The Auras in Digital Art

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The Auras in Digital Art (2004, The Netherlands) by Blerina Berberi

In 1519 till 1521, Magellan took long a trip by ship and proved the world to be round. At this very moment with the touch of a button everyone can have images from everywhere in the world. Probably in the coming years people will meet in virtual reality while being drifted apart on the poles of the world or maybe in different planets. The world has changed and technology has conquered nature. From the moment this paper is finished everyone one in the world in a bit of second may have access to it, but not to the one I have. Is there any difference between these two? If there were, which one would you like to have? As the modes of technological reproduction have changed so has the concept of art. Considering these changes the central question comes forward: Has the aura in digital art decayed? The answers might not be right but the question might be the right ones to ask. The industrial and technological revolutions have changed the world we live in. Art faced a critical point and its only escape or answer, after the 19th century Industrial Revolution and the latest breakthrough to the digital world, to the mass environment was to assimilate all the new technological developments . The concept of art changed. One of the key factors that have influenced the representation of art is mass reproduction. Mass reproduction is a two edged knife. On one side, it bears mass accessibility and on the other side it devalues or extinguishes the notion of the originality, single genius, aura, etc. What about digital art? Is the original preserved? If not, does it really matter? First, let’s define what is digital art. Roughly, it is stated that: “Digital art is art created on a computer in digital (that is, binary) form. The term is usually reserved for art that has been non-trivially modified by the computer; …the computer is merely the storage medium or tool which is used to create the work” This definition is somehow broad and yet not specific. Therefore it is best to define it to different forms of images, such as 3D digital paintings, that are being produced with the help of contemporary tools, not oil colors and canvas, computers. Excluding installations, it is: “Computer- generated art is art created with a computer…It is a subset of digital art.” Digital Art, referring specifically to the computer- generated art, is the one easily accessible therefore easily mass produced, of course depending on the demand for it. But isn’t also demand dependent on its conception of originality, authenticity, aura, etc.? In now days Christie’s and Sotheby’s auction houses sell paintings worthy of million euros. But these artworks aren’t digital art, so even though the postmodern thought of casualty, rejection of the grand genius, originality, power, knowledge, etc., influenced the concept of digital art it still seems that it has not to have found a place in the majority of these auction houses. Thus digital art isn’t really appreciated or say, “Doesn’t sell”. Postmodernism thoughts ‘conquered’ art conceptually, i.e. digital art, but not our society and its museums. Therefore the concept of the ‘original’ artwork still seems to pop up, and the reasons might be different. Benjamin Walter is the one that gives an explanation of the importance of authenticity/ originality. He states about the new modes of reproduction in relation to the uniqueness of the artwork: “…In most perfect reproduction, one thing is lacking: the here and now of the work of art- its unique existence in a particular place. This unique existence bears the mark of the history to which the work has been subject. Changes of ownership are part of a tradition, which can be traced only from the standpoint of the original in its present location. The here and now of the original underlies the concept of its authenticity…” Furthermore, Benjamin states that the crisis of art started with the new doctrine of l’art pour l’art, which renewed the theology of art. This rejects the social function and any definition in terms of representational content. Benjamin maintains that the reproduction of an image, object, etc., substitutes a mass existence for a unique existence. The aura, which is “A strange tissue of space and time: the unique apparition of a distance, however near it may be”, is decayed by the changes in medium of perception and is related to the increasing emergence of the masses and growing intensity of their movements, the desire to “get closer” and assimilate uniqueness by reproduction. Thus the destruction of aura is related to the perception of “sense for sameness in the world”. Moreover, the unique value of the “authentic” work of art always has its basis in rituals.[1]

In digital art, “rituals” have become the contemplation of technology. Times change. So do the world and the people. And with the people so do change social relationships and the concepts used. Inke Arns, gives an account of the changes that have occurred in the conception of art and its forms of representation, communication, interaction, etc. More importantly, one main change that occurred through the transformation of the modern to the postmodern ideas is the relationship of author, artwork, and receiver. In the 20th century, the concept of the author as a producer, was followed by the “death of the author”, and finally to the “distributed” or collective authorship.[2] Therefore, in digital art, the use and reuse of same digital images, is a pool for everyone and continuously changed by anyone.

In response to Benjamin, Grau encounters different factors that extinguish the importance of the auras and authenticity. He states:

“Following Walter Benjamin’s concept of the “aura,” which is connected to the nonreproducible authenticity of a unique original[3], the specific effect of a work may be subject to strong fluctuations because of shifting sociopolitical coordinates.”[4]

For example some political battle paintings might loose significance due to the invention of new mediums such as movies or due to different sociopolitical changes in ideology. Therefore, the modernist aim of the grand narratives does not represent those ‘ritual and eternal’ values that also Benjamin aims because everything including TRUTH, concepts, ideas, knowledge, power, etc., are in continuous change. The idea of the original is lost with the new postmodernist theories. In relation to digital art, Grau states that the concept of “the original” is foreign to the computer. Regarding computer data there’s no difference between an original and the copy. So there’s no original to be protected from copying.  Furthermore, the reproduction of an original work promotes the aura of the original[5].  Grau, defines the concept of aura differently: “In digital art, the aura originates through artificial inaccessibility or deep, immersive contact with the work”[6].

Referring to Inke’s accountance of the different relationships between artists, artworks and receivers, in ‘open systems’, and Grau’s proposition for artists geographically remote from each other, what’s central is the possible cooperation that opens opportunities for co-authorship. Grau, referring to Wolfgang Coy and William Mitchell, says that the “extension of radius of work and possibility of strolling, like Benjamin’s flaneur, through networked virtual spaces will demand a shift from local cultural horizons to transcultural artifacts, in other words to global production and representation of knowledge”11.

In conclusion, Has the aura of digital artworks decayed? According to Walter Benjamin it has. But for Grau the concept of aura has changed since it is related to the immersive contact with the work. 3D graphical designs, whose co-authors can be many, is reproduced and mass popularized easily. As Grau states, the original if it exists doesn’t diminish the aura of the original artworks, thus instead of One (modernist) aura we are surrounded by many auras. Seems like we reached the sky!  But of most concern for digital art, isn’t just its aura. What is crucial is that through mass accessibility and the “lost of the original”, forgery and fakeness become prominent. Therefore it might be that the reason that digital art has not yet ‘conquered’ art market might derive from its fragility in regard to authenticity certificate due to co-authorship and skilled forgers. Finally, the clash between the modernist individual genius and the postmodernist co-artists, results in the threat of Identification of the artist with the artwork. From a postmodernistic perspective, the one, the unique, the grand artists, identification doesn’t exist. Still, no digital artists with postmodern conceptions would like to be the non- author and co-author of his own works. The new modes of reproduction aren’t to be blamed for aiding forgery, humans started it first. Is digital art more fragile to authenticity than Jan Vermeer’s paintings?