I wonder if my youthful disregard for the sacred cows of the academy has deadened me to the sort of materially rooted awe that Walter Benjamin ascribed to great works of art. Though I suppose its possible to think of Benjamin's aura as nothing more than the complex congregation of social discourses which sacralize the notion of the unique original artwork, the whole idea still smacks too much of mysticism for my liking. Perhaps I'm too philistine to appreciate it properly, but when I stood in front of Da Vinci's Ginevra at the National Art Gallery I felt none of the intense aesthetic attachment that seems to afflict Benjamin in his most famous text. Certainly, I appreciate the painting's historical uniqueness - it's kind of fun to be in the same room as something Da Vinci himself touched - but that sense barely approaches trivial curiosity, much in the same way I like very much to look at baby capybaras in the zoo. In the end I wonder why in our time of copies upon indistinguishable copies should there be an aura at all? Why do we not dispense with the notion of an aura entirely?
In their article "The Migration of the Aura," Bruno Latour and Adam Lowe seem to have some sense that Benjamin's aura feels awkwardly out of place in a world of reddits, Pinterests, and Tumblrs (look I'm hip!). They challenge the geographical and physical rootedness of originality that Benjamin's aura requires, arguing that the artwork's historical facticity has little to do with its originality. Rather, the artwork's status as an original depends upon its "fecundity," its ability to produce many new copies of itself, which is to say without the copies the original is inevitably lost. This leads Latour and Lowe to paradoxically describe artworks as more or less original. Like a cornucopia, works of art exist along a continuum, gradually opening up as the copies become more dispersed.
Though I appreciate their negotiation and adaptation of Benjamin's aura in the context of digital replication, their commitment to the very existence of the aura leads them to make some curious claims. In order to illustrate the sense in which copies of artworks both prove and mobilize the aura of originality, Latour and Lowe attempt to equate the myriad variations of King Lear to the intensive material reproduction of Le Nozzi di Cana. They argue that what makes poor reproductions of art lesser than the original is their lack of imagination, and that in approaching the practice of artistic reproduction we should reserve for ourselves the more generous expectations that we use for stage productions. We do not, Latour and Lowe rightly suggests hope for the exact replica of King Lear every time we see it. In fact, much of the pleasure of seeing a production of King Lear comes from the way it diverges from the expectations we may otherwise have had from previous renditions of the text. While I wholeheartedly agree that our expectations for a play function in just the way Latour and Lowe describe them, I reject the notion that a new interpretation of Shakespeare's text (or whoever's text King Lear is) is tantamount to even the most liberal conception of replication. Interpretation != replication. Though I am sympathetic to the argument that replication does in fact produce greater desire (and greater sanctity) for the original, and I am even willing to admit that repeated reinterpretations performs a similar social function, I refuse to equate them as cavalierly as Latour and Lowe. In foreclosing on the difference between interpretation and replication, they collapse the role of the conservator with that of the critic, the copycat with the analyst. They ignore, therein, the crucial ideological distinctions which underly and motivate the essentially conservative project of art preservation and the essentially progressive undertakings of the art theorist. Their conflation of reinterpretation and replication is symptomatic of their commitment to the aura. Without the aura, the art conservator is an archeologist, a historian, not an aesthetic authority.
Dispense of the aura, I say.