, inextricable from elite status and monetary value.
Art’s fallibility is being revealed. It is clearly conquerable by photograph-taking machine, by compensating illumination, by “man”-made objects of scientific certainty. This domination, combined with the accessibility of reproductions, empowers the average viewer--or the masses--to hold themselves equivalent to art. Anyone with an internet connection may choose to view Leonardo’s entire oeuvre, become expert, assert their opinion openly. The mysticism of art is retreating. Frankly, it is being beaten harshly back. Now that art is available on the open forum of the internet, the utility of museums comes into question.
For a long time art was ensconced in shapeless concepts like creativity, eternal value, genius, and mystery (Benjamin 101). The magical quality of art, the mystery of genius, and the myth of eternal value kept art in the domain of those who could afford an original. Copies, it was determined, were forgeries (103). Worthless for simply being second.
Capitalist “modes of production,” like photography, “neutralized” those shapeless concepts (Benjamin 101). An image of a piece of art can be immediately captured and transported and independently viewed anywhere in the world. Compensating illumination even further reduces the authority that makes the art of the cult unapproachable to the masses. With such technology, any museum could project a nearly flawless reproduction of any great work onto blank canvases. If art is valued by its authenticity, which comes from individuality, where does technological reproduction leave art?
Authenticity as it is traditionally defined is destroyed by reproduction. Why, then do people still go to museums, hang reproductions on their walls, view art through the screens of their computers and phones? What is so attractive about these supposedly aura-less pieces of art? The difficult concept to grasp may be that the reproducible and reproduced aura is not determined by or connected to a monetary value. Rather, its value is determined by the masses and their attention; their collective spectatorship.
Part of film’s value is its ability to reveal deeper meanings behind everyday objects (117). The film suggests to the viewer that they have the power to see much more in the world by simply looking closer. A museum has the potential to do the same. Museums do not have to be stuffy, silent, unapproachable spaces of the intellectual elite. They exist, in the first place, to expand access to great art to the public. The removal of the indisputable power of the aura from art might aid in making the museum more like Benjamin’s experience of the movie theater. The museum might even be a more fitting space. It is not dark, and there is no need for the masses to compete with the audio of a film. In a gallery room, why should viewers not join in conversation?
Why should we not talk in galleries? The art does not deserve our silence. It deserves our noise, our collective contemplation and derision and admiration. The aura is not a distant, static mass, stuck in the time and place of only the original work of art. And it has not been destroyed by reproduction, as Benjamin asserts. The aura can be molded, ignored, carved from one piece of art and tacked onto another, invited to dinner two weeks later, made to calm down or asked to speak up. It is not confined to the original. Every reproduction carries its own aura and is actively connected to the original. The fact that billions of people have seen reproductions of the Mona Lisa must change the original Mona Lisa in way that is interesting and valuable, and should be celebrated and studied.
The value of an “authentic” piece of art is often measured in monetary terms. But this doesn’t help me, or anyone, look at a piece of art feel upset or confused or overjoyed or angry. Emotional responses put art to a tangible use. To feel a personal emotion about a painting is to absorb it into oneself. Art is not currency. We have other paper for that. It is social and political capital.
Benjamin, Walter “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility” [Second
Version]. Walter Benjamin Selected Writings Volume 3 1935-1938. Edited by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings 2002, pp 101-122.
Menand, Louis “Watching Them Turn Off the Rothkos” The New Yorker Online, April 1, 2015,
https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/watching-them-turn-off-the-rothkos. Accessed 18 February 2019.