Benjamin, Warhol, and the Aura

Andy Warhol’s portraits (and self-portraits) suggest that personality, that unique inner selfhood that each of us cherishes, is just as much a commodity as anything else. Of course, we don’t all become famous and die young like Marilyn Monroe (whose image Warhol reproduced only after her death). But each of us has an exchange value, as a result of which each of us “changes into a thing that transcends sensuousness,” just as Marx says of commodities in general. Every commodity has a fetishistic aura (a pro jection of its exchange-value) that far exceeds its material and utilitarian properties as a mere ob ject (its use-value). In the same way, each of us has an aura that exceeds – and does not coincide with – our own consciousness or experience. As Warhol explains it: “I think ‘aura’ is something that only somebody else can see, and they only see as much of it as they want to. . . You can only see an aura on people you don’t know very
well or don’t know at all.” My aura, Warhol says, is different from my “product,” in much the way that exchange-value differs from use-value. My product is concrete labor, something I make or do through my own agency, like an artist’s paintings or an actress’ performances. My aura is not my product, however, because it is already myself-as -product, myself as I appear to other people, as I am present in the world as an object of exchange. That is to say, my aura is my exchange-value as a celebrity, in a society where everybody is famous for fifteen minutes. My aura is not an attribute, or a consequence, of anything that I actually do. It is independent of my agency, just as it is inaccessible to my awareness. My aura is an expression of how I am “famous for being famous”: like Edie Sedgwick in Warhol’s entourage, or like Paris Hilton today.

Walter Benjamin, of course, opposes the aura to the commodity, in his discussion of “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.” For Benjamin, the aura is a quality that only exists outside of commodity production and technological reproduction. The aura of a natural ob ject is “the unique apparition of a distance, however near it may be”; that of a work of art is its “here and now. . . its unique existence in a particular place.” In both cases, the aura is a singular presence, associated with cult and ritual; it has a “unique value” and it makes a claim to “authenticity.” Conversely, commodity exchange and technological reproducibility lead to the destruction of uniqueness and authenticity, and hence to the withering of the aura. Benjamin posits the same logic of simulation that is later celebrated by Warhol: “from a photographic plate. . . one can make any number of prints; to ask for the ‘authentic’ print makes no sense.” But where Warhol sees the aura of celebrity as a result of this mutiplication of images, Benjamin only sees a cheap imitation: “film responds to the shriveling of the aura by artificially building up the ‘personality’ outside the studio. The cult of the movie star, fostered by the money of the film industry, preserves that magic of the personality which has long been no more than the putrid magic of its own commodity character.”

But can we really distinguish, as Benjamin wants us to do, between the sublime magic of the authentic work of art, and the “putrid magic” of the commodity? Is the aura of the Mona Lisa any different from the aura of Greta Garbo? In fact, Leonardo and MGM both provide us with images of enigmatic beauty; and we revere both images in the same way. For Walter Pater, the Mona Lisa “is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave. . . and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has moulded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands.” Similarly, for Roland Barthes, “Garbo offered to one’s gaze a sort of Platonic Idea of the human creature. . . the essence of her corporeal person [is] descended from a heaven where all things are formed and perfected in the clearest light. . . The essence was not to be degraded, her face was not to have any reality except that of its perfection, which was intellectual even more than formal.” Pater and Barthes alike describe the enigmatic woman as a kind of eternal object, whose impassive perfection is unaffected by its material incarnation, or by the ravages of time. Garbo, like Mona Lisa, manifests a beauty – preserved in paint or celluloid – that stands out over and above her fleshly actuality; and this excess is precisely her aura.

In other words, the cult of the painting and the cult of the movie star are equally artifacts of commodity culture. The Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world; this is equivalent to saying that it is the most frequently reproduced. We would not be able to experience the aura of the singular painting that sits in the Louvre, if we had not seen its image reproduced so many times in books, on postcards, even on film and television. The heart of Benjamin’s argument is that “the whole sphere of authenticity eludes technological – and, of course, not only technological – reproducibility.” But that is precisely the point: the authenticity of the original Mona Lisa can only be perceived by way of contrast to its many inadequate, inauthentic replications. You can’t have one side of this duality without the other. And the case of Garbo is exactly the same, except that here the authentic original is not her portrait, but her soul. The enigma of Garbo’s personality – the mystery of the woman who wants to be alone – is generated by the multiple reproductions of her image in the movies. If this is a “putrid magic,” then so is that of Leonardo’s portrait. We may doubt whether the Mona Lisa even had an aura, before the invention of photography caused copies of it to be widely disseminated. (Benjamin indeed refers to “the kinds and numbers of copies made of it in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries”; these would of course include pre-photographic copies, in the form of drawings, engravings, and woodcuts). In any case, the aura is not an earlier mode of being, destroyed by the rise of technological reproducibility. Rather, the aura is itself a product of technological reproducibility, a kind of obverse or back-formation. It is only ever apprehended retrospectively, and by contrast.

In other words, the entire drama of the aura and its decay, or what Benjamin also calls the movement from “cult value” to “exhibition value,” is internal to the commodity form itself. Technological reproducibility itself is a consequence of commodity production and circulation, rather than the reverse (a point on which Benjamin remains ambiguous). Once full-fledged commodity exchange has taken hold, it is no longer possible to refer back to an earlier (pre-captialist or pre-industrial) state of things. We can only grasp that earlier state of things in commodity terms; for as Benjamin elsewhere writes, “even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious. And this enemy has never ceased to be victorious.” So what Benjamin describes in terms of historical process is actually a static duality, frozen in the Eternal Now of consumer/celebrity culture. Your aura is different from your product, Warhol says, but both of them are for sale. The difference between them is this. As Marx says in his description of commodity fetishism, relations between human beings – relations of labor and production – are transformed into “ob jective characteristics of the products of labour themselves.” My labor is embodied in my product; and to the extent that this labor is “work for hire,” this product is then taken away from me. And that is how it becomes a fetish. But the aura is not a product. In their auras, human beings actually are “things,” rather than just having their labor (and the social relations that determine that labor)
“alienated” from them and congealed into the form of things. It is not in exchanging products, but only by selling and buying auras, that, in Benjamin’s words, we reach such an extreme point of “self-alienation” that “humankind, which once, in Homer, was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, has now become one for itself.”

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