Aura as the artist’s sacrifice

I usually don’t like to publish my academic work, but i like how this assignment turned out, and there’s a section in it that i would’ve liked to expand on but couldn’t because the essay format i was going for didn’t allow me to.  So here’s the essay and the addendum that was actually the inspiration for it:   

Manifestations of Aura

            The two human practices that involve exploring and attempting to explain reality are religion and art.  Both are ways in which we question everything about our reality—existence, consciousness, love, free will, the soul, values, ethics, good and evil—and attempt to answer those questions.  It could be said that religion is a human way of life and art is the human expression of life.  A fulfilling life demands the practice of religion (or at least a personal belief system) and art.  Because these are distinctly human practices that are vehicles for human thought and action, the metaphysical, which can only be experienced by humans, can be contemplated and expressed through them in the form of aura. 

I.  Aura as mémoire involontaire

“[These data] are lost to the memory that seeks to retain them.”
–Walter Benjamin

            By investing an object with the ability to return our gaze, we establish a distance between it and us.  Since “only what has not been experienced explicitly and consciously, what has not happened to the subject as an experience, can become a component of the mémoire involontaire,” the aura is implicit, intangible, inapproachable.   

            “If we designate as aura the associations which, at home in the mémoire involontaire, tend to cluster around the object of a perception, then its analogue in the case of a utilitarian object is the experience which has left traces of the practiced hand.”  The aura is in the chisel from a carpenter’s hand.  It is in the hemming from a seamstress’s hand.  It is in the paint stroke from a painter’s hand.  The camera “extends the range of the mémoire volontaire;” it permanently records an ephemeral event.  Therefore, photography, being a mechanical reproduction, is unlike art, which retains and exudes the soul of the artist.  As Baudelaire puts it, art is the only place “on which man has bestowed the imprint of his soul.”

II.  Aura as the artist’s sacrifice

“This chimera [the aura] would change into truth if they related it to the only reality that is valid for the individual, namely, the world of his emotions.”
–Marcel Proust

            The art making process is both creative and destructive.  A work of art is borne of a particularly volatile incident in the artist’s mémoire involontaire.  The artist wants to make sense of it, flesh it out, release it into the world, share it with humanity.  The more volatile the incident, the more the process is biased towards self-therapy; the shock or stimulus, in Freud’s sense of the term, is the event that is being cushioned by consciousness to weaken the trauma.  The art making process is the external defense mechanism, whereas consciousness, as protection against stimuli, is the internal defense mechanism.  Once the event becomes tangible in the form of an artwork, it has essentially become “sterilized,” “incorporated directly in the registry of conscious memory.”  The most complete transposition of the event from the mémoire involontaire to the mémoire volontaire occurs when the incident is assigned to “a precise point in time in consciousness at the cost of the integrity of its contents,” thereby transformed from a fleeting experience (Erfahrung) into a lived moment (Erlebnis).  And thus, the artist’s memory becomes embalmed in his artwork, permanently displaced, and delivered to the audience as aura. 

III.  Aura as perceptibility

“The person we look at, or who feels he is being looked at, looks at us in turn.  To perceive the aura of an object we look at means to invest it with the ability to look at us in return.”
–Walter Benjamin

            The once-fertile memory that the artist has infused into his artwork becomes, to the audience, the aura.  The ever-following gaze of the Mona Lisa is the aura, the magic of the artist’s hand.  The woman in the painting was real to Da Vinci, and he painted her with the intention of having her rest her gaze on all of her spectators.  A great work of art will unsettle you and haunt you for days after your initial experience of it.  That is the power of the aura.  You feel that the religious effigy can see you because you invest in it the ability to see you.  To you, the effigy is not a figure; it is your god.  And any representation of your god, you treat as god him/herself.

            Religion and art:  two practices all humans engage in, however minimally.  Perhaps, then, aura is the trace we leave behind in our desperate effort to feel as one what humanity is, to take comfort in knowing that we are all still the same in some way.  The spirituality of the temple.  The terror of Munch’s The Scream.  The melancholy of the cemetery.  That is aura.  And that is what we share as human beings.


(all quotations from Walter Benjamin’s “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire.” Illuminations.)                 

p. 188
p. 162
p. 186
p. 186
p. 186
p. 188
p. 162
p. 163
p. 188


Addendum: Aura as the artist’s sacrifice

“This chimera [the aura] would change into truth if they related it to the only reality that is valid for the individual, namely, the world of his emotions.”
–Marcel Proust

            With each work an artist creates, he packages a secret memory of his (the instance from the mémoire involontaire), locks it masterfully (the creative/destructive process), and throws away the key (the transformation of the memory into aura).  He can never revisit it fully.  The path from artist to artwork to audience is a one-way road:

artist → memory → artwork → aura → audience

            The artist can never again experience the memory in the same way, and what the audience gets is not the memory itself, but the product of the artist’s defense mechanism.  The audience never experiences the memory, and the artist never experiences the aura.  Once the artwork is completed and released to the public, the memory is no longer a “truth” to the artist, but a mere reminder of what might have once been.  The feeling is not unlike what Rosencrantz and Guildenstern experience in Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead:  “We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that once our eyes watered.” 

            The memory leaves “the world of his emotions” and can never be his again.  But he continues to produce, because by creating and sharing art, humanity remembers what it means to be human.



p.s. the anchor tags for the footnotes are there but not functioning for some reason and i’ve given up on fixing them


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Filed under art, perception, philosophy

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